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Can a Tomato Change the World?

Thoughts From the Porch: I need to get a little personal here. I have an issue that’s close to the heart and after this week, I’m driven to share it with you. I haven’t spent much time on the porch. The early blast of Arctic weather has limited my time there. It must’ve delivered some silent signal to our trees last night. They seemed to release all their leaves at once. Except for the few bold ‘hangers-on’, the yard, sidewalk, and most of the porch is covered in dead and dying leaves.

My tomato and pepper plants succumbed to the freeze. I knew it was coming. The cycle of the seasons is inevitable. I know the time will always come to say goodbye to homegrown tomatoes for the winter. I had hoped we’d somehow escape the unusually early frost. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to tasty, fresh tomatoes, even if it’s only temporary.

I spent this last couple of weeks working on grant applications for Opal’s Farm. Everything met with our Director’s approval and I’m submitting them this morning. I haven’t written grants in many years, so there’s more than a little fear there. Did I do it right? What if they don’t come through? What if, what if, what if…

I want to do well: for the farm and as a writer. I guess I’ll find out how well I did when the grants are awarded.

I’d like to be offering a grand update on our progress, but the wet Fall weather has slowed tilling and bed preparation to a crawl. There’s still much to be done in this holiday (and giving) season. November 27th is the Global Day of Giving. I hope that you’ll keep Opal’s Farm in mind if such days are more convenient for you. Please remember though, donations aren’t contingent on special ‘giving days’, they are accepted 24/7, 365 days a year!

Professionally, I write strong appeal letters for non-profit organizations. Opal’s Farm is intensely personal to me and far more than just another job. For those of you who don’t know about the farm, our Mission Statement is:

Opal’s Farm restores hope and vitality to neglected communities through an agricultural intervention and education.”

Personal experience has taught me that ‘playing in the dirt’ has the power to change lives and communities and provide solutions to problems far beyond food deserts and food scarcity. If that were all it did it would be a noble undertaking, but it’s much bigger than that.

Several years ago, I was working on a community garden in a local westside neighborhood for B.U.R.N. Ministries. Some of the young men who were in the youth program came to help one day when harvesting had begun. One of the young men asked me what “those are” as I was picking tomatoes. The question kind of took me back. I just assumed everyone knew what they were.

You see, he had grown up in an urban food desert. Most of his diet had consisted of processed foods from the local dollar and convenience stores. He had no idea what fresh produce looked like!

I pulled a tomato off the vine, wiped it off, handed it to him, and invited him to try it. He was reluctant at first. He took a small bite. I watched as his face went from a turned-up nose to a beaming smile. “That’s really good”, he said as he devoured the rest of the tomato. “Can I have another one?”

I’m not saying that one tomato is going to change the world. But I couldn’t help but notice how it changed his face and his perception. It was like shining a light in to a dark place. Once he ‘saw’ the opportunity in front of him he was able to taste the goodness of God’s world. I’d like to think it provided more than simply a great taste sensation. I’d like to think it provided hope.

That’s why Opal’s Farm is so important: to people, to the community, and to the next generation. A simple tomato has the power to change everything. That’s why I’m so passionate about a couple of acres and some wonderful produce.

I could go on and on. Educating people, feeding folks, and empowering individuals for stewardship and the opportunity to leave things a little better than they found it leaves me humbled and in awe of God’s creation.

As a professional writer, I’m supposed to craft my words carefully and ask you to be a financial partner with Opal’s Farm. I’d love for you to be a ‘farmer’, right alongside us whether it be with financial support or digging in the dirt. Moreover, I’m not too proud to beg. My wife always reminds me, “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed”. This is a golden opportunity to make a difference; to do something tangible. Right here. Right now.

So, I implore you to join us! You can reach us at:

 

Opal’s Farm

C/O Unity Unlimited, Inc.

2119 Harrison Avenue

Fort Worth, TX 76110

 

Or contact us through my website:  www.gregoryjoel.com

On the “Contact Form” below

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Stardust

Thoughts From the Porch: I listened to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last week. It was with Brian May; one of the founding members of the band, Queen. I was on my way to a meeting, so I only heard a brief segment, but I’ve thought about it all weekend.

