Tag Archives: childhood

The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Believing in Santa

Did you ever have a “God moment?” Even if you’re not a believer, have you ever experienced a surprising insight, a sudden drawing back of the veil, that caused you to stop whatever you were doing simply to ponder what you’d just seen, heard, or felt in your heart? I’ve had many.

Once, for example, I had traveled to the Boston Public Library for a meeting. Since I’d arrived a bit early, I spent a few minutes people-watching in the lobby. An assortment of interesting characters passed by, but my attention was especially drawn to a class of middle-schoolers, who had come for a library tour.

The social dynamic among the students was eerily familiar. Some were the cool kids, comfortable being the center of attention, which they commanded by their antics. Others, the clear majority, seemed indifferent to their surroundings. They conversed in small clusters while waiting for the tour to begin. (This was before the age of the ubiquitous cell phone.) Finally, there were those bringing up the rear. I’ll affectionately call them the misfits. They generally appeared ill-at-ease and eager just to get beyond this ordeal. I understood.

As I watched, I felt compassion for this latter group, whose members quite likely endured taunts and trials for being perceived as different or for failing to measure up to some unjust standard. Then, however, I noticed something important. Yes, the misfits were segregated somewhat from the larger group, perhaps by choice; however, amongst themselves, they genuinely cared for each other. Maybe they weren’t as audacious as their more confident peers, but they talked, goofed around, and laughed together. They shared a bond, a communion of souls. It’s difficult to explain, but that awareness was startlingly joyful for me. In that unexpected moment of clarity – a “God moment” – I appreciated anew the wonderful blessing of comradery.

On another occasion, my wife Marianne and I were in our stateroom awaiting the launch of a Caribbean cruise. Shortly before the scheduled departure, the ship’s captain made an announcement that we’d be leaving late due to a mechanical problem. Since our balcony overlooked the pier, we were able to witness some of the feverish activity below as cruise line personnel scrambled to resolve the unnamed issue. It looked like exhausting work.

We finally set sail about three hours late, and I watched the departure from our balcony. As we exited the ship’s berth and crept toward the open ocean, I saw three workmen gathered at the far end of the pier. Most likely, they’d been forced to work overtime and were quite tired. Still, they lingered, enjoying each other’s company. The last sound I heard from those men was a hearty, shared laugh. It seemed to speak directly to my soul about the healing power of friendship.

Right there, I lifted up a prayer of thanksgiving… under the stars, on the Dolphin Deck.

—–

I’ve noticed that, on social media sites, some atheists mockingly equate belief in God with belief in Santa Claus. That always makes me smile.

I learned the truth about Santa on Christmas Eve when I was only five years old; and, for a few hours, it felt as if all the magic had drained from my world. Then, I had a “God moment” – perhaps my first (though I doubt that) – and learned what C.S. Lewis might have called a deeper magic.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I offer this wee bit of context.

Exactly one year earlier, when I was four, I had a Santa Claus nightlight. It plugged into the outlet, just below pillow level, behind the headboard of my first big-boy bed. And, if I were frightened during the night, one quick look at Santa’s backlit visage, with rosy cheeks and kind, smiling eyes, was all I needed.

“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

How thoroughly wonderful that, with all of the many children in the world, Santa cared so much for me. My devotion was real, and it reached its peak on that long-ago Christmas Eve.

Alongside the foot of my bed, there was a drafty old window, which routinely frosted over during the winter months. By late December, the frost was already thick enough to obscure the night sky.

I was restless and far too excited to sleep; but, it was the promise of presence rather than presents that denied me slumber. Santa Claus would soon be near; and, thinking back, it felt as though hope itself, rather than blood, was coursing through my veins. Eventually, after many adoring glances at my nightlight failed to satisfy, I pulled off my covers and made for the window.

I haven’t many crystal clear memories from early childhood, but that night is an exception. My big sister, Christine, who shared the room with me, asked what I was doing. “Watching for Santa,” I replied matter-of-factly, while scratching out an icy peephole with my thumbnail.

Through that tiny portal, I expectantly searched the dark sky for a sign. Every twinkle, every shadow passing in front of the moon, quickened my pulse. I couldn’t have identified it at the time, but this was, I’m now convinced, an early experience of desire for the Transcendent.

—–

That moment apparently left a profound impression. Even today, when I go to my prayer room hoping to encounter the un-seeable One, I can almost feel a ribbon of frost melting beneath my thumbnail.

—–

Despite a valiant effort, my four-year old self never did see Santa that night. I ultimately returned to bed and fell asleep. While I’m sure it was wonderful, I have no memory of Christmas morning that year or of the presents under the tree. The next year, however, would be quite different.

