Wednesday, March 31, 2010

He's Gone

The mood at the Long Branch was somber and quiet on this Tuesday night. Sam stood behind the tall oak bar absently wiping a shot glass that he had held in his arthritic fingers for the past ten minutes. The upright piano stood quiet in the corner where we would usually find a couple of cowboys leaning against the wall with their arms draping over the shoulder of one of the dance-hall girls. The card tables were quiet as the men quietly exchanged looks, their eyes occasionally drifting to the table in the corner that was occupied by the Marshall…a big man wearing this usual rawhide vest.

The four of them sat quietly, heads down. Miss Kitty’s face looked dark and bruised where she continued to wipe her lace hanky across her eyes to stem the ceaseless tears…dragging the make-up that adorned her eyes with them. Doc’s eyes were red, the dark circles silent reminders of hours of sleep that his old body needed…his hand occasionally rubbing across the stubble of his unshaved face. Chester’s hand kept reaching for the schooner of beer that sat on the table in front of him, only to keep pulling back at the last moment…realizing that this was not the time to enjoy a cold one. The shoulders on Marshall Dillon were slumped as he sat there with his closest friends mourning the loss of his gruff, wiry deputy.

“I’m going to miss him”, was all he could manage to say as he looked around the table.

We got the word this morning. I knew it coming, but it didn’t really dampen the sense of loss that I feel. My little brother’s cat is gone. Even as I write these words, it seems a little silly that there would be an empty spot in my heart of an old cat that lived a long life, loved by the family that God placed around him. After all, he was only a cat. At least that’s what someone who had never met Festus might say.

But Festus was a “special” cat. He had more of a dog’s personality than that of a feline. He was a lover who would look for a pair of feet to cuddle up on as soon as I sat down on the couch. You could count on him to wander into the kitchen at Geoff and Lynn’s as soon as he heard your voice to announce that, “yes, I’m still here and it would be ok if you want to pick me up and hold me…even rub my belly and my ears if you want.” His beautiful face looking into mine as his chest rumbled with a constant chorus of purrs.

I could always count on Festus to come and sit beside my chair at the dinner table, patiently looking up at me…waiting for some kind of offering of “human food”. As I would move my fingers to his mouth, he would wait for me to drop it on the floor, but when I persisted in holding the piece of chicken or pork in my fingertips, he would gently eat from my hand. After swallowing, his eyes would return to mine, waiting for the next delicacy to be offered.

The passing of Festus reminds me how sensitive I am to loss. It brings a dull pain to my heart, nearly wanting me to never risk any kind of relationship that might end. It reminds me of my fear of rejection and abandonment…and a heavy weight immediately settles over me. I don’t know or completely understand the source of that fear, but I recognize it as being real. But I also understand something even more important…relationship and love are worth it! I loved Festus and I’ll miss him, but I would have missed so much more if I had never known him.

The Marshall stands and looks at his friends sitting around the table and throughout the Long Branch Saloon. He reaches for the glass of beer sitting in front of him and waits for the others to join with him.

“This is for you, Festus”, he says as lifts the glass toward the ceiling and then swallows the cold, bitter brew. “You blessed our lives by sharing it with us. Thank you.”

Festus photo by Mark

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It Makes Me Wonder...?

The stench of the cigarette smoke roils off of him like the mist off of a crashing wave each morning as he climbed into my car for the past week. He casually tosses the butt over his shoulder as he stoops down and slides into the car, settling into the leather seats. The odor hangs in the air for few moments before being circulated throughout the car…diminishing the assailment on my olfactory senses. I put the car into gear and pull away from the curb and make the remaining 15 minute drive to work.

As I drive, I think about this man sitting next to me. A “gear-head”, I have to believe he would be more comfortable riding with my brother Geoff than with me. Sitting there without putting on his seatbelt, our conversation flows easily. My questions about the health of his dogs, or the turmoil in his community association or about his health. His comments about a ’68 Camaro barely visible under a tarp parked behind an outbuilding that I’ve never noticed before. His political commentary, peppered with colorful language that I haven’t heard since I was in prison. His anger toward law enforcement and their “out to get him” attitude.

There is very little that he doesn’t share. I hear the story of his gunshot wound that nearly killed him…and the bullet that did kill his best friend. The tremors in his voice betraying his anger that the killer walked away scot-free because his friend had made a threatening gesture with a baseball bat. On the damp cold mornings typical of our northwest weather, his ankles throb as a result of the metal pins still embedded there repair the damage received when he was run over by a car. His eyes carry dark circles under them from lack of sleep…the result of stomach problems.

