Remembering my friend

Darren plays guitar for our band, The Grenadines, at a show in The Colony in 2006.

Darren plays guitar for our band, The Grenadines, at a show in The Colony in 2006.

My co-worker, bandmate and close friend passed away almost a week ago. Today we held his memorial service at a local church, which was filled with his family, friends, fellow educators, and many students – past and present. I was asked by his sweet wife to speak on his behalf and to play the harmonica. I stayed up until nearly 2 a.m. writing and practicing “Amazing Grace.” Though it was strange to play solo without my buddy by my side on his guitar, I asked my friends and family for prayer, and the Lord delivered. These are the words I shared today for my dear friend and for my hurting co-workers, bandmates, and our students.

Before I share some memories and thoughts about my friend Darren Ryan, I want to share something else with you.

Like many people in this room, I experienced a flood of emotions when I got the news. I was sad, angry, confused, distressed, and mostly stunned. It didn’t make any sense that my friend Darren was gone.

Here’s what has encouraged my heart the past few days. I hope it encourages you.

Though I don’t have any answers, and I don’t think God promises us answers, I do believe he promises us peace. I find this promise in scriptures like Philippians 4:7 which talks of a peace that surpasses understanding to those who trust in Him. Jesus talks about this peace in John when he says, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives… Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

The passage that I’ve thought on the most has been in Psalm 107. We are told “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress… For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”

I believe these promises are for you and me, especially in times like this. Are you troubled? Cry out to the Lord. He’s not bothered by your doubt or shame. He knows, and his response is love and grace and mercy. He’s rich with it. And He’s longing to pour it out. So ask him.

Mr. Ryan prayed hard over me when I was unconscious in a hospital bed in Denton more than two years ago, as did many others. My family told me stories later of his fervor in prayer and how it blessed them in those desperate moments. God heard those prayers. So I don’t think he’d have any problem with me asking you to plead with God for peace in moments like this.

Darren Ryan has been my dear friend for the better part of the last ten years. We were colleagues and bandmates. We bonded over good food, bad puns, and great music. I want to speak briefly to a few groups of folks here who knew Darren.

Darren poses in our old school building on the last day for us to be inside before it was demolished to make way for the new building. He was a student himself in this old building, class of 1983.

Darren poses in our old school building on the last day for us to be inside before it was demolished to make way for the new building. He was a student himself in this old building, class of 1983.

To my bandmates in the Grenadines and anybody who ever came to hear us play, I’m so glad for you and for music. Because that was my entry point to bonding with Darren and getting to see his beautiful spirit and loyal friendship for all it was. Darren had a habit of wearing sunglasses on stage when he played, even indoors. I know it’s because he got a touch of stage fright before our performances. But all that melted away when he started to make those Fender guitars moan and wail, and a smile as wide as these Texas skies would stretch across his face. Occasionally, he’d turn himself over to the music completely – it was usually late in the evening – during a performance of Mustang Sally or Play that Funky Music or Fire by Jimi Hendrix, and he’d go completely off-script on a solo – and we’d follow him. I’d throw a glance back at Eddie on the drums, he’d shrug and smile back. Darren was in a good place, lost to the music.

To my fellow faculty and staff members at LHS, I know well how much love you have for your own, and how much more for someone as beloved as Darren. I know you’ve already gone out of your way to care for and support Pam and his family, just from the way I’ve experienced it as his friend. Here’s what I’ll remember about Darren as a colleague. How much he cared about doing what we do so well. How he always got to school early, was always going the extra mile to prepare for his classes and support his fellow teachers, especially those in his department. And how he did it all with that 100 watt smile and signature sense of humor… I’ll miss bumping into him in the hallways or the faculty workroom where he always called me Dr. Hale, and I always called him Dr. Ryan. It’s impossible to measure how much LHS meant to him.  Which brings me to the last group…

His students… past and present. I knew when I was gathering my thoughts for this moment that you would show up here by the boatload… and I was right. I know this because, like many of his friends, I remember so many times out and about in Lewisville with Darren when we were interrupted by “Mr. Ryan! Mr. Ryan!” So many former students would come out of the woodwork to speak with him, and I swear, hand to God, that Darren would remember the names of practically every one. He’d remember details too… or even the fact that he had their brother or sister in class as well. You loved him. And he loved you too. You must know that. He rooted hard for all of you. He was a role model to me in that sense. I asked my students time and time again to tell me what their hardest class in high school, and almost every time I’d hear AP Psych with Mr. Ryan. Then I’d ask the same students who their favorite high school teacher was, and without hesitation, they’d say Mr. Ryan. You could not have paid him a higher compliment. Truly. I mean that.

