In the summer of 1978, my dad bought a beat up old caravan like the one you see in the photo (minus the outside table and the shack) and he dropped it off in an otherwise empty parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Dad had landed the contract to paint the nursing home (he was a commercial painter) that had just been built in Lincoln and rather than paying for a hotel every night, he bought the caravan.
As a 12-year old boy who was getting to spend the summer with his dad, the caravan couldn’t have been a more perfect place to do so. My parents divorced when I was eight, so I took any opportunity I could get to spend time with my dad. Throw in the fact that we didn’t have a shower, and we could eat whatever we wanted and it felt as close to heaven as a boy could ask.
At night, after a long exhausting work day, we would hole up in the caravan and play Gin Rummy (the card game) on the small table near the door while an AM radio station played in the background. The cards gave our hands something to do while we bonded and they made conversation more natural. At that age, I doubt if I would have just sat at a table and had a conversation with my father. Too much pressure.
“How’s school?” he asked.
I had just finished 7th grade – my first year in junior high school. It was a whole new world for a shy overweight kid who couldn’t figure out the delicate balance between wanting to fit in while at the same time not wanting to be noticed, or picked on. So I told him what any kid in my situation says. “It’s fine.”
“How’re your grades?”
I was an average student who didn’t take to the rhythm of cramming for and taking tests very well. I was more the creative type, so I just wanted to dream. I got 2s and 3s, with the occasional 1. Algebra hadn’t tripped me up yet. That looming monster was waiting for me in 9th grade. Since I wasn’t honor roll material, I said what any kid in my situation says. “They’re pretty good.”
More than once, I turned the conversation toward a more adult-like topic. “Why aren’t you and Mom together anymore?”
My parents never spoke ill of one another in my presence that I can remember. That’s a good thing, but it does leave a kid wondering who to blame.
Dad always made eye contact during a serious conversation. I often saw hints of pain he never verbalized when I was young and that made me even more curious.
“Someday, when you’re old enough, I’ll explain,” he said.
Seven years later, he kept his promise. He struggled with alcoholism and it came with a price.
Later in his life, our conversations went deep: failures, disappointments, unrealized dreams – no topic was off limits. But I don’t think we would have arrived at that place if it weren’t for those card games that broke the ice and allowed us to be natural around one another. We also didn’t have any distractions that summer – no phones, no video games, no television.
It was a simpler time, for sure. And I don’t think we can or should go back to it. But intentionally escaping to it once in a while isn’t a bad idea.
A few weeks ago, my niece and her boyfriend called me because they needed a ride to the laundromat. After they filled the washers with their clothes, I went out to my car and got a scratch pad, a pen and UNO (the card game). They snickered at first. They may have even rolled their eyes. But five minutes into the first hand of our makeshift game on a small table near the door, we were having a blast.
“So, how are things going?” I asked my niece.
I’m not a subscriber to the “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings” theory from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I couldn’t help but think about that line while attending a funeral on Tuesday morning.
A friend’s 93-year-old mom passed away late last week, so I attended her funeral. It was held in a Catholic church that began as a Polish parish in 1919. It started as a Polish parish because this particular section of Omaha became home to a large group of Polish immigrants at the time. So, as the neighborhood was built, and as people of Polish descent found jobs and moved in, this particular parish was just part of the community.
Back then, church buildings were often erected directly in neighborhoods, rather than in the suburbs – both of which are probably reflections of the way society viewed the church in each respective generation.
A hundred years ago, church life was a welcome and accepted part of neighborhoods. Today, we tend to push churches to the suburbs to keep them at arm’s length. This may say as much about us, as a church, as it does about the changes that have taken place in American society.
Since I live just a few blocks away from the church where the funeral was held, I often hear the church bell chime at the top of the hour on particular days or holidays and I always find comfort in that.
As the priest finished the funeral service on Tuesday, the church bell began to chime. Silence filled the sanctuary, and, as is often the case, the finality of the situation settled in on family and friends. For a moment, the chimes were all we could hear. And if the chimes could have spoken, here’s what I believe they would have said.
“We mourn the loss of one of our congregants.”
“We celebrate her life.”
“We look forward to the resurrection.”
I didn’t look at my watch at that moment, but it was an odd time – maybe 10:08 a.m. or so. It was so odd that neighbors would have known something special was going on inside because the church bell doesn’t chime at such a time otherwise.
Maybe that prompted them to glance out their windows, and once they did they would have seen the hearse and realized that the church bell chimes marked the end of someone’s life. Maybe they even paused for a moment to reflect on the life of the person they never knew, or on their own mortality.
Either way, it’s a bittersweet reminder of the way the church at large used to speak to its community in even the subtlest of ways, reminding them that life here on earth is but a vapor and consequently, now is the time to settle accounts with God.
If you aren’t listening to the StoryCorps podcast on a regular basis, you are missing the opportunity to learn about ordinary people who have extraordinary stories.
Episode #362 is titled My Three Sons, and it briefly tells the story of three 14-year-old triplets named Leo, Nick and Steven who were born blind. Their mother, who was single, had a difficult time caring for them and rarely allowed them to leave their home. When a neighbor named Ollie, who is also blind, heard about their situation, he knocked on their door to reach out to them.
In this episode (which in only three minutes and forty-five seconds long), Ollie talks to the brothers about being bullied, about hearing children playing nearby but not being able to play with them and then he talks to them about the relationship they built with him.
When Ollie first introduced himself, the brothers had a hard time believing he was blind, too. They put him to the test – first by feeling his walking cane, then by bringing him a Bible in braille and placing his hand on it, telling him to read it to them. He passed both tests.