His home is a single wide that he shares with his girlfriend and her daughter and boyfriend. He happily shares his space with six dogs and three cats. The roadway in front of his home is packed with three cars, a boat and pop-up trailer. A 1979 Corvette occupies the small patch of brown grass one might call the front yard. A driver’s license suspended will keep them all there…unused and immobile for the next year.

Among the stories he has shared during our two weeks of car pooling is about his mom…and his sister. With his mother’s health failing, his sister made the decision to place her in a nursing home. Living in California at the time, he was infuriated at his sister’s “callousness and selfishness” and moved up to Tacoma to care for her. He lived with her until her health completely failed and she passed away.

Sadly, more than just his mom died. So did his relationship with his sister. Angered over her apparent selfishness, he cut off all contact with her. Frustrated with her invitations to attend church and the lack of congruency between her life and her words, he’s walked away from any relationship that he may have had with Christ. Now…angry, bitter, scarred, and in failing health himself, he drifts from job to job.

Tony reminds me of so many men that I met in prison. With eyes focused only on the past and the perceived (or actual) injustices that they have endured, they choose to give up on living a life of significance. Instead, they look at every opportunity to blame society and everyone in it for their current situation. The negativism is almost palpable…nearly as infectious as the latest H1N1 flu. And it makes me wonder…

How did I escape all of that? How did I spend three years in prison without ever using profanity? How have I been able to maintain a relatively positive attitude in a situation where I still find myself imprisoned by the choices of my past? How can I freely share my story without the weight of the guilt and shame crushing me until I can no longer breathe? How can I look into the eyes of a woman that I love…whose heart I shattered into an infinite number of pieces through my deceit and betray, and see love reflected back? How…did I escape?

There is no easy answer. It’s not because I was once such a “nice” person…or a “great” person. And it’s not because I have such great self-confidence that I believe I can overcome any situation. The only reasonable answer that comes to my mind is that I’ve learned to accept the fact that I am loved…and worthy of love. Accepting that realization isn’t easy…and it brings with it a certain amount of pain. The pain coming not from being loved, but from comprehending that I’ve ALWAYS been loved and NOT recognizing that it was enough! Understanding that the love of God and of family and friends can get us through even the most difficult seasons of our life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Waiting, Trusting and Hoping

I’ve purchased seven of these books now, but this is the first one that I’ve actually kept. It seemed that someone else needed my copy more than I did. I had first heard about the book on my way to work almost two years ago…a DJ on a Christian radio station shared a short entry from the devotional and it really touched me. Paula and I had talked about reading the same daily devotional when we were married…but it just never happened. So, I thought now might be a good time to start doing it. I went on-line to Amazon and purchased two copies.

I sent one to Paula and she fell in love with it immediately. I didn’t tell her at the time that I bought one for myself as well. I thought it might bring back too many painful memories of things we never got to do when we were married. A short time later, my pastor’s wife was going through a difficult time so I gave her my devotional because I thought it might lift her spirits and speak to her heart. It did.

So it was back to Amazon to order another copy. While I was waiting for it to arrive, during one of my phone conversations with Paula, she shared how much her best friend loved the devotional I had sent her. So I sent her my copy as soon as it arrived. I ordered two the next time…just in case. As you can probably guess already, they too ended up getting sent back out. One to our daughter and another given to my sister-in-law.

I thought I would be safe to order only one more so it was back on-line to Amazon and finally my own copy arrived. Or so I thought. Paula told me shortly before Christmas that she had given her copy to a young man who worked at the resort where she was previously employed. I could hear the loss in her voice as she talked about the wrestling match she had with God to give her cherished book away…but she did. I knew that I had no choice. I rewrapped my copy and sent it to Paula.

A month ago, I ordered another copy. For now, this one is on my little shelf beside my bed and each morning, I diligently reach for it and read the devotion for the day. It’s a very special book. I’ve read from a lot of devotionals over the years, but this one is different. It seems that no matter who is reading it…it speaks directly to the need they have on that day – or that week. That’s what it did for me this morning.

Today was a day that I have NOT been looking forward to all week. It was my semi-annual polygraph. While it seems foolish that I would worry about this little “lie detector test”, I find myself getting anxious every time I know I have one. I know the reason why…even though it’s not rational. The results could send me back to prison even if they are wrong. I’ve learned that the polygraph will sometimes give a false reading because you start to second guess your answers. I have a friend who failed his polygraph by telling the truth…but then wondering if his definition of a term might be different from some else’s. As he mind worked over the issue in his mind, the needle on the polygraph went crazy and he failed the test.