From Darren's Twitter. Graduation the Saturday before last.

From Darren’s Twitter. Graduation the Saturday before last.

Darren told me once years ago that he was considering leaving the teaching profession. I asked him what he thought that he might do. He didn’t have a clear answer. And he stayed on the job. The next year he was named campus Teacher of the Year. Have no doubt, that Mr. Ryan could have had any number of careers and been successful. He is one of the most capable, reliable, talented men I’ve ever known. But I believe God made him a teacher. And I see evidence of that in the pews here today. You are Darren Ryan’s legacy. And if he meant something to you, take that to heart and live your lives well. Live passionately and love others extravagantly. That’s what Mr. Ryan would’ve wanted.

Thank you.

The (Lunch) Kids In The (Band) Hall

They rant. They rave.

They rage at all that isn’t “fair” in their world.

They laugh, they smile, they curse.

They martyr themselves for a shred of recognition … or admiration … or pity.

They reinvent themselves without shame weekly. Sometimes daily. Sometimes hourly.

They are as corrupted as they are innocent – and they are riddled with honest contradiction.

They are glorious. They are grotesque.

Freaks and geeks. Athletes and artists. Angels and demons.

You create the role and cast them in it. And they might play it for a while, but then, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, they break free and surprise you.

They will confirm the worst of stereotypes with their narcissism and selfishness. Then shatter the same with bursts of empathy and altruism that streak across the room like meteors.

And they are growing, morphing, changing, developing … constantly – almost before your eyes.

Snap a picture for your memories. They will not look this way again.

Examine it closely. See if you can find yourself.

What they are now, you were once. What you are now and more, they will become.

But for this frozen moment they sit.

Plugged in, wrapped up in jokes and opinions they may remember years later with laughter or cringing and shaking heads.

They scarf down pizza and fries and leave banana and orange peels on the floor.

Then a bell rings and they all file out.

To finish their time, dreaming of 3:30 like a kid waits for Christmas morning.

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Where’s that draft coming from?

I’ve been trying to write.

Really. TRYING.

But I’ve got post after post that I’ve started and stopped and come back to and labored over and just seem to be going nowhere. A little germ of an idea that seemed good at the time, but just won’t develop and resolve itself.

I’m open to tips from any writers out there. I know I’ve got plenty of you are friends on Facebook, journalists and bloggers alike. Do I give up on those microorganisms? Do I just let them simmer for a while? Do I fight through and just post and fake it til I make it?

My background is journalism. It’s what I studied in high school and college, what I did for a living after college and what I’ve taught for the past 12 years. Hence the lack of an Oxford comma in that sentence.

I read a lot of columns and tried to be a columnist for a while. I marveled at the ability of our paper’s sports columnist who cranked them out almost daily for year after year. They weren’t all gems, but he always met his deadline and did so coherently. And he could really dazzle at times. But I felt the weight of always having something to say, all by my lonesome. The degree of expectation I felt was brutal.

That’s what this feels like. Except for the fact that I don’t have any editors requesting copy and only a handful of folks will ever read this. But I sit and work and write and look at what I have at the end of the day and think, what the hell am I trying to say? Where is this coming from? And where is it going?

It’s got to be more than just an exercise. I teach my students to write for their audience. To write to communicate. But there has to be a message.

I was never much of a columnist. I had my moments here and there but it was never consistent. I’d like to try it again, but I’d like to try something else too.

My favorite pieces to read and to write were never columns. They were what we call in the journalism business, “features.”

My friend Ben hates that word. He says it doesn’t have any meaning for anybody but journalists and certainly not the audience. He writes narrative non-fiction, or even more clearly, stories. And he writes them well.