—–

Months passed, and Christmas Eve arrived again.

Just before bedtime, Christine, who would turn ten the next morning, pulled me aside and said that she and my Mom “had something important to tell me.” She had a strange, sad expression on her face, and I sensed something was wrong.

They both knew of my sensitivity, and it must have been quite difficult for them to bear such crushing news. I don’t remember the precise words they used, but I do recall their reason for telling me on that particular night. Though I hadn’t known about it, our family had been struggling financially. Consequently, Christmas was going to be lean that year – just two gifts per child.

My Mom had decided it would be better to tell me the truth the night before than to have me wake up the next morning thinking I’d somehow disappointed Santa during the previous year. Today, I marvel at her concern. That night, however, I was too brokenhearted to think.

I cried… and, so did my Mom.

Grieving is hard work for a little boy, especially on Christmas Eve. I still had my Santa Claus nightlight, but looking at it only magnified my sadness.

That night, the frost on my window remained undisturbed.

—–

On Christmas morning, I lingered awake in bed. The birthday girl, my very closest friend, came over to encourage me.

“Come on. Let’s go see.”

“Okay,” I replied, but I was still slow to move.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not that Santa isn’t real. He’s just not who you thought he was.“

—–

Two gifts awaited me under (and beside) the tree. And, honestly, of all the presents on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, they are the only two I can still recall. One was a paint-by-numbers kit with a special kind of glittery paint. The other took my breath away. It was my first and only childhood bicycle, a 24-inch Columbia that I cherished immediately. Was it my imagination, or did it really glow?

No other conclusion was possible. I must have been a very good boy that year!

I looked across the room at Santa’s now smiling face.

She knows when you are sleeping. She knows when you’re awake.”

“God moments!”

—–

Philosophical proofs of God’s existence make my head spin. Try as I might, I just can’t follow the arguments; and, I’m honestly not edified by them. I don’t say this to disparage intellectuals, whom I greatly admire. It’s just that, if the world is comprised of thinking people and feeling people, I’m a card-carrying member of the latter group. In Myers-Briggs typology, I’m classified as an INFJ, which is a fancy way of saying that I lead with my heart.

My “proof” of God isn’t found in logic, reason, or even the theology I so dearly love. Rather, it’s found in the comradery of misfits, in laughter at the end of the pier, in frosty peepholes, and in Santa’s smiles and tender tears.

Yes, I still believe!

Heeding Jofy’s Ears

Despite good intentions, my life seldom – if ever – directly mirrors my Christian faith. I believe, for example, that God speaks constantly in and through the ordinary circumstances of life. So, in God’s order, every breeze has its purpose. Every sound has its deeper meaning. Every leaf, every barking dog, and every passer-by manifests unique and mysterious theological lessons to comprehend. Genuinely holding that perspective, it is beyond frustrating that I so often find myself wallowing in life’s mundane distractions and deaf to God’s actual voice.

With a little help, though, I can sometimes experience a breakthrough.

—–

One day, when our grandson “Jofy” (i.e., Joseph) was two years old, he wandered into our family room where I was watching a baseball game. Since his parents, our son and daughter-in-law, wisely limit his exposure to television, he was quickly fascinated by the images on the screen. I began to chat casually with my son, Stephen, just as the inning was ending, and neither of us paid much attention to the commercials that immediately followed. Jofy, however, was riveted.

At the time, the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was being heavily promoted. An ad for the film came on the television showing a (literally) hellish image of a demonic motorcycle rider shrouded in fire. Jofy immediately began to scream in absolute terror. As quickly as I could, I turned off the television. Then, my son and I tried to console our little guy and to explain the inexplainable. I was furious at the violation of his innocence and felt terrible that it had happened under my watch.

I see a bit of myself in Jofy, now five years old. He is a sensitive child, who – like his Buppa – obviously feels things quite deeply. When someone reads him a story, for example, if he finds any part of the tale troubling, he’ll cover his ears with his hands until the offending portion has passed. I find that trait especially endearing.

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—–

My wife and I are often blessed to be joined at Sunday Mass by Stephen and his family. Such was the case on Palm Sunday this year; and, as usual, Jofy positioned himself between Marianne and me in the pew. (His younger sister, Katerina, typically prefers to remain close to her Momma, Mikayla.)

Like every small child, Jofy has his fidgety moments, including at Mass. He is never a nuisance, but he often engages himself in quiet play while we worship. Honestly, I enjoy watching him exercise his creativity, whether directing an imaginary jet plane with his hand or deftly swinging Paul Bunyan’s double-bladed ax to fell an invisible tree. He can seem detached from the solemn proceedings around him; yet, there is a deeper truth.

