Bless Your Heart

When I moved to Virginia, Northern Virginia, I always balked at the idea that I had moved to the South. Northern Virginia feels nothing like the South according to southern hospitality magazines and the memories I hold of living deep in Louisiana. I find refuge in that. Whenever the question comes up I prefer to say I live in DC. We all know the stereotypes: southern hospitality is particularly warm, sweet, and welcoming, Southerners are God-fearin’ church goin’ people. Manners are paramount and traditions are sacrosanct. These are the stereotypes Southerners like to employ. Oh, and football. Southerners like to claim their football fanaticism distinguishes them from all others as if that were some sort of relevant virtue. OK. Whatever.
I’m struggling to reconcile the “us verses them” animosity I feel for my American brethren who brandish southern pride as a badge of honor. It’s all a problem between my own ears. I just don’t buy into the idea that southern charm is uniquely southern. The southern accent maybe adds some warmth to uttered courtesies but I’ve never found a kind word or gesture less genuine because it originated from a Yankee. Rather I find the ways of the south hypocritical. Bless their heart.
In case you didn’t know, when a southerner says ”bless your heart” they are likely telling you they think you’re an idiot and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Then, for all the God fearing and family values they espouse, southerners continually support the politics of white privilege and the symbolism of our sordid slavery history. They talk of states rights and economic realities of the time to justify the single most atrocious time in our history. As if everyone else participating in human bondage meant they had no choice but to enslave people to make their business plans viable.
I went to college in the early 1980’s in Louisiana. The anti-apartheid movement was a big thing in those days. I tried to lead a divestment of South African investments movement at my university. I found myself shunned by my white friends and my black friends would not meet my eye. They couldn’t afford to be associated with my effort. I held three information meetings in the student union to organize the movement. Not one soul ever showed up. One friend told me he appreciated what I was trying to do but urged me to be careful. A white friend, whom I’d always found charming and gracious pulled me aside and told me, “You know Chris, one thing we hate is when a Yankee comes along and tells us we have to love niggers.” That ended that friendship.
Perhaps that one period of my life hardened my heart to southern charm. I saw racial tolerance on campus analogous to the duck gliding across a pond while beneath the surface all sorts of struggle and exertion frantically fought to make everything look fine. So now, when I see rebel flags freely floating in the breeze, I recognize things aren’t fine. When all of the southern states voted for Muslim bans, border walls and the rolling back of civil rights I see nothing charming. There is nothing warm, sweet or welcoming about any of that. Seeing that sort of ideology openly supported is like forcing our head under water where we must confront the struggle and exertion of racial tension and hatred. Maybe that’s a good thing. I just hope we can hold our breath for long enough.

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A Toothpaste Metaphor

I remember my dad telling me a story about some people he knew getting a divorce over how to squeeze a tooth paste tube. That just seemed like the craziest thing to me. The man liked to squeeze the tube in the middle and the woman liked to squeeze her tube from the end. It didn’t make any sense! I must have been ten or eleven years old the time I heard the story. At that age it seemed so obvious that if this issue truly was irreconcilable the solution was simple. His and hers tubes of tooth paste could have saved that marriage. Nobody listens to kids. IMG_0161
It’s funny how stories like that stick with you. My wife is one of those evil middle of the tube squeezers. It never occurred to me to get angry about it. I simply squeeze the tube from the end like I would anyway and I eliminate all signs of her past transgression. I’m fairly certain that she doesn’t begin each day looking at the tube of toothpaste and screaming to the ceiling, “Damn you Chris! You’ve erased all of the evidence that I stand against conformity and civility by squeezing the tube from the end!” At least I’ve never heard her say such a thing. I suppose I should ask if it bothers her. I suppose it’s no more impossible that she has lived in anguish with that annoying habit of mine, squeezing the toothpaste from the end, for thirty five years, than someone would actually divorce over it. Things could be boiling to a head and I don’t even know it. (My wife would like me to point out that she understands I am somewhat OCD. I’m not sure why she insisted I add this point while editing.)
I suppose that particular divorce was more about spite than anything else. If it were anything else my solution as a boy or the one I employ as a devoted husband would have been enough. I don’t know if that particular couple had children or not. If they did, I would imagine that has more to do with our current state of affairs than anything. We seem to find more satisfaction in political victories than solutions these days. I hope that couple went on to find happiness in their lives. I’m the sort who needs a partner to share my life with. “Live and let live” is an idiom that originated in the trenches during WWI. It was a coping mechanism to facilitate conflict avoidance. It was born of the ideal that while facing arduous circumstance unity was required to succeed against a greater evil. We need more of that. It doesn’t really matter where we squeeze the toothpaste.