And therein lies my problem. I don’t trust the test. In the back of my mind I understand that even by telling the truth the machine can decide that I’m being deceitful. All week long, everything seems to roll around in my head…wondering if there was something I may have omitted telling my therapy group. Or perhaps an incidental that I just forgot about. Maybe my interpretation of a rule is different from someone else. And the more I think about it, the more anxious I become. And the more anxious I become, the less I trust the test. It’s an endless circle that nearly paralyzes me when I walk into the room and have the straps wrapped around my chest. The clips are attached to the end of my fingers and the blood pressure cuff pumped up around my arm…nearly cutting off the blood supply. So I sit there – hearing my heart pounding in my head. Trying to breathe through my nose and feeling out of breath. Worrying that my labored breathing is sending a signal to the machine that holds my future in my hand.

And then I remember my devotional from this morning:

“WAITING, TRUSTING AND HOPING are intricately connected, like golden strands interwoven to form a strong chain. Trusting is the central strand, because it is the response from My children that I desire the most. Waiting and hoping embellish the central strand and strengthen the chain that connects you to Me. Waiting for Me to work, with your eyes on Me, is evidence that you really do trust Me. If you mouth the words “I trust You” while anxiously trying to make things go your way, your words ring hollow. Hoping is future-directed, connecting you to your inheritance in heaven. However, the benefits of hope fall fully on you in the present.”

From "Jesus Calling" by Sarah Young

The words remind me that there is truly only One that I need to trust…and He is always with me. No matter what, He is in control and I know that He loves me. With that in mind, the outcome of the test seems less important. My breathing becomes more relaxed. The rushing waves of my heartbeat begin to recede in my brain. The multiple thoughts colliding in my mind begin to diminish.

Like so many others who read daily from this little devotional, God sent me the message that I needed today. And I can trust the He will continue to do so each day in the future…and especially on those days that it seems my entire future rests on it.
Book Cover from Amazon
Photo from Flickr

Thursday, March 11, 2010


It had been almost two and a half years since I had last seen her. And I had actually only seen her once in the past five and a half years. While we had talked almost weekly, I still didn’t know what to expect. Even the possibility that I might see her now wasn’t set in concrete. I knew she was in the area and she had called the day before to ask what time our church services were. But even then, there was no guarantee.

As I stood on the platform with the choir for the first service, I kept my eyes open…scanning the congregation so see if she may have slipped in without my noticing. That had happened once before many years ago. I was still coaching and we really didn’t know each other that well. She had come to a wrestling match and sat in the stands…watching, cheering, waiting. But I didn’t see her until it was all over; until it was almost too late. I’d learned my lesson and always tried to keep a watchful eye for her since whenever I thought there might be even the slightest possibility she would be there.

The first service passed and still, she wasn’t there. I walked from one entry door to the other, like a child on Christmas Even…waiting, watching, hoping. With a watchful eye on the time so I wouldn’t be late to line up for choir for the second service and the other on the entry ways, the minutes ticked away. Three minutes until we were to walk in, so I moved into my position in line…disappointed that perhaps she wouldn’t make it. Standing in conversation with a friend, suddenly I felt someone grab me from behind.

As I turned, it was a friend that I knew she was planning to attend with. My heart grew and began to beat at a more rapid pace. As we exchanged hugs, I peeked over his shoulder…hoping, expecting, wanting to see her. But the hallway was empty. Again, my heart began to sink. Maybe he was here to tell me that it wasn’t going to work…that it was just too hard for her to be there.

Suddenly, he began to look around as well.

“I know there are a couple of beautiful ladies around here somewhere”.

He began to walk toward the far entry and I followed, forgetting for a moment that the choir would begin to walk in for second service in only a minute. I looked to the right and left. Perhaps they were in the ladies room, I thought. And then I saw them…more specifically, I saw her.

I’m not sure if my heart started racing…or if it just stopped beating altogether for the next few moments. I really don’t know how long I stood there…probably seconds, but it seemed much longer. She was exactly as I remembered her. Her long blonde hair still styled as it was the last time I saw her. Adorned in a white jacked with a fur collar, it reminded me of the first time I met her…in a school parking lot at a semi-clandestine meeting. Her make-up perfect, her smile radiant…her demeanor, as hesitant as my own.

My feet began to move again as I slowly walked toward her. My arms opened, welcoming her into a hug…holding her perhaps a moment longer that I should have, but not long enough for the feelings welling up in me. While my inner being screamed at me to give her a tender kiss, I pulled away and told her how good it was to see her and how good she looked. I could see one of the choir lines begin to move and I hastily apologized for having to leave and get in for the service…telling her that I would see her in a little bit.

