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Monday, December 22, 2014

Bell Ringers, Salvation Army Kettles, and Reminders of Christmas

I went to Walmart tonight to pick up some trivial trinket or other. On the way in, there were three people braving the cold drizzle to ring the bell at a Salvation Army Kettle. I instantly recalled the line in Rich Mullin's "Hold Me Jesus" "...and the Salvation Army band is playing this hymn. And your grace rings out so deep, it makes my resistance seem so thin..."
That first Ragamuffins Album is smattered with snippets of Americana. I know the Salvation Army is an international ministry organization, but something about a bell ringer and a kettle feels purely American.
I got teary I often do when I recall Rich and especially that record, and especially that song. I've been locked in a real wrestling match for months now and the line "Your Grace rings out so makes my resistance seem so thin" grabbed hold of me. I've been at this crossroads for a while, and no clarity seems to be in sight. But I know I can count on His Grace...even though my humanity resists it, for lack of grasping it. There was comfort in the bell ringer at the kettle. Comfort in knowing that 2014 years have come and gone since that scandalous, wild, illogical, mystical night in Bethlehem and -try as it might- this world simply cannot remove the impact of that night on humanity. It can try to remove it from the vernacular, but it can never remove it from our hearts. As Brennan Manning said "Behind every Christmas ornament and every sprig of mistletoe. Behind every twinkling light and every antiseptic "Happy Holidays, there is the truth of this Baby." Christmas seems to annually take my heart on an excursion back to a place I long for and can never return to. The only thing that remains unchanged throughout the years...the star still leads us to the Baby. And deny it as some voices may...the whole world knows this to be true. The star still leads to the Baby. Come as you are...
...I guess I heard all that in those simple bells this evening.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Borrowing Christmas: Thoughts about not going home this year.

