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Preparing the Soil

The sky opened up yesterday afternoon and let go of all the accumulated tropical moisture that blew into North Texas from the Gulf. I started getting nervous when the water moved up from the yard toward the back door. It didn’t last more than thirty or forty minutes before it turned into a gentle soaking rain for the remainder of the afternoon. The weather folks said we only got two inches, but even two inches in a short period of time like that can be disastrous. There’s a good possibility of even stronger thunderstorms this afternoon. If it floods, it floods. Only a few weeks ago we were complaining about the drought…

I haven’t posted much this week. I’ve been preoccupied with the two big projects going on in my life lately. One is filling my sales pipeline. Starting a new business isn’t easy for anyone, especially when it involves a whole new clientele. My previous business efforts paid off in referral business because of the quality work I offered and served me well for several years. It takes time and that can be a difficult process for me. So, I continue to do the footwork even when I haven’t reaped a harvest yet. I believe in the “Field of Dreams” theory – “Build it and they will come…”

That’s even more appropriate when it comes to the second big project – Ms. Opal’s Farm. At present, there’s little reward in the form of monetary means. Still, it receives most of my effort these days. It would make more sense, financially at least, if it were secondary to money-making activities, but financial rewards aren’t always the number one priority. So, we’ve ‘tightened our belts’ a bit and moved forward in the knowledge that this is where God is leading us.

The wheels are turning more quickly now. Although verbal agreements and intents are in place, the final paperwork is frustratingly slow. Still, groundbreaking on our urban farm is in sight. Then the real work begins – soil to be prepared, irrigation laid, and seed to be sown – all the things that require commitment, patience, and sweat – kind of like life…

The Rabbi I follow often used parables to get folks thinking about life and how they were living. Spending most of his time in rural towns, he liked to use farming as an example. One of my favorites is the one known as the Parable of the Sower.

To make a long story short, (the whole thing can be found in Luke 8. 1-15) a farmer is sowing seeds (and a bit haphazardly, at that) and they land in some different places with different results. There’s the trampled soil of the path itself, the rocky soil, the ground covered in weeds, and the nutrient-enriched, ‘black dirt’ soil. The seeds either were eaten by the birds (the beaten path), couldn’t take root, (the gravel), or were choked out by the weeds. Only good old black dirt produced a rich bounty. Even his followers were slow to understand what he was talking about, so he breaks it down further, so maybe they’ll understand what in the world he’s talking about…

I grew up hearing this story many times. The standard interpretation was that ‘the seed’ was the word of God and I had better have a righteous heart to receive it. I believed that until a friend asked me, “What kind of soil are you?” Honestly, I was a bit confused by the question. I won’t bore you with the details of the conversation that followed, but I will tell you that I see the story a bit differently today. It has far more to do with the soil than the seed and it means far more to me today.

I quickly realized that I’d become ‘the beaten path’ – life was too hard to grow anything. I had allowed life, and others, to wear me down, to trample over me, until I couldn’t sustain anything for long. It was readily apparent in my addiction and often, people-pleasing manipulation. For that I’m somewhat grateful; it’s far more, subtle for most people.

The first thing we’ll be doing for Ms. Opal’s Farm is preparing the soil. We are fortunate. The land designated for our farm is rich, Trinity River bottomland, but it still needs to be prepared. Using 100% organic means (in other words, nature’s way), we’ll nurture the soil to prepare for planting through composting and covering. We’ll follow that up with planting, watering, and eventually, harvesting. I’m excited about the harvest because I know that the good soil, the ‘black dirt’, will produce a bumper crop for the surrounding community.

Just like on the farm, we’ll be preparing the ‘soil’ in the neighborhoods as well. We firmly believe that an agricultural intervention can not only bring much needed healthy fruits and vegetables denied to low-income communities for far too long but build community, as well. Low-income communities have been ‘beaten down’ by a myriad of issues; food insecurity, the lack of access to healthy foods and the resulting medical issues, and by isolation as well. The farm will produce opportunities, not just high-quality agricultural products. Work, training, and entrepreneurial spirit are the natural by-product for communities that are often overlooked by others.