I didn’t know that following Freddie Mercury’s death and the band dissolved, Mr. May went back to university and earned his PhD in astrophysics. His thesis, put as simply as possible, was about the velocity of star dust. He went on to explain some of his thesis, but I was driving and somewhat distracted. I didn’t catch all the interview. That is, until right before I shut off the engine…

I was getting out of my truck when I heard him say, “we’re all composed of stardust from the beginning of the universe”. He went on to say that when Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust. We are golden…” she hit the nail right on the head. Not only do I have a “Woodstock” ‘brain worm’, I’ve thought about our ‘stardust DNA’ all weekend.

person sky silhouette night
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I’m in absolute awe and amazement – we’re made with the very dust present at the beginning of the universe. The stars formed our DNA!

I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist Christian home. The Bible was taken quite literally. If it says God created the Earth in seven days, then by God, he did. Science was incompatible with religion. To many it still is. I’m not going to enter in to a debate over science versus biblical literalism. I’ll leave that to the dogmatist on both sides. Apparently, they know God, or lack thereof, much better than I do…

red and orange solar flare
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I believe I’m connected to time, space, and people – all of creation – through this ‘star DNA’. When I’m in tune with that connection, I’m able to love better and a be a better human being. I’m a better steward of the gifts God has given me. I’m able to bring light into the darkness around me. Maybe that’s why I was created with stardust…

It’s easy to forget how marvelous and ‘wonderfully created’ I am. I get caught up in the minutiae of the day, rushing about the business of living. Suddenly, I hear or see something that stops me in my tracks, reminding me of the miracles around me.

“We are stardust, we are golden…”

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Just Vote…

Thoughts From the Porch: Yes, folks. This is another voter turnout post. I’m sure you’ve been bombarded by political ads, voter turnout robocalls, and every conceivable mailer you can imagine, from applauding your voting record to shaming you for apathy. Please bear with me, though. This is an issue close to my heart. It matters!

white and grey voting day sign
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I questioned my role in voter participation as a Jesus-follower. I know where my true citizenship is. I may be entitled to U.S. citizenship by virtue of birth, but I follow my Rabbi first and foremost. I realized just how privileged I am to live here, especially in Texas. This is my earthly home, where my friends and family are, and where I’ll more than likely stay until I leave this world. I’m not confused, though. One’s spiritual beliefs are not an excuse for not voting. However, they change my motivation for voting.

The Gospels reflect Jesus’ concern for the neglected and marginalized. He went as far to say that how we treat them is how we treat Him. Pretty powerful words. In an election year that will affect the poor, the elderly, the immigrant, and the disenfranchised, your vote does matter. How you vote is also a reflection of how you see them.

While elections are always about how we see our political leadership, this year is also a reflection of how we see ourselves. What are our values? Are our decisions based on fear, class distinctions, and exclusion or they ones of faith, the common good, and inclusive of all? Everyone will answer those questions for themselves. Elections are important. How we vote matters to us all…

I took advantage of early voting and a rainy Wednesday last week to place my ballot. I was thrilled by the diverse crowd that was there on a Wednesday afternoon. I spent time in prayer and reflection about the matter before me and performed one of the privileges of my physical citizenship. It should be done with reflection.

I’m overjoyed when I hear the reports that voter turnout is exceeding expectations. I’d love for everyone to vote for my choices, but that’s unrealistic. The bottom line is that they were there casting their ballot.

Results will be in Tuesday evening. There will be winners and losers. Some of you will be elated by the results and others frustrated and disappointed. That’s how it works.

My friend Edgar always says, “Chop wood and let the chips fall where they may”. Go out there and vote. The chips will take care of themselves, but you won’t have chips if you don’t chop the wood…

person dropping paper on box
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Have You Had Your Vitamin D Today?

red flower rose
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Thoughts From the Porch: I haven’t posted much this week. North Texas has seen the wettest October since recordkeeping began. The area lakes are one hundred percent full and dams are opening their floodgates to keep them from flooding. We’ve experienced some localized flooding, but the folks in to our south have been devastated by it. It hasn’t been one of our best months here.

People have been joking about swimming everywhere. If one more person makes a “Noah’s Ark” or webbed feet comment I might  run off screaming. Keep smiling, right?

time lapse photography of river
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Work on Opal’s Farm has been at a standstill. The water level of the Trinity River made me a little apprehensive. Yet, it’s remained well below the levee height. The Water District cannot begin to disc and till the soil until it dries out for several days. We’ve gotten get a sunny day here and a day there, but the soil; is super saturated. We need at least a solid week of sunshine to even think about further progress.

It’s all been a bit much. To top it off, business has been slow enough that I took on a couple of indoor construction jobs to keep some income coming in. I’m thankful for the work. I do what needs to be done, even when doing so wears me out too much to write. I’ve sat down at the desk several times, but the words are stiff, like my body.