A couple of last minute plan changes and it turns out I’m not going home for Christmas.
I can’t begin to express the heartbreak. I can’t even begin to touch on the depth of sadness I feel about not being there, in the Philadelphia area, this year.
It’s compounded by the fact that my daughter is at her mom’s in Tennessee and this is the first time in probably seven or eight years that I won’t be celebrating with her.
It’s barely Christmas without her as it is, but to not be going home makes it insufferable.
I was driving last night, working my second job, and the heaviness of all this weighed me down terribly. I miss my daughter. She’s been in Tennessee since the weekend before Thanksgiving and won’t be back here until New Years. I was thinking about our dozens and dozens of trips back to Philadelphia / Wilmington DE where we typically spend our Holidays and where we most often refer to as home.
I was thinking last night, and again this morning, about my life and how very different it turned out from what I’d hoped for. Christmas, especially, is a very emotional, introspective time for me. I realized some things about my own Christmases that caused a lot of tears this morning. My heart is still heavy and its hard writing these words but they desperately need to come out and this blog has become a refuge and my one and only venue.
It occurred to me this morning that I have never had my own Christmas.
Christmas was always made infinitely better by the presence of others. Now, most people would say this is universally true, but not in the way I mean it.
Christmas, growing up, was the one and only time when there was any peace in our house. It was the only time when there felt like anything that resembled love was expressed from one person to another. We never went on vacations, never did “family” things. Family “Game Nights” typically became tense and uneasy because we honestly didn’t like each other. The healthy competitiveness that can come from simple game playing, was only a microcosm of the competition we all had with each other just to find some air to breathe and a ray of sunlight in that house. We clawed and scratched at each other to find our way to the top of the pile and hopefully catch just a scrap of the affection that every kid wants. It transferred itself into those game nights in the form of hurt feelings, increasingly acerbic comments, and the overbearing, overwhelming domination of the “head of the household” who deigned to give us 30 minutes once in a while, stifled our childish expressions, and then ran out on the game so he could return to his place of isolation in front of the TV, purposefully watching something that none of us had any interest in, so we would leave him the hell alone.
But Christmas was that one, two-week- period when the façade was erected, and it was so beautiful and such a breath of fresh air, and it was so close to what my heart always hoped for from family and Christmas that we never minded the falsehoods. We ate our sawdust hot dogs and wore our plastic jewelry and played the roles. Even fraudulent happiness is better than the other fifty weeks of brood and darkness.
But it really wasn’t the façade that made it Christmas…it was the others.
Christmas was the only time we consistently saw friends and family. Outside of the occasional cookout we were not entertainers. But Christmas was different. Christmas Eve there was, for the last 10 years or so that I lived at home, an open house. I couldn’t wait for the first guests to arrive because they brought with them the greatest gift of all…life.
Our house seemed to burst with life when my Aunt Donna and Uncle Jack arrived with my cousin Stephanie. Then my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ed and their girls. Then the neighbors and their families. As I got older and my friends had licenses and cars, they would stop too. People we didn’t see all year, (and nobody ever wondered why) would come around for Christmas Eve and stay, and talk, and the house felt like a Currier and Ive’s picture.
I also made a point to visit the open house of another family whose son was one of my best friends. I spent an hour or two with the Winward’s before returning home to finish the night with our guests.
Christmas day was more family, either them coming to us or us going to them. The week between Christmas and New Years was spent outside with my friends or in my room reading or doing whatever. Another week and it was back to school and back to the normal way of life we knew. Five people (briefly six when my youngest brother was born, just a few years before I moved out) who coexisted under one roof but who neither knew, loved, or even liked each other.
It was this fertile soil that made me dream –from an early age- of creating my own home one day and having the Christmases I wanted. Where we weren’t faking it but we were actually just expressing the love and joy and fondness for each other that had been building all year. I took that image into marriage, and sadly only had two Christmases with which to try to create that picture. Then came the divorce. Then came the next fifteen years. Fifteen years. Fifteen Christmases come and gone, and all of them with me trying desperately to give something to my daughter that I never had, and failing at it. The years when I was successful and we had a home of our own, Morgan and I decorated and celebrated. But oddly enough…when she was with me for Christmas we never stayed in Nashville. We went home.
Because, once again, we needed someone else’s Christmas.
We had a wonderful set of traditions, my daughter and I. but instinctively we knew something was missing and we couldn’t recreate it alone. Our Christmas at home needed the other half of our family and she was never going to be there. You want to know another reason God hates divorce? It’s this. Christmas can never, ever be what it would be if you remain together.
And so Morgan and I took a journey almost every year, back to where I grew up, and other people’s Christmas became our Christmas. Just like when I was a kid.
I think this is what was breaking my heart last night, and again this morning.
I seem to need Christmas more each year and this year especially. And now I won’t be going home. The last seven years I have spent Christmas Eve with my Cousin Toni and her husband and his family and Toni’s dad, my Uncle Franny. They taught me about the family I missed being a part of, and about the traditions I needed to learn. They taught me about “Feast of Seven Fishes” and what it means to have someone love you, simply because you are family.
Something I longed for my whole life.
I can’t share my family’s Christmas this year.
I can’t stop in on the Winward’s this year –something I’ve been doing for over thirty years. Being so far away these last 17 years, this was the only time all year I would see everyone under one roof.  
I can’t share the Winward’s Christmas this year.
I wanted to spend the week reuniting with friends I haven’t seen in a while. Even going on one long overdue (about 30 years) date. I can’t merge my frail dreams of Christmas with those of people I love and feel something of their joy.
And share their Christmas.
This morning it tore me apart. I am Fifty-one. It’s not that I will be alone at Christmas… It’s that I have always been alone at Christmas. But before this year I was always able to immerse myself in the company of friends and families (even if they weren’t the one I lived with) and it felt like Christmas anyway.
I didn’t stay single these last fifteen years on purpose. It just sort of happened. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have given it another shot. Maybe this Christmas, and a few prior, would have been better. I can’t say. And I can’t go back now.
But I do know that if I could just get home, at least this Christmas would feel right.
But that isn’t going to happen and it isn’t going to feel like Christmas at all.
There has never been a question about how much I love my real family and friends. The enormous pain I’m feeling about not seeing them this year is all the proof I need.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Letter to my Daughter...