 

The Dignity Of Labor Through A Son’s Eyes

As I mowed my lawn in the ninety degree heat Saturday I watched the lawn service trucks moving through my neighborhood. With sweat getting in my eyes I fantasized about the luxury of allowing a crew to do my work. There are three reasons I dismissed the notion. First, I actually like mowing my lawn. Second, I was raised to do the work in capable of doing and finally I find great comfort in the reminder that I come from working class roots.
I do love to mow. The combination of the smell of fresh cut grass, the sun shining on my shoulders and the instant gratification of seeing my lawn transform with each pass is, in its own way, intoxicating. There is an almost spiritual element IMG_0152associated with tending God’s green earth, the proverbial hands in the earth thing. I grew up in Iowa and there is a great respect for farmers born in the gratitude of their hard work and bountiful harvests. In some small way the attention I show my landscaping brings me closer to my agrarian heritage.
My parents were raised feeling the economic hardships of the depression. They never stated as such but I sense they thought it foolish to pay someone else to do what one was capable of doing themselves. There’s nothing wrong with providing opportunities for others as a means to defer tasks one might not enjoy. My opinion is that a man’s character can in part be measured by his willingness to do what needs to be done. As much as I love to mow; would I prefer to be out on my Harley or purusing the local farmers market? Yes. Yet somehow those activities are a little sweeter after I’ve completed my chores. A side benefit is that mowing my lawn racks up over 7,000 of the standard 10,000 steps fitness standard.
The final reason I may never pay anyone to mow my lawn comes from respect for my father. My dad was the CEO of IMG_0153Clayton’s DX, a two bay neighborhood gas station where my grandpa and I, after my older brother, served as his only employees once I was old enough and outside of school hours. Anyone who has spent time around an auto shop knows there are few professions more physically challenging. It’s heavy dirty work that is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. My dad did that ten hours a day, six days a week and then would come home, do his books and attend anything and everything that was required to maintain our home. He never complained. He never required down time or alone time. For him, life’s value was found in being with those he loved and attending to their wants and needs.
I think in my dad’s best year he cleared $18,000 and yet somehow I don’t recall ever wanting for anything. I have the luxury of a job I love and the freedom from any real money concerns. I think my dad never questioned his state in life AD02B0D8-179D-4900-97D7-A0A53AC9003Bbecause he was driven by duty and found honor in providing a safe, joyful and loving home. I think of him often when I mow. I remember the silly straw hat with the red bandana he wore when he worked in the yard. I still have that hat. I don’t wear it because if I breath deeply enough I imagine I can still smell the sweet aroma of his hard work.

Do Black Lives Matter?

 Dontre Hamilton
 Eric Garner
 John Crawford III
 Michael Brown Jr.
 Ezell Ford
 Dante Parker
 Akai Gurley
 Tamir Rice
 Rumain Brisbon
 Jerame Reid
 Samuel DuBose
 Brendon Glenn
 Freddie Gray
 Natasha McKenna
 Walter Scott
 Christian Taylor
 Akiel Denkins
 Gregory Gunn
 Alton Sterling
 Laquan McDonald
 Jamar Clark
 Philando Castile

This is just a partial list of unarmed blacks killed by police over the last few years. If the list had one name it would be too many. Enough! How do we have a reasonable discussion about something so unreasonable? How do I teach my youngest son to respect the police when these actions are so un-respectable? IMG_0144How do I look my black friends in the eye and not feel shame? I didn’t ask to be born white anymore than they asked to be born black. I have no words to explain to them how painful this is. I have no perspective to understand how they must feel. I have no comprehension of what they might think every day when they get in their car to go to work or the grocery store or to pick up their kids from school when a patrol car appears in their rear view mirror.