Thus, procrastination has reared its ugly head. I set aside writing for the next day and go to bed early. It’s the perfect escape mechanism for dealing with the miserable weather. Sometimes sleep will change the way I feel. My mood had begun to mirror October’s gloomy weather. I didn’t want to inflict myself and my dismal mood on anyone else.

Sleep is an amazing thing. Sunshine even more so. Sunlight on the human skin triggers a human’s ability to manufacture Vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin”. Vitamin D is essential for overall health. Studies show it helps decrease high blood pressure and protect against inflammation. It helps muscles and even improves brain function. Lack of Vitamin D is a contributing factor in osteoporosis, muscle weakness, cancer, and depression. Given the last month, I can understand the depression aspect.

Unfortunately, few foods provide adequate amounts of Vitamin D. That’s why sunshine is so important.

The sun was already shining when I awoke this morning. I’m usually get up early enough to greet the sunrise, but not today. I slept in and awoke to my dog’s wet tongue and sunlight beaming through the window. I noticed my mood was much lighter. I was excited to get out of bed, rush through the awakening routine, and get to the porch.

My vision was clearer, my mind freer than it’s been in days. My coffee tasted better. Conversation with Margaret was lighter. Problems didn’t seem so overwhelming. The leaves fell more frequently, and the yellows and reds of autumn were more vibrant. I was filled with a sense of awe and gratitude once again. All brought about by a good night’s sleep and brilliant sunshine…

I often forget how simple life really is. The dispiriting, gloomy days of October will always give way to brighter days. Life’s like that. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it shines. Even when the rain seems like it will never cease, the sun will eventually return. Without the rain, I forget the incredible value of the sunshine.

My world mirrors the God I’ve come to know. There may be times it seems like the rain will never end. Yet, the sunshine always returns. The sun is always there even though its light is sometimes hidden behind the cloudy, dark skies of fear and self-doubt. Every time I quite trying to control the or wish away the weather, the light returns: ever reminding me that it’s all okay.

My friend Jim used to tell me things like, “It will all be okay when it’s over. If it’s not okay, then it’s not over” and “In the meantime, it’s just a mean time”. I used to hate hearing that when I was in the middle of a storm, but sure enough, the sun came out, the storm was over, and it was always okay. I come out a little battered but better able to weather any coming difficulties…

I’ve also come to know that I need God like I need Vitamin D. He’s “essential to overall health”. My “muscles” – physically, mentally, and above all, spiritually – are stronger. I’m no longer depressed, feeling overwhelmed by whatever bad weather life sends my way. His light prevents the cancer of resentment and unforgiveness. His light improves my thinking and especially, my vision. I can see the simple beauty of falling Autumn leaves and be at peace.

I’m going to get on with the day now. Now that the sun is shining there’s much to do and many things to see. Besides, I’ve had a Vitamin D deficiency lately…

Have you had your dose of Vitamin D today?

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What’s Your Story?

Thoughts From the Porch: A more accurate title for today’s post would be “Thoughts from the Desk”. A cold front flew through the neighborhood Sunday night, leaving a cold Arctic wind and black, rain-filled skies in its wake. It was eighty-one degrees one day and, in the forties the next. I didn’t stay on the porch very long. Needless to say, it’s much cozier here at Dad’s old roll-top. We had chili for dinner last night and our coffee intake has risen dramatically. Something about such weather makes them both taste exquisite and, so very necessary. Such is Fall in North Texas…

clear glass window with moist effect
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Margaret loves to watch the musical competition shows like The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and X Factor. I am not that crazy about them, although I come and watch when she asks me to see a good performance. I tend to be a bit snobbish about such popular shows, but if I’m honest, I’ve developed an interest as well.

I never watched them before. They tend to be too ‘pop’ for my taste. Heck, before Margaret and I married, I didn’t even own a television. I streamed PBS on my computer. I’d hear people talking about the latest ‘star’, but I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

I’ve always had a problem with the idea of ‘instant stardom’. There are so many unbelievably talented musicians, singers, and songwriters in the world. They endure the grind of the road, playing in roadhouses and clubs almost every night. Family life, if they have any, is marked with long separations. They pay their dues, hoping for the big break that may never come. Yet, they continue despite the rigors of life as a touring musician.

They do it because they are musicians. They can’t do anything else. I get it. I write because that’s what writers do. I love writing (whether I’m good at it or not…). Musicians perform because they love what they do. I’m grateful for all the indie labels and the Internet for exposing me to so much more of the great talent out there.