I’m excited for the future of our farm, the surrounding neighborhoods, the growth ahead. I plan to keep you posted as to our progress. If you’d like to share in our work, in ‘preparing the soil’, please contact myself or anyone at Unity Unlimited, Inc. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and your donations, whether it be in dollars or time, are greatly appreciated.

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Car Wash Economics

(You have the unedited version today! My ‘editor’ is out with another one of her friends today and I’m so happy she’s having a good time…)

I limited my time on the porch Saturday morning. Margaret’s friend, Mary, came over early after she got off work for the Friday overnight. They were going shopping at the upscale resale shops in Dallas to find a dress for Margaret to wear to our son’s wedding. It does my heart good to see her get out and about. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the high dose of estrogen in the conversation on the porch so at sought the solace of my office…

I love Saturday and Sunday mornings. I take time to catch up on the reading I missed during the week. The coffee always seems to taste just a wee bit better than on weekdays. The newsfeed has more ‘feel good’, human interest stories since it’s a slow news day. The mood is much more relaxed, and the hurry of the weekday work schedule is absent. The ‘To-Do’ list will get attention in due time. On the weekend things will either get done or they won’t, if you know what I mean…

Margaret managed to last all day and into the evening on Saturday. She was anxious to tell me of their adventures and believe me, ‘resale-ing’ is an adventure for her. I’m thankful for her friend Mary, and her patience in helping Margaret get around – getting the wheelchair in and out of the truck, previewing shops, wheeling her across rugged parking lots, and so forth. We are richly blessed by the people in our lives.

Margaret and I live simply. The quiet little cul-de-sac where we reside is peaceful. When we first bought our house, the westside of Fort Worth and the suburb was nowhere on our radar, but we’ve decided our house was a gift just waiting for us to move in. We’re not well-to-do, but we are rich in friends and family. We have issues like everyone else. They just don’t seem to be a big deal anymore. I’d like to think that we’re becoming wiser as we age, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It simply doesn’t require much to be happy.

Finances grew tighter after her back surgery three years ago. Going from two incomes to one hasn’t always been easy, but the money situation doesn’t stress us out like it used to. My friend Jim used to tell me that true happiness comes from ‘wanting what you have and not just having what you want’. We have a happy life, even when the shadier side of life rears its ugly head. Things and ‘stuff’ aren’t so important to us. If there’s any extravagance in our lifestyle it’s that we spend more than we should on eating out with our family and friends. I guess that’s why Margaret’s tale of yesterday’s adventures was so revealing about the life we live.

Apparently, they sought out some ‘upscale’ resale and consignment shops in North Dallas as the dress they were searching for was something between an evening gown or cocktail dress. Now I’m no stranger to classy occasions but I lean toward practicality. Our son, who wanted to buy a dress for Margaret, didn’t want her to have something used. She explained to him that there was no sense spending a small fortune for something that would only get worn a couple of times (we don’t get that fancy very often either…). A pretty dress is pretty whether you’re the first-time owner or the second. Still, when they ended up running into our son in Big D, they managed to find their way to a fancy, dress boutique. I won’t give all the details, but it was obvious some people live far more extravagantly than us. North Dallas is a different beast than what we’re used to…

Their shopping trip started me thinking about an experience with a friend of mine sometime back and how I look at the world around me. I was doing some work at his house and as I was finishing up, he asked if I would mind running his BMW to the car wash for him. Quite frankly, I was happy to, especially since I’m a truck kind of guy. I was extra careful driving to the car wash. When I arrived I asked for the wash package he wanted. I was shocked by the thirty-dollar price tag, but hey, I wasn’t paying for it. When they were finished, I said thanks and drove off. On the way back, it occurred to me that maybe I was supposed to tip the car wash guys.