There are those who read these stories who figure the victim did something wrong, anything wrong, or they wouldn’t have been killed. There are others who are just happy there is one less black life on the planet. Some find these stories sad but then move on. Some are outraged but figure there is nothing to be done about it. And then there are those who have lost all trust and respect for the police and hatred is boiling up inside. How do we reconcile any of this?

I am a proud supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t approve of all that has been done by a few individuals in its name but the legitimate basis of the movement and its tenets are held close to my heart. I bristle and feel embarrassment for those who would retort “all lives matter” in response to hearing Black Lives Matter. That has nothing to do with the ideals behind Black Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter but you can not tell me all lives matter if you can not say black lives matter. Can we agree on that?

There are two things I believe need to happen. First, we need accountability for any officer who would kill any unarmed person. Period. I don’t even care if they are resisting. Something short of lethal force is demanded. Second, I want to see law enforcement take the stand that the killing of unarmed people is unacceptable. I want to hear them condemn the actions of those who act as judge, jury and executioner.

The victims, families and communities affected by police violence have lost the foundational right to feel safe in our society. Imagine you were in those shoes. How might you react? What irreparable harm might scar your heart and psyche if you could not trust those entrusted to protect you? Do you think that is hyperbole? I think the victims families might disagree. We should feel fortunate we do not know that feeling and afford our deepest compassion for those who do. So I’m asking that the next time this happens, and it will, consider the whole story. And when a community takes to the streets to demand justice, have empathy instead of contempt. You would appreciate the same if our place was reversed.

Reaping What We Sow

In the movie Citizen Kane, the protagonist was born of austere means and rises to achieve world class wealth and power. At the end of his life, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane, realized that he got everything wrong. In a flash of deathbed clarity, he recognized what symbolized the only true happiness he had ever known. The story unfolds as a reporter tries to find the IMG_0143meaning of his enigmatic last word: “Rosebud.” It’s a story of lost youthful idealism. Rosebud was the simple wooden sled Charles would ride as a care-free boy, perhaps too busy having fun to realize he was poor.
Nobody would ever know the secret of Rosebud. Even when they had Rosebud in their hands. They couldn’t see it and tossed it into an inferno. They couldn’t see it because they didn’t know what they were looking for. It was a shame that Charles needed to be on his deathbed to finally recognize a truth that could have been his most significant contribution of value to the world. It was a bigger shame that he had lead his life in a way that nobody could have ever imagined his secret could be so profound. And the biggest shame of all is, what likely blinded everyone to the secret of Rosebud was, the same thing that kept the truth from Charles Foster Kane. We value the wrong things.
By all accounts Charles personified the American dream. And yet at that most lonely hour, where he contemplated his life achievements for meaning, his life came up short. Brooks Brothers wrapping might cover a man’s character to the outside world but a cover can work both ways. Blind ambition kept Charles from finding fulfillment in the moment it mattered most. It should be our greatest fear that we would take our last breath with regrets. I don’t want to live anything like Charles. And I certainly don’t want to die like him. I contemplate what drives happiness in my own life. It always comes back to times when I’m more focused outward than inward. Those times when I can afford peace, love and light.
We need more peace, love and light these days. Maybe it would be good for all of us to examine what it might look like if we purposefully pursued satisfying and well lived lives. We all do that to some extent, unconsciously. We intuitively try to be good people. But how often do we actually contemplate and plan to lead richer and more meaningful lives? Think how impactful it might be if we devoted time and energy to making the world a better place for the people around us. Or Rosebud.