I always wondered what attracted people to these programs. Then I watched a few of them and their appeal became clear. They tell a story, and everyone loves a good story.

They all tell stories about the various contestants. Stories that draw the audience in and develop an emotional bond between strangers. The contestant often had some major difficulty to overcome prior to coming on the show. It may be the loss of a family member, recovering from a debilitating illness, of huge obstacles that stood in the way. Each has had to move beyond some trauma and overcome their fears to become the next big star. America votes for who they want to win. Votes are not always based on sheer talent. People love the ‘rags to riches’ story. There’s always someone to identify with. That’s what gets the votes and the ratings…

I see it in my personal and professional life. It’s all about living a better story. I hope to assist others in living, and telling, a better story as well. As the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Once I understood the story, and not just the talent, I saw why these programs have such a following. We love heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero. We love people who overcome terrible odds and win the prize. Great literature, no matter what genre, survives because of heroes. The Voice has been on for fifteen seasons, not because of the talent they showcase, but the heroes they produce.

art business close up decor
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I want to be a hero today, but being a hero requires work. I used to look on these programs with disdain because they seemed too easy – rewards without the work – but it took a lot of practice and courage just to reach the stage. So, I had to ask myself:

  • How many times have I expected to be on the proverbial ‘stage’ without putting in the work to get there?
  • How many times has my fear of rejection, like all the auditions or in my case, submissions, kept me from realizing my dreams?
  • How often have I lacked the courage to take the next step?
  • How often have I sought the ‘easy way out’ or settled for less than the best?
  • If I were absolutely certain it was my last day on Earthy, would I e happy with how I spent it?

I ask myself these questions daily, not because I want to be the next big star, but because I want to be who I was created to be and have life “in abundance”. One of my favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau said,

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I get it today. Fear can keep me from following my passion. Today, I pray for the courage to take the next step, to be the man I was created to be, and follow it up with action: to step out on the stage despite my fears, perform my best, and grab onto the things that are truly important to me. I hope you do as well…

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Hearings and listening…

Thoughts from the Porch: It’s officially dark when I take my coffee to the porch these days. The mornings are cooler, often in the low sixties, and quieter than usual. September is sliding into October, the lawn has a few more leaves on it each day, and rain comes more often and usually overstays its visit. We might have a Fall that lasts longer than a weekend this year…

I listened to Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh and the testimony of his sexual assault accuser, Ms. Ford, even though I told myself I shouldn’t. After all, the outcome is predictable: wealth, privilege, and power will carry the day regardless of what’s right. That’s what the last couple of years have proven anyway. I used to get angry, now I’m simply sad. Still, I’m drawn to same-old, same-old like a moth to a flame, hoping this time it will end differently. That my friends, is the definition of insanity…

Life has taught me to look for the good, even when the situation says otherwise. Even though I think the Judiciary Committee’s majority and Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to be detestable, some good things have already come out of it, believe it or not. Ms. Ford’s testimony was measured and truthful as she stood in front of millions and detailed her experience with Mr. Kavanaugh. I can only imagine the courage it took to sit there for all to see and hear. Whether her testimony sways the vote of those with wealth, power, and privilege remains to be seen, but maybe it will make us all look at our actions and attitudes toward women. I have…

In fact, the last two years, although politically horrendous, have one bright spot: they brought out all the racial strife, misogyny, and often, hate, hidden just beneath the surface of American life. We’ve all known it was there but did little to address it. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I can’t fix a problem unless I admit I have one. Until I do, the solution remains elusive. I keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Where have I heard that before?

The up side is that once I admit my problem I’m already halfway to the solution. I can do something about it.  It works for me personally and professionally, maybe it works for others. The #Metoo and Black Lives Matter movements have made me look at my ideas about women, race, and culture in general. Honestly, I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen, but I have an opportunity to transform old ideas and attitudes. That changes my actions. The consequence is that I love others better, begin to think more about the common good, and grow closer to the man I want and God, wants me to be.

Even something as detestable as the current administration and the SCOTUS nominee can have positive results when it motivates one to look inside. Hopefully, it creates a desire for our better selves…

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Never-ending Honeymoons…

Thoughts From the Porch: Yesterday was the big day for our son and our new daughter-in-law. We welcome Amanda into the family with tons of love and gratitude. She’s a beautiful, remarkable young woman and incredible addition to our family. We pray continued blessing and happiness for the Brandon and Amanda.

close up of wedding rings on floor
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It was a beautiful ceremony with pastoral surroundings. Despite the rain and grey skies, the wedding and reception went well, and a good time had by all who attended. We received a text from the happy couple this morning as they boarded the plane bound for the honeymoon. The best thing about the whole affair? It’s over!