Your first Christmas, you were only six months old.
Being a dad for the first time was the only present I needed.
You had no idea what was going on, but your mom and I did.
Every smile. Every laugh. Every single second was a Christmas present from God to me.

By your second Christmas, we weren’t a family anymore. You were still too young to realize what was going on in your world, but I knew. I knew you’d never have a Christmas again the way it was on your first one. Never again with both your mom and me together with you. I swore I’d never introduce the word “divorce” into your world. I can’t remember being more sad at Christmas than I was that year.
But I had you… and that made it Christmas.

The years flew by. On the Christmases you were with me it was joyous. We went home every year. Remember the first time I took you to Wannamaker’s in Philly and showed you the lights? The very same lights I went to see when I was just a little boy. We have always been great connoisseurs of Christmas lights, you and I, and with technology being what it is; you weren’t as impressed with the Wannamaker light display as I was as a child. But you smiled and we took pictures and made a day of it. I wished the monorail was still there. And the big toy department.  You were always so happy. Always so caught up in Christmas, like I was when I was that age. To be honest, you helped me survive those Christmases.
All I ever wanted for my whole life was to create the family I didn’t have. The home I never knew. I wanted you to wake up every single day of your life, knowing…almost taking for granted…that your daddy loved you, that your parents loved each other and that home was a safe haven. Not the place you wished you could get away from. I couldn’t give you that. That wasn’t my choice but I had to live with it just like you did.
You made it possible. You and Christmas.

You got older. Finding the perfect gifts got a little harder each year. You weren’t satisfied with just “Dollies and Dishes.” You loved music. Loved it. I don’t remember a time when you weren’t singing. Making up little songs in a voice that had no business coming from a four-year old. You were born with that gift. It showed up almost as soon as you could talk. Christmas gifts always included something musical. You still believed in Santa, and I still climbed up on the roof on Christmas Eve and shook sleigh bells and stomped around and “Ho Ho Ho’d” and called out to invisible reindeer as you shut your eyes tight and listened as Santa delivered his packages. I lived for those Christmas Eve, rooftop adventures. I loved being your daddy.

Just as you were turning ten, my world collapsed again. I was just getting back to normal. Just feeling like a whole man again after years of heartbreak from being divorced and missing you so much when we weren’t together. Then my world spun the wrong direction again and everything was gone. No job. No success. And not long after…no home. Our beautiful little ranch house in the country was gone. And with it, our garden, our dogs and our cat and your beloved pony “Silly Willy.” Gone. You were ten. I’d spent ten years very carefully trying to never fail you or let you down. But I couldn’t stop it this time. It was out of my control, and when you’re a dad, you are supposed to be able to fix everything. I always could. I used to make little repairs around the house and you would be so amazed at what your daddy could do with his hands and some tools. But this time, I had no answers. This time I was helpless.

That was the Christmas that you stopped believing in Santa. Your cousins had told you about him, and you told me late that fall. We stopped doing the Advent Calendars too. And there was no longer any need for the sleigh bells, or the ladder to the roof.
But it was still Christmas. We still had Uncle Franny and Cousin Toni and Sissy and Nick and Feast of Seven Fishes. And I still had you.

This year will be the first Christmas in about five years that we won’t spend together. You’re with your mom…and I understand that. I love having you living with me now, and life is beginning to rebuild. But I miss Christmas.
I miss you being little, and I miss being your hero and your favorite person. I miss making you laugh with my Winnie the Pooh impersonations. We won’t be watching Christmas movies this year. Or listening to our traditional Christmas music. Or decorating our house.
Our house.
I miss our house. I miss Christmas. I miss my little girl.

Next Christmas will be the last one before you go off to college. It will be like all the others you have ever known, except that first one. It will once again be spent away from one of your parents. I’m still sorry about that. It still hurts. I would have endured for your sake. I would have chosen to give you your family, if the choice had been mine.