Of course, Palm Sunday Mass is busier than the typical Sunday liturgy. There are palm branches, an extra Gospel reading, a procession, and a dramatic (and lengthy) reading of the Lord’s Passion wherein the congregation assumes the generic role of the crowd. “Crucify him,” we are expected to demand loudly, for example, when Pilate asks those assembled what he should do with this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth.

With script in hand and anxious not to miss my cues, I followed the text carefully as the priest and two lectors read their respective parts; but, my focus, I’m sorry to say, was misdirected. Mindful of the performance, I failed to listen attentively to the great story itself. Meanwhile, Jofy played by my side.

The details of Jesus’ betrayal and death are well known; and, maybe familiarity risks dulling their impact, especially after so many retellings. That particular day, though, as we read about our Lord being brutalized and murdered for loving perfectly in an imperfect world, I happened to glance at Jofy, who had ceased playing and was now carefully covering his ears with his hands. The story had become too terrible for our sensitive little guy to hear. His reaction awakened my spirit.

Marianne saw it too. We both smiled, nodded at each other, forgot about the script, and listened anew to the awesome story of our faith.

Wakes

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I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects.  And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.

Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely.  Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea.  Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern.  Time is essential, of course.  Time… and very much grace!

I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me.  Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation.  So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.

Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche.  Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.

—–

A few years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line.  He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation.  He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”

Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare.  Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.

—–

When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent.  In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.

When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise.  “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”

I was ecstatic!  Time alone with my Dad!?  Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.

The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.

When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me.  As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand.  It didn’t matter to me.  We’d be together.

While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning.  Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.

Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning.  Rejection?  Embarrassment?  Confusion?  Yes to all those things.  But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story.  Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.

Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.

—–

“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down.  It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing.  Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come.  The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.

My work was completed on October 6th.  I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site.  “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again.  Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived.  I clicked the button without regret.

The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul.  “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words.  You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news.  He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”

All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend.  God is good!

—–

I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral.  After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief.  Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.

My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed.  In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.

In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time.  Time alone for just me and my Dad.

I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.”  The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.

May God rest his soul!

And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.

In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.

“The Red Sweater” by Roland Jefts

“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)

On the Tonight Show many years ago, comedian George Gobel jokingly posed this question to Johnny Carson: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

People laughed, of course; however, I’d wager that more than a few hearers could personally relate to that experience of feeling different from others, about which Gobel had spoken.

I have a “brown shoes” kind of story to share, but it actually involves a different kind of apparel – namely, a favorite red sweater I had as a child. First, however, I must provide a bit of context.

I was pious little boy. Faith always seemed quite natural to me; and, obedience to God and to my parents was simply my way of life. My innocent faith, however, would soon be sorely tested.

During my teen years, my first family began a slow and agonizing process of disintegration. I need not divulge specifics, but it is necessary that I admit of a uniquely painful gulf that developed between my father and me. Eventually, I came to seriously doubt his love, which is a torturous experience for an adolescent boy.

As my parents’ marriage crept steadily toward divorce, and as I wrestled with the associated emotions that seemingly invaded every fiber of my life, I also began to question, for the first time, the goodness of God. Honestly, I felt betrayed by the One I had always trusted. My best friend seemed to have turned a deaf ear precisely when I was most desperate for God’s consolation.

Disillusioned, my heart strayed from God for quite some time. Strangely, I never stopped believing; yet, bitter experiences had numbed my faith and (seemingly) rendered it irrelevant in my life. This spiritual state of confusion persisted through my college years… until God resuscitated my soul.

In my early twenties, I met my future wife, M, fell in love, finished college, and proposed marriage. There was much cause for hope, yet, when alone, I was persistently sad.

One day, I woke up feeling particularly distressed but unable to identify the cause. The malaise worsened as the day went on; so, desperate for some solitude, I decided to take a walk. In the midst, I began to feel an interior sense of longing that I could not squelch. I kept walking… and awkwardly lifted up a prayer.

At one point, I found myself standing in front of a rectory. Had I purposely come there? I don’t believe so; but, once there, I felt an overwhelming urge to ring the doorbell. I resisted for a time, unsure of what I’d say, but then I reluctantly consented. That concession to grace has made all the difference.

A young priest, Fr. Bob, welcomed me and invited me into a private room where we could talk. My mind blanks on the specifics. I remember only a rush of thoughts and words, a sympathetic listener, a reassurance of God’s love, and an invitation – for both M and me – to the prayer community that met on Thursday nights in the Parish Center.