“This made me feel like I had a person that I could trust, because I didn’t trust anyone,” says one of the brothers.
Ollie began teaching them how to use their canes better and taking them to the corner store. One day, the clerk asked Ollie if Leo was her son.
“Before I could answer, you put your arm around me,” Ollie says, speaking to Leo, “and you said, ‘Yeah, it’s my dad.’”
“I said, ‘Do you know what that means?”
“You said, ‘Well, you take us places, you protect us, you help us with our homework – sounds like a dad to me.’”
“Whenever I hear you call me dad, it’s the highest compliment to me.”
Hearing that, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Ollie is in the process of formally adopting the three brothers. [You can listen to the full story by clicking the orange play button on the podcast above.]
Survivors of all stripes have the opportunity to throw lifelines into their communities to help others survive – to offer practical advice, a sympathetic and loving ear, and ultimately, hope. All we have to do is be sensitive to the needs of others, and then knock on their doors.
With the Wordsowers Christian Writers Conference right around the corner, Kat Crawford, one of the leaders of the group, did a Q & A with me (I’ll be teaching at the conference) recently and it just went up on the Wordsowers website.
We talked about when I first knew I wanted to write, how writers conferences helped me, my favorite workshops to teach at conferences, my favorite authors, why I enjoy writing about sports, and a few other topics.
If you are in the Midwest, it’s not too late to register for the conference that will be held in Omaha, Neb. on February 28 – March 1. Click here to register.
Now, here’s the interview:
Lionhearted Kat: When we met, you worked at a bank. When did you decide you wanted to write?
Lee: My parents divorced when I was eight years old, so my dad came to get me on Saturdays to spend time with him. He was a painter (the kind who paints houses) and he owned his own shop, so we would often stop by there on Saturday afternoons. While he was busy, I often gravitated toward his big manual typewriter on his desk. I’d scroll a piece of paper into it and begin copying liner notes from albums, articles from newspapers, etc., sometimes picking up a story where it left off. I didn’t know it at the time, but the writing bug was planted in me back then.
During my teen years, I wrote poetry to deal with my emotions. As an introvert, the written page was my only safe place. During my twenties, I wrote songs to deal with my emotions. I became a Christian in my mid-twenties and a few years later got online, where I landed a singles column with Christianity Today Online.
And then in my thirties, I received a flyer for a Christian writers conference in Kansas City. I was intrigued so I registered and attended. For the first time in my life, I was among kindred spirits – creative types who expressed themselves with the written word. That’s when I really knew I wanted to write.
Lionhearted Kat: Before you started writing fulltime, you drove to Kansas City to attend a monthly writers group or critique group. It’s a long drive to Kansas City, how often did you go and how did that dedication help you as a writer?
Click here to continue reading …
I had a conversation with two disillusioned young adults recently. They were looking for meaning in freedom, but I told them they wouldn’t find it there.
We’ve all been young, and most of us were disillusioned at one point. I certainly was, so I can sympathize. In our teen years, we’re convinced we know all the answers, then something happens in our late teens or early twenties – cancer, death of a loved one, financial ruin, estrangements – and nothing seems to make sense. So we get lost in freedom.
For this young couple, their freedom is marijuana, and their pursuit is to see it decriminalized in their state. So I followed them down that trail.
“Let’s say that happens. My next question is, to what end? Will you indulge your freedom at the exclusion of responsibility?”
They weren’t quick to answer, which meant they were listening.
I stuck my hands out to portray a scale. “Freedom is important. In fact, it’s worth protecting and ultimately dying for, as so many have. But freedom without responsibility leads to self indulgence and meaninglessness.” I moved my left hand, which signified freedom on the scale, all the way down to signify a large helping of freedom. I kept my right hand, which signified responsibility, at the top to show a complete lack of responsibility.
“We only find meaning when we willingly give up a little freedom.” I moved my hands to show a balance. Then I told them a story.
My mom raised my sister and me with little help from my father, who battled alcoholism most of his life. They divorced when I was eight. Mom made an internal commitment to make my sister and me her priority. She worked hard, scrimped and saved, asked for help from relatives and a woman in our neighborhood, and she made sacrifices my sister and I never knew about.
The one thing I did know was, I could count on Mom being home every night. She cooked us dinner, ran us around to extracurricular activities, helped us with homework and we watched television together. She never dated, even though she was free to do so. Instead, she willingly gave up her freedom because of her sense of responsibility toward us.
[Please don’t read this as a criticism of single mothers who are dating because that’s not what I’m saying. Instead, I’m pointing out one woman’s way of giving up some of her freedom because she felt a sense of responsibility elsewhere.]
At this point in the story, I raised the responsibility side of the scale upward and the freedom side downward. “She found meaning in sacrifice,” I said.
“If you were to live a life that was more heavily weighted toward responsibility than freedom, then you would find fulfillment,” I continued. “But the opposite is not true. If your scale is much more heavily weighted in favor of freedom, your life will always lack meaning.”
I hoped they were connecting a few dots internally. Investing a lot of time and energy into the decriminalization of marijuana is the wrong focus and it won’t satisfy them.
I did not understand this concept when I was young, even though my mom modeled it for me. So I lived out of balance, always leaning more heavily toward freedom than responsibility, but after caring for a couple of sick relatives I began to experience the satisfaction of giving myself away to help someone else and it changed my perspective.
Now I’m just hoping my experience helps to guide this young couple as they try to find their way.