As we sang our songs and led the congregation in worship, my eyes kept returning to that spot near the left aisle…three seats in, eight rows back. Watching her as she sang and worshiped the Lord. Tears pooling in my eyes as I realized that we weren’t a “couple” any longer and the great treasure that I had lost. It seemed that we were on the platform longer than usual…most likely because I wanted to sit in the empty chair…left aisle, eight rows back, fourth seat in.

Finally, we sang our last number and exited the platform. Gathering my stuff, I entered the back of the sanctuary and found my way to the empty chair beside her. As I sat next to her for the next forty minutes, it seemed like nothing had changed. We were together…side by side, sitting in church. I found it difficult not to reach for her hand…or slide my arm around her holding her close. But I didn’t. Now wasn’t the time. I’m not sure there will ever be the “right” time again.

We spent the remainder of the day together, enjoying lunch (which she insisted on paying for as I slipped her some more money). We visited as though there wasn’t a 30 month gulf between the last time we sat side by side, talking about family, work, God. The time flew by much too quickly and we soon found that it was time for me to leave.

Ours is an unusual relationship. Divorced, yet in love. Separated, yet in touch regularly. Certain that a relationship right now is not what would be good for either of us…or for both of us. I’ve never loved anyone in the same way as I love Paula. I don’t know when we will find ourselves side by side again…if ever, but that one day together will be a day I remember forever.

Photo from Flickr

Friday, March 5, 2010

Remembering the "Wild Things"

My sister had told me it was a movie that I really needed to watch with my little brother.

“It’s a boy’s movie”, she said.

And she was right. As I sat and watched the DVD, I found myself laughing out loud and remembering my own childhood.

Building snow forts and making an arsenal of snowballs…ready for the next fight.

Sliding on my belly in the snow, believing that I must be invisible and able to sneak up on the enemy with my snowballs at the ready…not thinking about the bright colored snow coat that I was wearing.

Rolling down a hillside…head over tails…and laughing out loud when we got to the bottom.

Designing a “fort” in the dirt with the end of a pointed stick with the mandatory towers and “secret chambers”.

Having fights with dirt clods.

Picking teams between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”.

It was a “boy’s movie.” I don’t have a lot of really great memories of childhood. But watching a young boy in the movie “Where The Wild Things Are” helped me to remember some of the times that I spent with my brothers and sister as a young boy myself.

Times of playing in the freshly turned fields with the furrows of dirt and sod still moist and fragrant with a deep earthy smell. Remembering how angry dad was that we had moved some of those furrows out of their neat, parallel rows to make our forts, sometimes stacking several layers of sod on top of one another to give better protection from the dirt clods that would soon be flying our way.

I remember the times in the woods, climbing the cedar trees as we played hide and seek or cowboys and Indians. Watching my little brother Jeff in amazement as he would scurry up and down the trees more like a monkey than a boy. His apparent lack of fear as he would jump from limb to limb…from tree to tree. Whereas I would begin to shake if I got much higher than two or three limbs up off the ground, he would casually go to the top, even as the tree would begin to bend over under his weight.

“Zulu warfare” played in the wooded area down near the little creek. Each of us with long limbs torn from the nearest tree, our child-like imagination transforming them into carefully crafted “spears”, intent on impaling each other like the warriors on the African continent that gave name to our war games.

Dragging our snow sleds up the hill on the county road on cold winter days after a fresh snow before the gravel trucks came through to ruin the slope with coarse nuggets of rock that would slow our descent. First, the trip down the hill a couple of times with the toboggan to create a layer of packed snow and ice. Then we could begin to have the races on our sleds…each taking a running start and flying down the hill. At times, hand fighting each other and forcing the other off the bank…and on at least one occasion, into the creek below the bridge. After hours of play in the snow, the wet clothes would come off and a cup of hot chocolate would help to restore the heat to our bodies.

Sometimes, we need a reminder of the pleasant memories of our childhood. We need a trigger to refresh the stories of our past. We need to remember that it wasn’t all bad…that there were time of fun and laughter. Right now…I’m smiling as I remember.

Photo from Flickr

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"I'll eat you up, I love you so"

Max looks back over his shoulder…scanning the horizon. His little sail boat starts to move away from the shore. The look in his eyes says it all. It’s not complete. Something is missing. And then he sees him…Carol running up over the dunes to the shore. He wades out into the water, but it’s too late to hug Max…or even to say ‘goodbye’. The two look at each other for a moment and then Carol tilts his head back and lets out a “howl”. Max responds with his own “howl” as the two communicate with this bizarre exchange of “wolf calls”.