I didn’t say anything about it until I got home and asked Margaret if I had been ‘one of those customers’, you know, the ones that don’t tip. I’ve been in the service industry. I’ve lived on tips.  I strive never to be ‘one of those guys’ and probably tip too much. I had to admit that in all my sixty years I’d never been to a car wash before. Margaret was amazed. Even though I was slightly embarrassed I kept thinking why would I pay somebody thirty bucks to do what I could do myself?

I get it though. Sometimes you pay for convenience. I’ve been there. I’ve been known to do the same on occasion. Even when I can afford to do so, I find myself feeling somewhat uneasy about paying for it. I’m not a tightwad by any means but if I feel a little irresponsible with our finances when I do so. I’ve thought a lot about why I feel this way and others don’t.

My friend with the sports car says it’s about a poverty mindset and how I look at money. He gave me a book called Money Drunk Money Sober by Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan. I was struck by many of the traits indicative of a ‘poverty drunk’. I was raised in an upper middle-class home by two parents who struggled and survived the Great Depression. Although I never went without, there was an attitude of scarcity pervading our home. The pantry was always stocked, and we never bought anything that wasn’t on sale (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but there was a constant ‘what if’ in the air. I guess that’s why I chased the big money for so long in my career. According to Cameron and Bryan, this is also characteristic of poverty addicts.

Looking back, I was driven by the idea of fear and scarcity. I lived waiting for the proverbial ‘other shoe to drop’. If my upbringing started it, the constant media bombardment added some rocket fuel to the mix. The message that I wouldn’t be good enough unless I had this or that new car, house, or thing-a-ma-jig was constant. No wonder I always wanted more – more money, more ‘stuff’ – and if I didn’t have those things, I could always dull the pain of inadequacy with either chemicals or self-righteous judgement of others (a form of manufactured saintliness and feigned higher moral values). Old patterns are hard to break.

I’m grateful that my self-worth is no longer contingent on my acquisition of wealth. I don’t find any virtue in poverty either. I’ve been with and without money. Believe me, I’d rather have it – it buys convenience – than not have it, but I’ve learned to be happy either way (most of the time). I still struggle with undervaluing my work and have difficulty asking customers for money that I worked for. As much as I’d like to think it’s because I’m introverted and socially awkward, the reality is my much deeper fight for self-worth. Some of you know exactly what I mean…

The more I pondered this idea of poverty drunkenness and addiction, the deeper I had to go inside myself. Did I believe I was more spiritual or virtuous if I had less stuff than others? It isn’t more virtuous or spiritual to be poor than it is to be wealthy. Money and what it can buy may be society’s metric for success, but it is based on the idea of scarcity – there just isn’t enough to go around. There’s always going to be the ‘haves and have not’s’? That’s only true if economics is based on the law of scarcity. When the basis for my economics changed, my metrics changed.

The deeper and more intimate my relationship with God has become, the more my perception of scarcity began to change. Looking back over the years, God has always taken care of me, 100% of the time, despite my efforts to do otherwise. Slowly, I’ve moved from a position of worry and ‘what ifs’ to a place of trust. My value comes from outside myself. It’s no longer about who I am, but whose I am. My economic perceptions slowly shifted to God’s economics, the economics of abundance, the idea of ‘enough’. There’s enough to go around. Life has become much simpler, and far less worrisome as a result. What’s wildly ironic is that the more I give away, the more I have…

Having said all this, I’ve come to a place where, at least for the most part, I don’t judge according to one’s pocketbook or social standing nor do I particularly care if others judge me that way or not. The measure of a man is not in what he has but what he gives away. It doesn’t matter where he falls on the wealth scale. I know of incredibly wealthy folks who greedily hang onto to every penny and people without a proverbial “pot to piss in’ who give outlandishly.

