All Is Gift

ChestertonThanks

I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

 

Forty-Third Birthday, Extended and Remixed

I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.

At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.

Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.

So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.

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From Conception

This was my first morning in the Adoration Chapel at my new hour, Saturdays at 5 a.m. It was as I hoped: a beautiful way to regroup—to end a week, start the weekend, and consecrate the days ahead to God.

While praying the Rosary, a thought struck me that hadn’t before. I was praying the Third Joyful Mystery—the Incarnation and Nativity of Jesus is how I spontaneously phrased it this morning—and it occurred to me in that moment that Jesus, at His conception, was an embryo, was He not? Perhaps not a zygote, which is specifically a fertilized egg; that is part of the great mystery of Mary’s virgin pregnancy. But an embryo, surely.

We often reflect on God’s great love and humility, that He would willingly condescend to become, not just a man, but a vulnerable, wriggling infant. But more astounding than that, He became what’s today’s culture wants to call “tissue,” a tiny cluster of cells like those pictured above, alive and human, but utterly helpless without Our Blessed Mother’s bodily protection and sustenance. Continue reading

Will It

I am not much of a sports fan, outside of high-school and intercollegiate wrestling (and even then, I’m not a superfan). I watch professional sports from time to time, not out of a love for any particular sport or loyalty to a particular team, but because I was never much of an athlete myself, so great physical performances are amazing to me.

This also helps to explain why I have so often been a fan of the greatest players and moments in sports. For example, I was a Detroit Pistons fan as a teen, but loved to watch Michael Jordan do his thing, and I still rewatch Gibson’s homer and Jeter’s flip anytime I want to shake my head and grin in disbelief. The ability to anticipate the action, to slow down the speed of the game, to perceive the field clearly, and most importantly, to will your body to respond, is beautiful and incredible to me—especially when I remember my own athletic career. As a young baseball player, I was lucky to make contact with the bat and struggled to stay focused in the field. As a tween basketball player, the pressure to move my body and the ball on offense (or worse yet, shoot) caused the ball to bounced off me and my fumble-fingered hands. As a high-school football player, I finally settled in as a backup noseguard…the one position simple enough for me.  And as a wrestler? I loved the sport, but could rarely make my body respond quickly enough to my opponent’s moves and counters.

So I watch athletes in any sport, willing their bodies to do the beautiful, the amazing, the impossible, and it captures me.

* * * * *

Something changed in me as I approached (and since then, entered fully into) middle age. Whether I’ve grown more accepting of and accustomed to my own strengths and weaknesses, or no longer feel pressured to perform, I can do things I never could before (although I still can’t hit a baseball for any money).  Continue reading

Dog-Tired, or the Good, the Bad…and a Puppy

I’m dog-tired.

My dad used to say, whenever I would complain of not sleeping well, “When you get tired enough, you’ll sleep.” Over the past year or so, I had taken that to heart: if I found myself tossing and turning in the wee hours, I would get up, brew a cup of coffee, and write, figuring I’d sleep better the next night.

Generally it worked—but these days I know what Dad really meant.

The good news is that I’m working full-time and making just enough to keep us afloat another month. The bad news is that I’m working two part-time jobs, and one of them starts at 3 a.m., which means the alarm sounds at 2 a.m. and to function, I need to go to bed around 8 whenever possible. (Like tonight.)

The good? My early-morning job involves four hours of steady exercise, loading packages as quickly as I can. I’ve lost 10 to 15 pounds, and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in probably 20 years. I’m no longer sore at the end of the day. I rise, stretch, down a cup of coffee and a protein bar, then drain a water bottle and say my morning prayers on the way to the warehouse.

The bad? I joke with Jodi that I get paid to go to the gym each morning—but who in his right mind goes to the gym at 3 a.m., for four hours? I come home tired, filthy, and soaked with sweat, usually after everyone has left for work and school; I see my wife and kids for a little while after school and work, but usually turn in not long after supper.

Most afternoons and evenings I’m too tired to write much. I nod off at the keyboard. Continue reading