Here’s how it works. You meet somebody. You have a conversation. You find some things that really compel and fascinate you and you dig into that, in the hopes that someone else will feel the same way about it as you do. And then if you’ve found the story, and it’s really grabbed you, you pour yourself into it. You have to tell it. You have to get it out. Then you move on to the next one.

I love teaching kids to do that. And not all of them can do it. But some of mine do it exceptionally well. But I also love to do it. I was decent at writing those types of stories back in my newspaper days. I’d hope that teaching the practice for the past dozen years would make me at least a little bit better at it now. Actually I reckon that it would improve me a lot.

I want to get back to telling people’s stories. And there’s a specific type of story that I’m interested in telling. It came to me on the drive home after work last night. I’m still bouncing it off some people and trying to work out the details, but I hope it happens. If it does, you’ll find out about it here.

Thanks for reading. Share your wisdom if you’ve got it.

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The night was humid…

The classic 1987 comedy “Throw Momma From the Train” has taught me two things:

1. “YOU’RE NOT OWEN’S FRIEND! OWEN DOESN’T HAVE A FRIEND!”

and

2. “A writer writes… always.”

I’m not sure I can do anything with the first, but the second has stayed with me for quite some time. I used to write for a living. Now I teach writing. When I talk about myself or my hobbies or interests, writing and being a writer consistently come up.

But I don’t write. Not with any consistency. Not with any drive. Not with any passion. At least not until recently.

Is there a word for a writer who doesn’t write? A musician who doesn’t make music? An artist who doesn’t create art? Several come to mind for me. None of them are good.

A beautiful and brilliant writer who I’m blessed to know says that writing is a muscle. If you work it out regularly it will grow strong and toned and will be able to do much more than when you started exercising it. If you neglect it, it will shrink and atrophy. She shrugs when people comment on how much she writes or how quickly she can produce something. She just sees it as the expected result of her exercise.

I think there’s a bit more to it than that, but basically she’s right. And having been stuck in a hospital bed for more nearly two months last year, it’s an analogy that’s painfully familiar and true to me.

So as the days continue to creep toward the new year, I’m left thinking about resolutions (a subject which I plan to write about this weekend). I don’t know if I’ll be making any standard resolutions. But I do want to get muscles moving, both physically and in this sense. Time spent exercising and developing gifts and talents that I believe are given by the Creator can be time spent in worship. I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite when I tell people I write, and even more so I don’t want to squander a talent that God intended me to have.

With that in mind, I’m thinking about reasons why I write and why I don’t.

Why I write:

  • I feel like it’s something I’m meant to do. I see it in my family history, in the places I’ve felt drawn to since I was a child.
  • I enjoy using words, turning phrases, making connections, telling stories, sharing ideas.
  • It’s an outlet for me to share the gospel and for me to work outwardly what God is working inwardly.

Why I don’t:

  • I’m scared. Scared of what people will think. Scared of being a fraud. Scared that I really don’t know what I’m doing (and convinced that everybody else does).
  • I’m lazy. Writing can be hard. It requires commitment. Decisions to be made. The ability to finish. And it requires me to risk. But it also has the potential to reward.
  • I’m busy or I’m just uninspired. Or more likely, I squash inspiration by filling my time with noise and nonsense, distraction and escape.

I look at these two lists and in the first one I see truth; in the second, lies. There’s no good reason to be found in that second list, only evidence for a lack of trust that I want to see changed in my life. So I know which list I’m going to embrace.

I believe that writing is meant to be read, and I always encourage my students to give their writing an audience. Thinking about readers shapes our craft, polishes it, refines it, challenges it and makes those muscles stronger.

If you’re reading this, you are part of that audience. The comments are open for your feedback. I have to approve the first one you post, because I still get some stuff that isn’t caught by the spam filter. But I don’t intend to shy away from comments. If you’re encouraged by this, let me know. If you have advice or even warnings, I’d appreciate that as well.

Thanks for reading and giving me an opportunity to stretch my limbs.