When I told M of my experience and of my inclination to accept the invitation, she graciously agreed to accompany me; so, the following Thursday evening found us among a group of strangers, who would quickly become instruments of God’s healing in both of our lives. M and I were married (by Fr. Bob) shortly thereafter.

At one Thursday gathering some months later, Peter, an intense yet obviously tender-hearted man, gave me a book about the Holy Spirit and said that he hoped it would bless my life as it had blessed his. I accepted his gift knowing full-well that I’d need to report back to him and, therefore, would actually have to read it.

“But, what about the red sweater?” That’s coming.

I felt strangely at home in the pages of that book. It seemed to tap into the dormant piety from my past. Again, I experienced an interior longing, but this time the longing had an object. I wanted God again.

Then, I reached a chapter in the book that stopped me cold. It was a chapter on reconciliation that was based upon these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:23-24:

“… if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Immediately, I sensed that God wanted to be admitted into the relationship between me and my father. I felt nothing but desperation and fear. The wounds were indeed very deep.

For days, I could read no further in the book. I felt as though an obstacle was now in my path that I had no power whatsoever to overcome. Would my rediscovery of a spiritual center in my life end here?

Then, one evening, I sat on my couch trying to pray. M walked into the room and could see that I was distressed. She asked what was going on and I told her about the book… about the obstacle… and about my failed attempts at prayer. She wisely asked if I had done any listening during prayer, and I admitted that I hadn’t. I’d only been pouring out my heart to God.

M told me that she would give me complete privacy and advised me to sit in silence. She was God’s instrument in that moment, and I will forever be grateful for her sage counsel. After M had left the room, I turned off the light and waited for God in the quiet.

What happened is quite difficult to explain; but, it literally changed my life. Please bear with me.

I did not have a vision. In fact, I can’t even be certain if my eyes were opened or closed. Neither was the experience a dream, as I was far from asleep, nor a hallucination, as I had taken no drugs.

That evening, as best I can describe it, God placed me inside a lost memory such that I actually relived the long-ago experience with all of its attendant emotions. Afterward, I remembered that this incident had really taken place, but it was so obscure, so seemingly inconsequential, I had long forgotten it.

I was perhaps six or seven and was in the schoolyard during recess. It must have been chilly that morning because my mother had dressed me in my favorite red sweater, the one with the zipper in front. She had also told me not to remove the sweater. You see, I was a rather sickly child, and she was being cautious.

By recess time, any morning chill had yielded to a hot sun. All of my schoolmates were in their shirtsleeves running and playing. But, I was obediently wearing my red sweater and sitting on the short wooden fence at the side of the schoolyard… feeling quite different and very alone.

Being “brown shoes” is especially painful for a child.

Then, I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard. Instantly, I leaped off my perch and ran to him.

(Since my mother had ordered me to wear the sweater, surely my father had the authority to allow me to remove it.)

I looked up into my father’s eyes and asked him: “Dad, can I take off my sweater?”

Now, when this episode actually happened, I’m sure that the young version of me missed the most important detail. All I cared about at the time was securing permission to remove the sweater, which my father granted.

As a man in his mid-twenties, however, looking through the eyes of that little boy, I saw my father’s expression anew. He looked at me with understanding and compassion. His was a knowing look… the look of one who had, himself, been “brown shoes” to the world’s tuxedo.

His was that look of love that I had longed for my whole life!

Sitting there in my living room, I broke down and wept forcefully.

God had plucked from obscurity an event long forgotten and miraculously revealed its deeper meaning.

When I finally collected myself, the remarkable peace that I felt quickly gave way to darkness and sadness. I remembered feeling betrayed by God in my teens and realized that, just as I had needed to know the love of my father, I also needed to know myself loved by God.

I decided to sit in the darkness again with all of the interior stillness I could muster.

Rather quickly, I was drawn into the identical memory. Again, I was sitting by the edge of the schoolyard, in my red sweater, under the hot sun, feeling different and alone. I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard…

But, this time, Jesus was guiding him there by the hand.

(Tears! Intense healing!)

—–

The moment of grace described above happened thirty years ago. Although daily prayer has long been a part of my life, I have never again experienced God so vividly and intimately; and, perhaps that is by design.

That moment is a touchstone for my spiritual life. I return there often when I am in distress to drink in its lessons once again.

The red sweater helps me to understand God’s interest and involvement in every detail of our lives. It makes sense of the promise that even the hairs on my head are counted.

Amen!