Rolling Thunder

Imagine, lining up with thousands of bikes four abreast in a line over a mile long.. The call comes from the front to start your engines. This is Rolling Thunder. Every Memorial Day weekend upwards of 400,000 motorcyclists converge on Washington DC for Rolling Thunder.

From the Rolling Thunder website:

“Rallying for the POW/MIA issue, our mission is to educate, facilitate, and never forget. This First Amendment Demonstration Run has also evolved into a display of patriotism and respect for all who serve our country.”

IMG_0134Huge groups of riders converge from all 50 states. One of the exciting events I participate in is the Patriots Ride. Over 5,000 bikes line up in Fairfax and get a police escort to the Pentagon where we join up with all of the other groups and stage to ride into the nation’s capital as one enormous group. The route is lined with cheering spectators waving flags and holding banners in honor of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Every overpass along the route is filled with families waving, smiling and cheering us on. It could make a guy emotional if he weren’t a tough old biker such as myself. This truly is a day where all walks of life come together to honor our brave soldiers, seamen and airmen.

I saw a few bikes sporting rebel flags and displaying politics I abhor but today, this day, was not about any of that. I’m sure some balked at the Obama emblem I proudly display on my rear fender. The thing is, our service members don’t go into harms way judging the guy in the next foxhole for their politics. When threatened by an enemy we draw together. When hostile foreign governments threaten our way of life we rally as an insurmountable force. It was heartwarming to see that kind of unity today. No red states. No blue states. Just a lot of glittering chrome and black leather. Murica!

Finding My Zen.

I seem to have been born with some perpetual discontent that will never quite allow me to feel as if I’ve arrived. For the most part, over the years, that has served me well. I’ve done my best to channel that angst into personal, professional and spiritual growth and yet I’m coming to realize that this can be a huge obstacle in my life. An obstacle that is separating me from the sense of Zen I so desire. Wait. That’s not true. I think I’ve always been aware of this affliction. I’ve just not found the willingness to confront it.
IMG_0126My dark secret is that all too often I struggle with the simple principle of assuming good intentions.
In my mind assuming good intentions seems to be a derivative of The Four Agreements. The Four Agreements are regarded as a preeminent model for personal growth. I struggle every day with making assumptions and taking them personally. On the outside I’m great at presenting a positive attitude but my inner self is, at times, maybe more analogous to the proverbial duck swimming across a pond; gracefully gliding across the water. Under water, however, its feet are paddling like mad.
Here are some things I know: a principle tenet of Christ’s teachings are that we live our lives for others, a fundamental element of our humanity is that community is an inherent value and finally that we choose our inner dialogue. So what is happening when I make assumptions about others motives, their obliviousness or their seemingly flat out selfish and hateful behavior? Yeah. I do that too often. Could it be that others are just trying to make sense of their world? Could it be that they have concerns about their health or that of a loved one, pressure at work, troubling relationships or any number of the things that create some of the very insecurities I face from time to time?
It’s at those times when that I am focused inward as opposed to the people around me. It’s good to remember that we are all in this together and maybe, just maybe, the more I afford others a little grace the more likely they will be to find relief from their troubles. I can find blame in western culture, that sense of personal aspiration and trickle down charity. To often we can conflate that “take care of yourself first” mentality with a “what about me” pity party. I can find blame in a busy lifestyle and Madison Avenue projections of what my life should look like. I can find blame nearly everywhere I look. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t about the world around me. It’s about what goes on between my ears.
Assuming good intentions. It’s a simple concept. Maybe the next time I’m cut off in traffic or waiting impatiently in the checkout while some shopper digs for exact change I can imagine that their life is about a purpose I know nothing about. As soon as they get where they are going they will make their world a better place. Maybe the next time I feel insecure I can feel assured I’m doing the best I can; just like we all are.

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