What matters most

I didn’t know spring until I came here
Here we’re pushing up the lid on the cool hemisphere
Everything melts I know even your tears
Here in this hemisphere

What matters the most is what you do for free
Me believing in you and you in me
You try to find work and you do your best
You get what you get and you deserve the rest

– “When The Ice Goes Out” by John Gorka

trinity churchI went to visit my girl this past weekend in a region of New York known as the North Country, up near the Ontario border. She’s been staying up there for the past three weeks, visiting old friends and family. I went to get a taste of the place and people she so often talks about and found that she didn’t exaggerate when it came her descriptions of the land and the souls who live on it.

It started snowing the night after I arrived and accumulated several inches by the time it was time to leave the next day. I had never seen so much snow outside of the Rocky Mountains and it was beautiful as it blanketed the Grasse River, frozen in parts, still running in others and visible from the kitchen window. I kept saying how beautiful this place was and everybody kept replying, “No, you really need to see it in spring or summer when it’s so green.” But I’ve seen incredible, lush green, this summer in Seattle and the Puget Sound, everything growing and constantly saturated with a sheen of fresh rain.

But all that white frosting a rural area like this was something I wasn’t used to and it WAS beautiful. Still, I get the point the locals were trying to make. The green of springtime, at the end of so much winter white, must really be breathtaking.

As we were driving around town on that last day to meet a friend with a more winter-ready car to drop me off at the airport, I tried to imagine what spring might look like. I remembered a line from a song by one of my favorite songwriters, “I didn’t know spring until I came here.”

In Texas, everything is flipped. The summers seem never-ending and often brutal. Fall is what I look forward to here, and it comes late, but when it finally arrives with that first crisp turn in the air temperature and a hint of woodsmoke in the air, it’s a joyful occasion for me. Spring seems to last about a day in comparison. There’s the first break in what we consider winter, then bluebonnets, maybe a tornado or two, then the mercury rises and rises and rises.

I don’t have an appreciation of spring, not like these winter folk do. But I kept reciting those lyrics aloud and came to the next line. Maybe one of my favorites.

“What matters most is what you do for free.”

This fall (and really even a bit longer than that) has been a time of learning for me. Learning about what really matters. Learning to silence the premeditated resentments of expectation, edit out the constantly-comparing language of pride, and to reframe life’s goals, joys, pleasures and treasures in terms of what truly lasts.

I’ve always liked Gorka’s lines but there’s a double edge to them. On one hand, the things that are most important are things for which we don’t receive a check – being good husbands/wives, raising a family, glorifying the Creator with all the blessings He’s given us. Or even some of the more trivial things, talents, hobbies, pursuits we do simply for the enjoyment of them – music, cooking, writing, art.

On the other hand, there’s the implication that we assign value to the ways we spend that “free” time. Look at how we spend our moments away from our day jobs or routine responsibilities – what does it say about what matters most, deep in our hearts? The lyric used to make me smile. Now it convicts me. I think good music can do both.

What matters most to me is changing, slowly but surely (it’s just the way I seem to operate). Because I’ve been coming out of a winter of sorts, and it seems that I’m starting to truly know spring for the first time myself.

The only place

Note: Before continuing, you should know that I don’t think of Jesus as a last resort and this is not a post to promote that kind of faith. I know He’s the only resort. I’ve been given some great encouragement in recent weeks and have done a lot of thinking on what it means to know Christ as your hope and treasure. But this is a post from the midst. When you find yourself surrounded and cut off and maybe a bit confused as to how you got here. I assume some of you can relate. Thanks for reading.

Sometimes I just freeze. It’s a psychological paralysis, but I often find it hard to do much physically in those moments.

Have you been there?

That moment where you’ve just watched your best efforts return empty. You did things right. You weighed all the options and you picked the course that you’re not only sure was the best, but it seemed to be the only one to take.

And yet… nothing. Not even nothing with a little confirmation of nothing, which would be better than just a vague sense of failure. Nothing without the benefit of feedback. No drawing board to which you can return. Like hitting a ball into darkness with no way to track the trajectory, to adjust, to try again on solid ground.

What are you left with in these moments? If our eyes are open and we’re honest, I’d say it’s probably the same stuff with which we began. And that’s not much.

And where are you left to turn? I’m sitting here in the middle of it right now. Frozen, except for these fingers across these keys. Working it out.

There’s only one place I can go. Only one place a man like me can plead. Christ. The Cross.