After hearing tales of Margaret and Mary’s adventure in North Dallas I still find it a little incredulous that one would be upset by the idea of used clothes, especially when a new dress is marked down from $700 to $100 (seriously, true story…). Then again, I’ve become a jeans and tee shirt kind of guy. Dressing up is a good pair of ironed and starched blue jeans with a button-down dress shirt. Comfort seems to exceed to need for fashion statements. I’m okay with that

After our morning coffee and the recollection of their adventure Saturday, I got up, cleaned house and worked on a shelf I’m building out of recycled lumber. As I was waiting on the stain to dry, I went out and washed my truck, in the driveway, by myself. I need to tell you that it looked pretty good and I didn’t have to tip anyone…

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The Pause Button

It’s going to be a hot one today, but the westerly breeze across the porch felt so good I stayed a little longer than I should. There’s much to do today. The farm project moved to the front of everything and events are travelling faster than I imagined. A shout-out to the Tarrant Regional Water District (which I wrote erroneously as ‘Trinity River’ Water District yesterday… please accept my apologies because you all are wonderful….) for jumping on this so quickly.

I’ve been so excited about this project that I dove in with both feet over the last three days. In all my excitement, it dawned on me that I’d failed to spend time thanking God for the blessings, of which this project is only a small part. If I believed prayer life required formal prayers and a pious stance I’d be seriously remiss. Prayer has become more of a conversational process with God. I’m sure people think I’m crazy since it looks like I’m talking to myself all the time, but that’s not the case. I converse regularly with the God of my understanding and I’ve even learned to listen better, which has been a major accomplishment given my tendencies toward self-obsession…

However, things have been moving quickly. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t stopped to thank God for granting me the desire of my heart (of which this project is a part). I’d probably done it mentally (I’m not confused where the blessings originate), but I hadn’t done so verbally. So, I spent the extra time on the porch today making a mental gratitude list and thanking Him aloud for each of them, one by one. Before I knew it, my list had multiplied exponentially, and time had flown by. Hence, the late start to the day.

It’s easy to get caught up in the plethora of daily projects, both personally and professionally. In the process I often forget to thank the one who made it all possible. There are times busyness consumes me. I forget that the only reason I have so much to do is because a loving God extended His unbelievable (and undeserved) gift of grace: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. That grace has transformed me. Today I like the face I see in the mirror, and believe me, that hasn’t always been the case. It relieves me of the oppressive thoughts and feelings of ‘never doing enough’ and never being enough.

I know all-too-well the danger in moving too fast, of forgetting the source from which all blessings flow. It doesn’t take long to become filled with a sense of self-accomplishment and the ungrateful spirit that comes with it. That’s shaky ground for those of us who suffer from an exaggerated, often unrealistic, sense of self. When it becomes all about me – what I did, and what I’ve accomplished – I’m not far from the inevitable self-sabotage that follows, especially when I finally realize my self-deception.

In the book of James, the brother of Jesus (called “Old Camel Knees” for his devotion to kneeling in prayer), says, “Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of Heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light” (James 1.16 from The Message). That’s been my experience as well. It is all grace. It’s not about me. God invites my cooperation in the grand scheme of things, but it’s His grace that enables me to live freely and joyously in a world that often tries to wear me down. Grace is what reminds me that God is especially fond of each of us. Grace leads me to treat others, and myself, better. Grace is so overwhelming that I must share it with others. Imagine that: me of all people living a life of grace, and grace leads to a life of gratitude and service.

I’m going to keep this brief. I have a lot (and I mean a lot) to do today, but I’m extremely grateful I pushed the ‘pause’ button this morning and talked to the giver of all “good and perfect gifts”. The funny thing about gratitude is how it increases and seems to overflow into everything in my day. I feel a deeper love for my wife, for my kids, and all the people in my life. I’m better able to see the ‘big picture’ and look to the bigger community of which I am a part. Most importantly, I’m able to tackle the difficulties life throws my way, be a part of that community, and walk in the light. That, my friends, is a pretty good way to live…

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Ms. Opal’s Dream and the Best Birthday Ever

I sat on the porch this morning, thinking about yesterday and making a mental list of today’s lengthy ‘to-do’ list. I turned sixty years old yesterday and it was the best birthday ever! I spent it with some incredible people. The new project I’ve mentioned in previous posts has become a reality. I’ve been looking forward to the day I could tell you all about it and that day has arrived.