I don’t know what future Christmases will look like, or where you’ll be. One day, some young man will come and win your heart. And you’ll begin your own Christmas traditions. I hope you’ll have better success at it than I did. I think I’ve been a pretty good dad. I think I did Christmas pretty well, given the circumstances. I wish I could have a few more of them with you. Like when you were little. Like the time we drove to the beach on Christmas Eve day and saw deer feeding by the side of the woods, and you turned to me and said; “Look Daddy! It’s Santa’s reindeer getting ready for tonight!” And you were pretty sure you saw Rudolph’s nose blinking. And for a minute I felt like the best dad in the world.

I miss you at Christmas. I love you more than ever, even as you’ve become a wonderful, beautiful young woman. But I remember that first Christmas. And how much promise it held. You are still the greatest gift I ever got. And you always will be.

Merry Christmas, Morgan. My beautiful Daisy. You have always meant Christmas to me.
I love you.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

An Average White Guy Talks Honestly About Race...

                                          Honesty about Race: One Man's perspective

For all I know, this could be the last post on this blog. I might lose friends. I might be ostracized. I might be shunned or I might be lauded for being a hero and saying what everyone feels. But I do know that I’m going to speak my mind. I want to talk about race.
I am a dad. I have a 16 year old daughter that I am trying to raise in a world that is growing exponentially more insane with each passing day. I am 51 years old and I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime. But these last two weeks I have seen things that are making me furious and I’m sick of some of the garbage being shoveled out from BOTH sides. So I’m going to speak my mind here and let the chips fall, because if we don’t start saying what we think, we can’t ever find out if our thinking is wrong, we won’t ever find common ground, and we’ll just go on being further and further apart from each other.
First, let’s talk about the term “racism” itself. Here’s a simple truth…do you want me to listen to your complaint? Do you want me to hear your problem and help you solve it? Then STOP calling me a racist! STOP saying that every time we disagree, or I don’t see thing your way, it’s because I don’t like you because you are black. That has NOTHING to do with it. Here’s a scoop for you” I disagree with you because I simply don’t agree with you. Nothing more. If I disagreed with you because your skin is black, then I wouldn’t agree with Dr. Ben Carson, or Herman Cain, or Allen West, or JC Watts, or the late E.V. Hill, or Martin Luther King. See my point? We ALL tend to agree with people who agree with us…PERIOD. You do it too. Don’t tell me you don’t. And you know what? That’s okay! That’s life. Stop calling it “hate” “bigotry” or “racism.” It’s none of those things. Its two ideologies that don’t agree and that’s all.
It’s not racist if I don’t like your music. Is it racist if you don’t like mine? I don’t care for Bluegrass very much either. Or Classical. Or Polka. But I don’t HATE Polish people. I don’t like Hip Hop or Rap. In fact I hate it. But I don’t hate you. I DO hate it when you insist on blasting it at the gas station when your car is off and your windows are down. I hate it because it’s obvious you are trying to make me listen to it. Don’t deny it. I used to do the same thing with my Clash CD’s in my Jeep…then I grew up. Here’s another truth for you…I hate it when WHITE kids blast their music too. I don’t drive around with Rush Limbaugh screaming from my overdriven sound system making my trunk lid rumble. How about we agree not to do that to each other? Turn your crap down. I’ll keep MY crap turned down and the world will be a better place.
Now to get a little more serious…
I hate it that you can use a word that I can’t. I don’t want to use it, but if it’s so bad, it’s bad for everybody. It’s not “black” bad or “white” bad…it’s just bad. Do you want me to never use the “N” word? Then stop using it yourself. Otherwise don’t ask me to clean up MY lexicon if you won’t do the same for yours. Stop with the "We're reclaiming it" Bullcrap too. Because that's what it is. The word is bad...stop using it.
I hate it when you say I have no idea what your life is like because I am not around black people. Then when I tell you I have black friends…you call me a racist and tell me that’s a racist thing to say. I can’t freakin win with you people and it’s because of stupid rules like this. Listen…if you tell me I don’t know any black people or have meaningful relationships with them, and I give you evidence otherwise, don’t dismiss that as racism. That hurts. That’s me trying to let you know that I DO have black friends and I AM trying to reach out and when you bite my hand I want to STOP reaching out…you got that?
Now I want to tell you about my history with racism.