Jesus is the only person I know who can take all my insufficiency and make it work. More often than not, he makes abundance out of the minnows and crumbs I present as bread and fishes. A lot of times he does it when I don’t ask Him too. He’s THAT kind of good to me.

But I know He likes it more when I do ask. When I do acknowledge that need. He likes me at the end of my rope sometimes because He knows I’m less likely to get in His way there. Some of you will read this, unbelieving, and mock or think me simple or brainwashed. Some of you will think me simple for not having this post studded with theological vocabulary or some cacophony of buzzy church words.

I don’t have it all figured out. I just know that there’s no where else I can go. And I really believe that there’s no where else I should go.

I used to think the Christian life was all about having everything together so that you didn’t “need” Jesus. He’d be there, in case of emergencies. All you’d have to do is break the glass. But He’d really prefer it if you’d just handle this stuff yourself so He could be busy doing Lord knows what.

That’s bad theology. Foolish thinking. Worldly ambition. And it got me nowhere.

What does He want? Not my independent, pulled up by my bootstraps faith. I’m not that good to begin with. The best of us is not that good.

He wants me to need him every hour. Not because He’s needy. Because I am. I’m desperate and helpless and hopeless without Him and even though He’s God, I’ve a hard time believing he’s not exasperated by all my attempts to put off an air of “I’m fine” or “I got this.”

Because without Him, I’m not and I don’t.

But with Him… oh boy. My junior varsity faith has only gotten tastes of it. But I know that I’m far more than fine and scripture would call us “more than conquerors.” I’m not even sure what that looks like but I’m sure it’s doing better than “got this.” Because “got this” only sees one side of the coin, this life. But “more than conquerors” with Christ – we’re talking eternal perspective – sin, death, shame, fear.

So what I do? I pray. Passionately. Feebly. Whatever I’ve got in the tank. Minnows and crumbs. Sometimes I can’t even see the edges of this thing to have a clue of what I should really be asking for. But I put it down and bottle it up and toss it in the ocean of Him, to borrow a metaphor from David Wilcox. And after that, it’s got more to do with the ocean than with me. And this ocean can be trusted.

I love the story in the Gospels where Jesus has just given a hard-to-understand teaching on communion – but they just don’t get it. How can they? It’s thick with symbolism of events that haven’t yet come to pass. Many of the people following Jesus find it offensive and leave until it’s just Him and the Twelve.

And He asks them, Are you going to abandon me too?

And Peter (God love him) answers.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Sometimes I confess I don’t know much more than that. But it has been enough in the past. And I trust it will be today as well.

The din of noisy nonsense

I saw it in my Facebook newsfeed, courtesy of Gizmodo.

“Facebook changes its mind again: It’s now re-banning decapitation videos”

The story, accompanied by a deeply distressing though not gory still of the beginning of one the videos, talked about a re-reversal of Facebook’s policy on allowing graphic videos of vigilante/terrorist executions/murders. The still image illustrating the story was of a woman who was about to be murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. Some commenters were defending their posting as a form of raising awareness and condemning these atrocities. Others worried for children who might see the images. Still others took the stance that responsible parents would keep their children shielded from sites like Facebook in the first place. I wondered if any of the latter had children, or had ever even taught children.

I did note at least one “LOL” in response to the whole debate. Just seeing the still was enough to turn my stomach. I worked in a daily newspaper editorial department for five years and had grown used to some darker humor. But such a callous comment was hard for even me to swallow.

I remember when videos of the beheadings of journalist Daniel Pearl and businessman Nick Berg were posted from Iraq for the entire world to access. I knew people who couldn’t wait to go and see – online rubberneckers and gawkers, their morbid curiosity aroused in the most base of ways.

I avoided those videos. I couldn’t bring myself to watch something so awful. I was afraid for what it might do to me.

There’s an abundance of truly awful, soul-killing content on the Internet. I don’t think we all have to believe the same things to agree on that.

But I’m not sure if that’s the big enemy for us in the online world. Because the truly awful, soul-killing content is far outweighed by the constant hum of benign time-sucking garbage that shows up everywhere you turn.

I just wonder if the din of noisy nonsense is worth the occasional gem I turn up on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And the problem is not that I hate the nonsense.