To understand the importance of yesterday’s events, you need to know what ‘food insecurity’ is. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. … Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household. In Tarrant County, one in four children, and one in three if they are African-American or Hispanic, go to bed hungry or face food insecurity. One does not have to live under the Federal Poverty Threshold of $24,858 per year to experience food insecurity. Over 25 % of households facing food insecurity live at or just above the poverty guidelines and fully 36% receive no federal or state benefits. (further information is available through the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Feeding America websites)

The bottom line is that there’s a problem with hunger and the myriad of health problems that are a consequence of food insecurity. It’s not just an economic issue, but an availability issue as well. Food Deserts, which the USDA defines as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”, which  mean that there’s no local grocer or farmers market within one mile of an urban neighborhood. Tarrant County alone has over forty food deserts according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Often the only food available is at local convenience stores and is often of little nutritional value. Processed, convenience foods are one of the largest contributors to childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The magnitude of the problem can be overwhelming. What can I do? My friend Edgar once asked how would I eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. Yesterday, a meeting with some fantastic people took a bite of the proverbial elephant. Sometime back, Ms. Opal Lee, a long-time activist from Fort Worth and founder of Unity Unlimited, Inc. (a 501(c)(3) non-profit) was granted use of vacant acreage in Fort Worth by the Trinity River Water District for the express purpose of creating an urban farm. Yesterday, that first bite, her dream of building an urban farm providing farm-fresh, nutritious food for residents of the community, moved into action.

I am blessed and unbelievably excited to be a part of Ms. Opal’s dream. I was familiar with Ms. Opal some time back, particularly because of her “Walk to Washington” and lobbying to make Juneteenth a Federal holiday. Although I was formally introduced to her only a few months ago, she has quickly become one of my heroes. At 92 years young, Ms. Opal’s energy and selfless-spirit is contagious.

The farm will initially encompass five of the sixteen acres available and preparation for planting will begin shortly. The farm uses the model provided by Bonton Farms in Dallas: an agricultural intervention as a means of eliminating the local food desert and contributing to the health and overall, both physical and spiritual, well-being of the community. The farm will be 100% organic. Planting will be based on the needs of customers and the community. Long-term plans include goats, chickens, and beekeeping as well. Above all else we want the farm to provide local jobs, job training and new entrepreneurs and neighborhood Fort Worth.

The meeting yesterday started the wheels turning and I’m so blessed to be a part of it all. This has been not only Ms. Opal’s dream, but mine as well. I’ve always wanted to be a ‘farmer’. I’ve prayed often that God would open the doors of service to others. Yesterday was simply another of God’s answered prayers. We could use yours as well.

I’m looking forward to sharing the progress of our urban farm with you as we move forward. We plan for development to proceed quickly enough to have the initial planting later this year with a winter crop. If we have any doubt about our success, we need to remember that Ms. Opal’s already prayed about it and that’s pretty good assurance….

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Bridal Showers and Starbucks

Time and recovery has taught me to “stay where my feet are”. I’m not very good at it, but I’m better than I used to be. I’m having some difficulty with staying in the moment when I look ahead to the remainder of the day. Our son is getting married next month and today is the prerequisite wedding. His fiance is an only child and apparently this shower is a big deal for her and her mother, as well it should be. I’m told there will be around fifty people or so there. I feel , well, a huge sense of dread when I think of being part of such a large crowd, especially with people I don’t know.