I’m not a crabby old man mind you. I love weddings. I’ve had the privilege of performing many wedding ceremonies over the years. Couples, especially the brides, look more stunningly beautiful than ever, and I get to see the love in their eyes up close. There’s something incredibly holy about that moment. I’m always awed by the power and beauty I witness. It was no less holy seeing it from the attendee’s point of view.

However, I’m happy it’s over. The lead up to the big day was stressful for everyone in the family. It feels like a pressure valve a has been released and we can all breath again. No more worry about invitations, dresses, and food choices for the reception. After yesterday, Margaret and I slept in this morning. I can’t remember the last time I slept until 9:30! We spent an inordinate amount of time on the porch this morning. As I write this morning my thoughts are more about binge watching Netflix than finishing this post, so you may not be seeing this until Monday…

And so, it is Monday…

Monday has arrived, and it feels beautifully normal. Up early, coffee on, and time on the porch. I shall not bore you with the details. It feels like Fall though. For that I’m unbelievably grateful.

autumn autumn leaves blur close up
Photo by Vali S. on Pexels.com

Looking back at this weekend, I was reminded of my own marriage and how blessed I am. It will be our sixth anniversary in March. I know that doesn’t sound like a long time to folks who have been married for much longer, but it amazes me. I’m sure I’m not always the easiest person to live with.

Margaret and I had been friends for several years before we dated. I always wanted to go out with her, but quite frankly, I figured I was out of her league. I had been single for a long time and, because I had chosen to be public about my HIV status, I thought I’d remain that way. Being positive kind of screws up the whole dating thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, because looking back, I know God was preparing me for what was to come. I had to learn to love myself, and by His grace, my willingness, and an incredible group of men, I did. Loving myself allows me to love others fully. Maybe that’s why Jesus placed such importance on “loving others as you love yourself”.

During that time, He was also preparing Margaret. I guess it was no surprise that our courtship was short – only ninety-one days. Thanks to our many friends who banded together to pull off a gorgeous wedding in only eight days (many of you know the story), two became one. If such haste seems foolhardy, each day since has reaffirmed our (or at least my) decision. Apparently, we became a ‘magnet couple’ – I’m HIV positive and she’s is, and remains negative…

We’ve had some hurtles since our wedding day, most of them physical. A month after our wedding, I ended up in intensive care behind a post-operative meningitis infection for a month. It was touch and go. Margaret worried about planning a funeral a month after planning a wedding. Then a couple of years later, Margaret had complications from back surgery leading to chronic pain and decreased (and sometimes extremely little) mobility. Neither of us planned on these challenges, but it is what it is, right? All they are is speed bumps on this wonderful journey we began together.

Sometimes the challenges we face cause self-doubt. We’re not exempt, nor is anyone I know of. While Margaret isn’t an invalid by any means, there are days when she’s really hurting and needs more of my attention. I’m grateful that I work from home most days and can be there to help. She apologizes and wonders if I’m second-guessing getting married. I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never had second thoughts. Yet, I can tell you that on the days I’m irritable, frustrated, or depressed I wonder if she’s rethinking this whole deal. Sometimes my brain is not my friend…

For both of us, self-doubt is fleeting, erased by the love we share. Feelings are one thing and, at least in my case, rarely have anything to do with reality. The reality is that I’m still awed that God could have blessed me so richly. I still get giddy when Margaret walks in the room. When I look into her eyes, I see the love there and I come back to reality quickly. I still can’t believe that she said yes…

I know that Saturday was Brandon and Amanda’s special day, but I need to tell you, it was truly special for me, too. Margaret stepped out of the bride’s room as we prepared to walk down the aisle. I was floored. She’d been locked away all day with the bride and bridesmaids getting ready for the ceremony. I saw my bride. She looked even more beautiful than the day we wed. I truly am the most blessed man in the world…

I hope that our kids have the same joy and love that Margaret and I share. If the vows they wrote for one another are any indicator, then I’m certain they will. If I could offer any advice to the newlyweds, it would be this: never lose you sense of wonder that your spouse chose to spend the rest of their life with you. When in doubt, remember how they looked at you on your wedding day, and perhaps more importantly, how you looked at them.

My prayer for you all is that you feel the butterflies and the awe every time the love of your life walks in the room…

animal beautiful biology bloom
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