The digital noise, however harmeless, that we allow to constantly buzz in our consciousness can dull our ability to focus on subjects that have a deeper significance.

The digital noise, however harmless, that we allow to constantly buzz in our consciousness can dull our ability to focus on subjects that have a deeper significance.

The problem is how much I enjoy it, and how easy it is getting sucked into the black hole of it all.

Start with asking the question of whether or not any of this really enhances your life – feel free to exempt the stuff you need for work, or the blog where you post updates on the kids for your extended family, or even one or two or three activities you really enjoy that require some online time. But ask yourself about the hours on Facebook, pouring over the personal minutiae of someone you haven’t known since high school. Or, if you’re like me, the hours you spend on Facebook crafting silly little jokes to amuse a small group of friends.

Question the compulsion to check your Twitter feed every five minutes. Or Instagram. Or any number of pet websites or blogs, or the feeling of needing to read and watch and comment on the latest thing that everybody else reads or watches or comments on. I think we might all be a bit like the grandmother in the Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” The snotty daughter claims the grandmother is crashing their family vacation just because she’s afraid of missing something. Spoiler alert: They all get murdered.

For me, it used to be hours spent surfing one Wikipedia page to the next. I’d suck down the information like a garbage disposal – and I’m still able to call upon my knowledge of Zamfir as the unquestioned master of the Pan flute, but that info has never served a purpose in my life outside of one magic moment in a bar trivia contest. I wasn’t doing it because I was hungry for knowledge. I was just restless and bored. And that’s where I turned. On the surface, it’s a harmless choice considering some of the other options those moments present.

But the small things bring about the same result as the big.

A multitude of termites can leave a home just as destroyed as a hurricane. Destruction is destruction no matter what speed it happens. Break a man’s legs or shatter his confidence. Cut off his hands or dull his senses and dampen his drive until he stumbles through life useless and irrelevant.

Your Facebook fixations or my Wikipedia binges might not twist us up inside like some brief lurid piece of video. But they do suck away our time, and they sap energy to do anything with the time that remains. Doing the easy things does not make it easy to do the hard things.

The grains are falling through the hourglass and they only move in one direction. In my better moments, I’m haunted by the words that John Piper said have hung in his family’s home for at least two generations. “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ shall last.”

Life, Death, Memories and the Open Road

I wrote this on July 29th while driving with my roommate through New Mexico. We were taking my Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe, crossing an item off my summer bucket list.

The broken white lines and telephone poles zip past.
New Mexico’s landscape rises and falls, grasslands and scrub brush.
The mountains are distant and we’ve not yet hit the desert.
And I think about road trips made my Papaw and Mamaw Hale, in the wide sedans we used to sail like ships across the hill country highways of Central Texas.
Papaw was Truman Preston Hale, a true Texan, a man of deep love and few words.
Tall with vice grips for hands, made strong by decades of hard work, but a mechanical mind every bit as sinewy despite only a few years of formal education.
His weathered but warm face was always crowned with a Western hat, felt in the winter and straw in those brutal Lampasas summers. A Stetson Open Road is what I remember though I don’t know that he had a preferred model.
He always looked forward to seeing us, always made a point to full his pockets with loose change, soft orange candy peanuts, chewing gum and hard butterscotch candies wrapped in cellophane.
He never went far without a coffee can for spitting tobacco juice into, and he always had a pocketknife at the ready.

When we emptied my grandfather's chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

When we emptied my grandfather’s chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