I am 51 years old. I was 5 when MLK was killed. I barely remember any of it. I am the generation where the changes were going to begin. My daughter would be where there were no differences anymore. That was the plan, and it started off well, but it’s crashing and burning.
I remember being 7 years old and reading a biography of Jackie Robinson and crying in my bedroom over the way they treated him. I remember being so thrilled to watch Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record and it never dawned on me that he was overtaking a white man. Never. I had black friends in my neighborhood and they were just folks from the neighborhood. At first they were black…then they were just from New Castle like the rest of us. Nobody pushed us into friendships, nobody accused us of being friends for wrong motives, and nobody attacked those friends for being our friends.
Now let me tell you how that has changed. I have three men who I consider my best friends in the world and one of them is black. His name is Rich. Richie and I have been friends for 30 years. When I tell you I love this man, it’s the way I love a brother. Rich and I have been through hard times with our families, our jobs, our Faith. We’ve talked about everything you can talk about with your best friends. I sincerely say that Rich is a better man than I am and I wish I could be half the example of godliness, integrity, Faith, and family that he is. His family has been loving to me since the first day we met and they still are. He is a husband, a father, a loving son and a faithful man of God.
In 2008 when Barack Obama was running for office, I had a race discussion with a black guy in Nashville. He accused me of not having any black friends and not knowing about the black community. I explained about my friend Rich. This man instantly attacked my friend…whom he’d never met in his life…and called him vile names and racial epithets. Listen…if someone is my friend I love them dearly…don’t you DARE attack them and dismiss them simply because they don’t line up with you politically. Calling my black friends “uncle Toms” or “House Niggers” because they have conservative political leanings is FAR worse than anything I could ever call you. And worse…it’s a guarantee that I will not listen to a word you say ever again.
Every time I watch a town burning in racial unrest, I think of my friend Rich, or my friends Tunde, Or Artis, or Carter, or Greg, and my heart breaks. Because I know that in the midst of the rage and anger I'm witnessing, might be some other guys I would come to love and be friends with if they would permit it.
I don’t have to go to your church, your concerts, or your movies to be your friend. I might do some, or all of that at some point, but I don’t HAVE to in order to be your friend and if I don't, it doesn’t make me a racist. None of those things are measuring rods for friendships.
Stop making everything I do racism. Allow me to NOT be the same as you, NOT agree with you 100% of the time, and NOT want to always make sure I hang with an equal number of black folks and white folks. I can’t play basketball. You probably suck at hockey. Let’s meet up for dinner after our games and figure out what we DO have in common. We don’t need to see eye to eye on everything. That would be boring.
I don’t dislike Obama because he’s black. I dislike him because I disagree with pretty much everything he stands for and all his policies…but not because he’s black. I’m not afraid of having a black man in power. I simply think he is a terrible president and he hides behind racism charges to get away with being a bad president. That makes me even MORE angry because it removes my right to honestly disagree. That brings me to my final point…
STOP FINDING RACISM EVERYWHERE! I know racism is real. I know it exists. I HATE it. I want it to stop. But when you keep claiming that everything that doesn’t go your way is because of racism…it makes me simply stop caring about ALL racism and it makes me want to tell you to “suck it up buttercup…fight your own battles!” And believe me…I really DON’T feel that way.
I get angry. I am mad. Life has been hard. But in my heart I LOVE people. I love ALL people. I want there to be peace. I hate it when you are hurting because you are an AMERICAN just like me. JUST an American. You're no more an "African American" than I am an "Italian American." I was born here. My father was born here. That makes me an AMERICAN of Italian heritage. Same with you and Africa. We need to stop this stupid hyphenating. We used to be a nation of neighbors and communities. Now we’re just screaming at each other…or worse…one side is screaming and the other has simply chosen to ignore it.
I want to KNOW you and celebrate your heritage like I celebrate my own. But I celebrate this NATION more. If you're really serious about common ground and ending racism...I GUARANTEE you so are we. But we need to see the same urgency and effort from you, that you want from us. Nothing else is going to work.