The Children’s Books : Time Passing… (Part Two)

Once in a great while, I am blessed with a captivating dream about my children – Rachel, Stephen Jr., and Matthew – when they were small.

To me, such dreams are richer than mere memories. They seem, at least for their short duration, to allow the reliving of a blessed season of life. And, they just might provide an insight or two lost in the original moment(s).

Thomas Carlyle once observed that “the tragedy of life lies not in how much we suffer but in how much we miss.”

Jesus’ parable of the sower similarly treats this theme. Many seeds, the Lord teaches, are wasted because the soil (i.e., mind, heart, and soul) is unprepared to receive them.

I have often wondered what I’ve missed in my life. Many seeds, I’m quite sure.

A few years ago, I searched my home for a book I was sure I owned. As frustration mounted, I finally thought to check an upstairs bookcase wherein we keep some older titles. As I looked there from shelf to shelf, I spotted a small cluster of children’s books tucked in the corner.

I pulled the books out of their resting place and immediately forgot all about my frantic search.

When our children were little, bedtime was a festive happening. There were prayers, songs, spontaneous “pretend stories” (a nightly test of Dad’s creativity), and at least one – but often two – children’s books. The rediscovered titles resting on my lap that day had been featured at Dalton bedtimes time and again.

I flipped through the familiar pages with an odd mix of emotions. Then, an especially tender, yet profoundly sad, thought came to mind. Once upon a time, years ago, I had read each one of those books, respectively, to each one of my children, respectively, for the very last time… without realizing it.

I grieved at the awareness.

Like most people, I sometimes wish that I could relive a moment from the past – not to remain there, but just to have that treasured experience once more.

“If I could save time in a bottle,” sang (the late) Jim Croce.

If I held such a magic bottle in my hands, I would wait for a moment of particular darkness, a time when I needed a very special grace to strengthen me; then, I’d uncork it and drink in the experience of reading each one of those books, respectively, to each one of my (small again) children, respectively, for the very last time.

And, finally understanding the sanctity of the moment, I would read ever so slowly.

Tick – tick – tick!

“… Make Way for Other Toys”

No matter my age, the waning days of August – and, therefore, summer – always bring to mind Puff the Magic Dragon and his once-great friend, little Jackie Paper.

When our children were small, Puff was often their bedtime song of choice. They never knew, as we laughed, danced, and sang together, about the strong connection their Dad felt with this song, which is a metaphor for the end of childhood.

“Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sails…”

As a boy, I had three very best friends: Paul, Philip, and Evans. There were certainly others, good friends all, but these three were special. From ages eight to fourteen (and much longer with Paul), we were inseparable, at least during the summer.

Summer days began early and ended as late as the grown-ups in our lives would allow. Baseball was our first fascination, but there was also ample space made for kickball, bike chases, lunches at the local sub shop, swimming, bowling, and all other activities comprising the “stuff” of childhood.  We had great, uncomplicated fun.

“A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…”

My memory may be a bit fuzzy, but I believe I was ten when the disturbing news came that Evans would be moving away – rather far away.

He and his family had been living on the bottom floor of a two-family house owned by Evans’ grandmother, who lived upstairs.  His grandmother chose to remain in our neighborhood, but the rest of the family would be moving out of state.

When Evans broke the news, our sadness was mitigated by his promise – supported by his parents – that he’d be spending summers with his grandmother… and, therefore, with us.

Evans proved good on his word; and, for the next several years, summer was redefined as the time between Evans’ arrival (always by early July) and his departure (in mid- to late August).

“One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more…”

Each return was a time of genuine anticipation and joy. Between visits, however, life happened.

As time passed, Evans’ connections at home and the lure to remain there year-round naturally grew stronger. And so, a summer eventually came when Evans opted to not to come.

“Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys…”

The following summer, Evans, who had recently gotten his driver’s license, surprised us by driving to Massachusetts himself. (His father had always driven him previously.) His car was a brand new Datsun 240Z.

Evans’ visit was a short one, just a few days; and, while there, he kept mentioning how much he missed his girlfriend back home. I understood.

There were no baseball games; and, throughout his visit, my bicycle remained idle and rusting in my parent’s garage. In a few short years, the world had changed so very much.

I saw and spoke with Evans a few more times between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties, but it’s now been nearly thirty years since I last heard my dear friend’s voice.

I’m so very sentimental! For me, childhood will always mean Paul, Philip, and Evans… my little Jackie Paper.

I still love them all dearly. I’ll always cherish the times we “went to play along the cherry lane.” And, whenever I reminisce, I’m sure that I’ll find myself wiping off the “green scales” trickling down my cheeks.