Those same vice-grip hands were equally at home fishing, shelling pecans from the tree in the yard, fixing cars, hand-mixing the world’s best milkshakes with just a spoon and a tall aluminum glass, or giving a 6-year-old grandkid’s knee a squeeze on a road trip as we zipped through small towns like Hico, Evant and Adamsville.
He took my dad on road trips as a boy. They saw the Grand Canyon and who knows what else, my dad, no doubt sitting like I did – staring at the lazy gliding buzzards in those impossibly vast Southwestern skies. Maybe he gave my dad a wink and a squeeze on the knee or a tousle of his hair – my Papaw’s love language I guess.
We never talked much. But I always knew where I stood with him, nonverbally. Still, I would have loved a day inside his head, or to take a trip like this and see the land through his eyes.
I remember my last few visits with him, in a nursing home in Temple. He was moody from the pain and didn’t want to eat the bland food. A notoriously picky eater with a cast-iron stomach, I can’t count the times I saw him consume meals of just tamales and piping hot black coffee.
I tried to have the conversations there that we didn’t have before. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember and now I teach kids how to write and tell stories, so I place an enormous value on words. But it seemed forced and he was in pain sometimes and seemed confused at others.
And we didn’t need the words anyway. We knew where the other stood, I believe. Right until the end. I would rub his silver hair on top of his head, up where the Stetson Open Road used to sit, and pray silently.
And every now and then as I’d walk by his bed, I’d feel a light tap on my knee, and when I’d turn to see him smiling, I could read every word on his face.
The road stretches on and we’re still an hour or more from Santa Fe. Dramatic clouds fill a towering sky, in every direction, as far as I can see.
My face and t-shirt smell like Old Spice aftershave. I was running low on my more expensive cologne and saw the familiar bottle in the grocery store. If it was good enough for Papaw, it will do the trick for this trip at least.
I’m in the passenger side as my good friend has driving duty and I’m still full from lunch of coffee and green chile stew.
I want to lay back and rest my eyes, so I cover my face with a Texas Rangers ball cap. Can’t help but think an Open Road would do this job better.
My first chance to hold my newest niece, Joy Tatum Hale.

My first chance to hold my newest niece, Joy Tatum Hale.

It was the third time we’d had a moment like this. But for me, it was very, very different.

I drove down to Jacksonville on a Sunday and met my parents at my brother’s church. I got to surprise my mom and dad who hadn’t seen me in a few months, my mom in tears after seeing how much I’d changed since she’d spent more than two months by my side in Denton County hospitals in the fall.

After church, we went with Graham, Leslie and the two little girls, along with Aunts DJ and Ann to Spring Creek Barbecue in Tyler and then to our hotel to get a night’s sleep before heading over to the hospital the next morning to welcome the arrival of niece #3.

She arrived just as scheduled. That’s the way c-sections work, I suppose. I had only heard of the term before my first niece was born, more than 5 years ago. I’ve learned a little since then, but I haven’t asked too many questions. Some things are better left with a little mystery to them for the time being.

This was our first Texas baby, and so, the first one I was able to greet in person on the day of her birth, big sisters Ava Grace and Edy Rose having been born in Arkansas.

There’s more to read, but first, here’s a few iPhone photos from the big day and my darling nieces.

As I drove to East Texas early Sunday, the day before the delivery, to hear my brother preach, I was overcome by the East Texas pines and the beautiful blue sky, textured with towering white puffs of cloud. I couldn’t help but thank God for the gift of life. The gift of a new life in our family, a new baby to hold, a new little girl to watch with anticipation and “joy” as her personality develops, as she takes on the qualities from the two families that have been poured into this precious little vessel.

But also the gift of my life, which I almost lost in the fall due to a series of circumstances that I have yet to write about here. I’m not ready to, not yet.

While making that drive, I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out and let the air whip across my arm. Just to feel that… to smell the scent of piney woods, and animals, and burning fuel and the warmth of the blacktop, and to know that I was traveling to spend time with my family who became legends for their faith and love and devotion among my friends and co-workers while I lay in a Denton County hospital bed unconscious. We both quietly and publicly celebrated both of the twin gifts of God – the creation of life and the sustentation of it, and we understood it in these terms because of an even greater gift of life that we all hold in common… the supernatural, everlasting life that comes through faith in Jesus.

They’re mysteries all – the creation, the sustentation, the atonement. And even though we’ve fashioned explanations medical, scientific and theological, for me they still retain the mystery that points to the biggest, most wonderful mystery of all – that the Supreme Being who created and sustains all things in the universe loves us and wants to relate to us. Thankfully we don’t need the explanations to enjoy the mysteries – especially in the moment. As C.S. Lewis wrote, a man who is hungry doesn’t need to understand the intricacies of nutrition and digestion to appreciate a meal and know that it is a life-giving thing for him.