By now, the tears are streaming down my face. The sobs are uncontrollable as they fight to escape from the deepest parts of my soul. It’s not uncommon for me to cry at movies…especially films involving kids, but this seems different. Usually the tears come because a child is hurt, or lost or sad…or crying themselves. But in this case, Max wants to leave and go back home. The movie ends with his eating his soup, looking at his mom with a smile on his face and happy to be where he is. So why did I find myself reacting like this.

I’ve thought about my reaction a lot since I turned the DVD player off in my little home. And the more I reflected, the more I realized how much like Max I was at one point in my life not too long ago. In the movie “Where The Wild Things Are”, a young boy runs away and finds himself on an island with strange creatures…make believe creatures. And while he is there, he starts his relationship with the inhabitants based on a lie. He says that he is a King. And as he spends more time with these creatures, they begin to develop a relationship…a friendship…perhaps even a level of love for one another.

The two primary characters in the story are “Max” and “Carol”. There is a scene mid-way through the film where Carol scratches a heart with the letter “M” in it indicating his love for this young boy. Near the end of the movie, when Max has realized that he has hurt Carol, he goes to a special place to find that Carol has destroyed a dream world that he had created. He bends down and creates a heart with the letter “C” in it from the twigs and scraps strewn about the ground.

Pondering those two scenes helped to cement in my mind the anguish that I felt about the movie. For a number of years, I had been living the life of a young teen boy. I was searching for something that I had never found in my own youth. Relationships and friendships… I would find them in chat rooms. And while I was there, I would create my own lie about who I was and what I was. No claims to be a king, but it might as well have been that outlandish. In my mind and in my heart, the relationships seemed so real and the feelings that I would develop for the teens on the other end of my chats were genuine. But like the creatures in the movie, they were really only a figment of my imagination.

The last chat relationship that I had prior to my arrest was with a young man named “Chase”. He was 15 years old and in our imaginary relationship, two months older than I was. We spent countless hours together talking and sharing about the things that teenage boys talk about. School. Hobbies. Fears. But there came a day when the friendship ended and I had to re-enter the land of reality. I didn’t get to say good-bye. I didn’t get to explain who I was or what I had done. I don’t know if he cried or screamed or what. I don’t know if he was sad or confused or hurt. It was just over. We didn’t get to “howl” together.

I’m glad that that season of my life is over…that I’ve come to a place where I can be satisfied with genuine relationships. Like Max in the final scene in the movie, I’m happy to be home. But there is also a realization that I left some damage in my wake…that I may have (and probably did) hurt some young people along the way because of my selfishness. And so, as I sit and watch films or hear stories of the separation of friends, I’m sure that I can expect the tears and the sobs to return. But next time, I’ll be ready and understand their source.

Photos from Flickr

Illuminating the Scrim

There is an amazing type of fabric that is used in the theater world called scrim. This material has the unique property that if light is shined on it from the front, the material is opaque and you can’t see what is behind the curtain. However, if it is lit from behind the curtain, the fabric becomes transparent, revealing a new scene to the spectators in the theater seats.

As I read about this material, it prodded me to think about my own life and what I’ve kept hidden behind the “curtains” for most of my life. And more importantly, why I wasn’t able to see things about my personality, character and experiences that were there. Even those people who knew me the best…my wife, friends and family weren’t able to see me for who I really was.

The analogy of scrim has given me an understanding that I never had before and it is helping me to understand not only who I am, but also who some very important people in my life are. I am discovering that if all you do is look hard from the outside, you’re not going to get to see the whole person. But that’s what we tend to do in our humanness. We look at the “visible” and make a judgment about who or what the person is. If they’re not well-dressed, we may perceive them to be of “below average” intelligence. If they drive an “old beater”, we may decide that they are poor or destitute. If the color of their skin is different from ours or the language they speak is different from ours, we tend to avoid them and treat them as if they were alien not to our country, but to our planet.

The reality is…we are all different and unique. We will never be able to understand who others are, or who we are, until we take the time to readjust the light in their lives. This is often uncomfortable because we don’t always know what is going to be revealed behind the scrim. It feels safer not knowing what the whole story is…what images or memories or failures or experiences might be lurking behind the fabric. So, we tend to keep the light shining so that everything is opaque and invisible.

In my own life, I’m learning to allow the light to move from the front of the curtain to behind it. I have to admit, some of the scenes that are revealed are not pleasant or comfortable. But, I need to know. And as I continue to readjust the light in my own life, I’m discovering that others that I care about can become more comfortable looking behind their curtains as well.

Photo from