If it were a recovery, church, or business meeting I wouldn’t have an issue. I know what to do, how to act, and what to talk about then, but being socially awkward and an introvert in a group of strangers is a whole different ballgame. The discomfort has already started, and the shower is still hours away.

Moreover, the shower is in Dallas. I am from Fort Worth. For as long as I can remember, there has been a tension between Dallas And Fort Worth.  When I grew up and spent time in other parts of our state, I discovered that Fort Worth was not unique. Dallas seemed to be at odds with everywhere else in Texas. In fact, most folks will tell you that I might as well be crossing state lines when I enter Dallas county…

Later that day…

Okay. I admit it. I ‘chickened out’. My wife is at the bridal shower while I sit here in a Starbucks down the road with my trusty laptop. It takes a lot to get me to sit in a Starbucks. I would much rather patronize a small, local place, where the coffee doesn’t always taste burned, unless it’s free and then it’s tolerable. It’s just that when we rang the doorbell and I saw all those young ladies between the front door and the back patio where far fewer men were congregating, I lost all nerve. So here I sit, drinking a ridiculously overpriced, pseudo-coffee drink, with my head stuck deep in my computer screen lest someone I know sees me…

I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year now. One of the things I appreciate most is the sense of community that exists in the “blogosphere’. When I decided to leave my contracting business and return to professional ‘business’ writing full-time, my peers stressed the importance of reading and writing everyday, whether it was professionally or not. It was an easy instruction for me as I’ve always been a voracious reader and kept a journal of my thoughts and feelings; privately, of course. I always tell clients that successful marketing includes regular blog posts and customer contact, so maybe I should try some of my own advice. Hence, Thoughts from the Porch was born.

I guess I’m a relative latecomer to the whole blogging deal. I never spent time reading things from the screen. I prefer something tangible, a book or a magazine, that I can hold on to and read at my leisure. However, over the last few months, I’ve discovered a whole world of great writers and incredible thinkers that I’ve been missing for a good while. Today, I follow many other bloggers and enjoy the diversity of words and thought. One of my favorites (which I recommend) is Stephen Black and his Fractured Faith blog site. He tends to end when a question inviting engagement. For me, feeling self-conscious and inadequate, this invitation to engage is sorely appreciated.  I often feel that whatever I have to say just isn’t that big of a deal to anyone but me.

This morning, he asked, “Do you write truthfully?” and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I sincerely hope I do.

When I write, whether it be personally (like here) or professionally (my business and marketing), I strive to be honest. I hope that it has some intrinsic value and offers something new and refreshing. Then I feel as I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said. Like it or not, that’s true. I read and listen to a wide variety of writers and authors and I haven’t discovered something that hasn’t been said before. The thousands of years of human existence leave little room for new experiences. Nothing I can think of or say is new and original. In fact, I feel a little silly when I’m excited by the things I discovered so much later in life than most folks and feel a need to tell everyone. I always was late to the party…

So I’m simply not that special or unique. Yet, nothing I say has ever been said in my voice, from my perspective, and in the way that I feel ( nor has it in everyone else I read or listen to) so maybe that makes it worthwhile, at least to someone. The more I read and listen to others, the more I feel a part of something far bigger than me, the more I feel a sense of community, and the less isolated I feel by my shyness and introversion. If I feel that way, could someone else possibly feel that way as well? The only way to find out is to speak and write honestly…

The next morning…

The thought train was off and running yesterday when I received a text that everyone at the bridal shower was asking where I was, there were more men than expected, and maybe I should come. I thought about it a bit (and prayed!), and mustered up the courage to put the laptop away and head over there. I sheepishly rand the doorbell and was greeted by laughter, a bit of chaos, and welcomed inside. I met some new people, saw some I already knew, and eased my way into the festivities. Honestly, I had a good time despite my initial discomfort. Life’s like that. Every time I walk past the ‘fear’ curtain it turns out things aren’t as bad as I thought. I have a lot more in common with folks than I thought…