It’s been eight weeks to the day since I walked into that room and met that beautiful girl for the first time. I was happy to be given camera-duty (my comfort zone!) to capture all the moments between the parents, big sisters, grandparents, great aunts and even long distance moments with my sister and Leslie’s sister (through the miracle of iPhone). There were plenty of posed shots, with me fussing over lighting (especially for the photos of me holding Joy), Leslie still trying to influence “quality control” of the images even though she had just delivered a baby, but the best moment of the morning was totally unrehearsed.

Ava Grace was finally given the opportunity to hold her little sister for the first time. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Joy, and for a rare moment seemed completely oblivious to the rest of us in the room. She slowly rocked her sister in her arms, bent her head low, and softly sang a lullabye of her own creation. I recorded the song on an iPhone, but modern technology can’t reproduce the pure sweetness of the moment in that hospital room in Tyler, Texas. It just illustrates another remarkable mystery that I’ve discovered since becoming an uncle. I can’t explain how it’s possible to love someone so deeply when you’ve never even seen them before. But I think it is, once again, a small slice of the creator inside all of us. After all, He knew us before the foundation of the earth, and we are only able to love Him because He first loved us.

With the blog posts I wrote for Ava and Edy, I shared lyrics from songs from New Jersey-born folk singer John Gorka’s 1998 album “After Yesterday” where he spends a few songs with some nice reflections on becoming a parent himself for the first time. The first two girls used up all the thoughtful, reflective, serious lyrics. So for JOY, a song on the album that has always brought a smile to my face.

He looks just like an angel when he’s sleeping

There’s a little piece of heaven where he lies

He looks just like an angel when he’s sleeping

But he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries

He looks like Charles Bronson when he’s crying

He doesn’t have a mustache, but he’s trying

When he’s content, he’s like a present sent from paradise

But he looks like Charles Bronson when he cries

Joy Tatum’s Vital Statistics

  • Weight – 7 lbs., 14 oz. (bigger than both her big sisters)
  • Birthday demeanor – Just chillaxing in everyone’s arms.
  • On her birthday, May 6, the following people were born: French Revolutionary figure Maximilien Robespierre (1758), Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856), American Explorer Robert Peary (1856) who claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole, silent film actor and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (1895), American director and actor and radio dramatist Orson Welles (1915), baseball hall of famer Willie Mays (1931), American boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (1937), singer-songwriter Bob Seger (1945), former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (1953), actor George Clooney AKA “Booker” from Roseanne (1961), Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (1982), and NBA all-star Chris Paul (1985).
  • On her birthday, May 6, the following people died: Author Henry David Thoreau (1862), “Oz” author L. Frank Baum (1919), German actress Marlene Dietrich (1992), hall of fame pitcher Robin Roberts (2010), actor George Lindsey AKA Goober Pyle (2012).
  • Famous events on May 6 – King Henry VIII ordered that English-language Bibles be placed in every church in England in 1536; Louis XIV of France moves his court to Versailles in 1682; Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861; Crazy Horse surrendered to US troops in Nebraska in 1877; the Eiffel Tower officially opens in Paris in 1889; an executive order by Franklin Roosevelt creates the Works Progress Administration in 1935; the airship Hindenburg is destroyed after catching fire in New Jersey in 1937; John Steinbeck wins the Pulitzer Prize for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940; Bob Hope performs his first USO show in 1941; Roger Bannister becomes the first person to run a mile in under four minutes in 1954; Kerry Wood strikes out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit shutout to tie Roger Clemens’ major league record in 1998.
  • May 6 is also International No Diet Day and Teachers Day in Jamaica.
  • For more breaking Joy Tatum, Edy Rose and Ava Grace news, check out Leslie’s outstanding blog.

Joy came in the morning

Nothing to see here people… for the moment.

Yeah, I’m failing a bit as a productive blogger on this site. I’ve had a lot to think, write and reflect on lately, but I just haven’t done much with it.

However, I am getting more regular (insert your fiber joke) on my photo blog which you can see here. So that’s something, write right?

I do have another sweet little niece on the way, courtesy of my sister-in-law Leslie, so I’m already looking forward to welcoming her via blog, like I did in 2007 and 2010.

But until then, if you’re looking for a regular and rewarding read, direct your attention to writings of this exceptional young woman. You’re welcome.