High Fives

High fives from cute teenage girls!  How could you not like that?

Well, I’ll tell you, this old guy was certainly not immune to the little ego boost that came along with the invitation to slap the upraised hands of the smiling university coeds as I ran by.  The next lap or two around the track seemed just a little shorter, the effort to put one foot in front of the other a little less demanding.

It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do.

I detest exercising in the cold.  Really, you could remove the last phrase from that sentence and still have a truthful statement.  I don’t like to exercise much.  Period.  I do it anyway.  I guess you could say I like the result more than I detest the method of reaching said result.  I’m a little happier with the shape of that guy I see in the mirror these days.

That said, I can hardly force myself to leave the comfort of our home and go into the great outdoors when the temperature dips much below fifty degrees.  So it was, one evening recently, I found myself headed for the indoor track at the local university’s health center since I didn’t want to brave the nearly freezing temperatures that had arrived suddenly.  I laughed at the irony of driving my car to the gym so I could run, but I did it anyway.  Did I tell you?  I hate to be cold.

The running/walking track in the health center is on a mezzanine that circles the outer gym wall about ten feet above floor level.  When I arrived, I noticed a number of students crowding the track near the railing, looking down on a girl’s intramural soccer game taking place on the gym floor.  The entire inside lane was blocked by the spectators, but there was another lane in which to run, so I began my three mile ordeal anyway.  I had to dodge an unobservant kid or two during the session, but they stayed out of the way for the most part.

As I rounded the one-tenth mile long track for about the twentieth time, I came to another conclusion.

I detest exercising on the indoor track–nearly as much as I detest exercising in the cold.

I am not made to be an athlete.  I constantly have to concentrate on what my feet are doing, or they get tangled in each other.  If I’m not careful, I pound my heels on the running surface and the result is an aching back and shin splints that hurt for weeks.  My arms fly all akimbo wherever they want, making me look, for all the world, like a stick figure lurching down the track.  As I tire, I find my upper body leaning forward, as if the end of this torture might come sooner if I lean into it.

The poor design of the track I was running on only made my discomfort more intense, and the crowd of kids along the railing simply added to the misery.  Still, I was determined to complete the distance I had predetermined to achieve.  So I tried to ignore the spectators, even though their presence made me take a few extra steps every lap by having to keep to the outside lane.  I may even have frowned at them a time or two as I approached them.  I really wasn’t thinking about how they felt.

Selfish kids!  Didn’t they realize the track was for patrons to exercise on?

It turns out that at least a couple of them were thinking about how I felt.

I was startled at about the twenty-fifth lap to see a couple of the girls watching me as I rounded the corner at the far end of the track. I was even more surprised when they both raised their hands in the traditional invitation for a congratulatory high five hand slap as I approached their position.  My shock didn’t keep me from slapping both hands as I passed.

In my imagination, I heard a conversation between the two girls as I had run within their view on the other side of the gym numerous times.

“Would you look at that old guy go?  He’s really good at this!”

“Yeah, I’m amazed at how far he’s run.  And, he’s still got such great form!  I’m gonna give him a high five the next time he comes around!”

What really transpired was probably something quite different.

“Would you look at that old guy?  He doesn’t look like he’ll get around the track another time.  I hope he’s all right.”

“Yeah, I’m amazed that he’s lasted that far.  We should give him some encouragement.  Let’s give him a high five if he makes it back around.”

Regardless of their motivation, or their impression of my skills, the high five did the trick.  I was encouraged and felt better about running inside.  The remaining half-mile went by easily.  I didn’t trip myself and I’m pretty sure that I managed to run upright, instead of leaning forward like an old man running downhill.

It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do.  Especially when it comes from an unexpected source.

Last Saturday, I got to play with a few other people in a local music program.  The headline act was a professional saxophonist (who grew up here) and his band, who are all professionals as well.  My brass quintet did a couple of numbers on the program.  I played okay.  It was not a stellar performance, but it was a competent one.  I expected the hometown folks to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  It’s what people do.  I would do the same thing.

Imagine my astonishment when, at intermission, the keyboard player for the headliner walked over to where I was standing with a young lady who had sung in one of the earlier acts.  Shaking my hand, he specifically mentioned how much he loved hearing me play the French horn and made a point of complimenting my performance.  Then, turning to the young lady, he commented on the piece her group had sung, making sure to mention how beautiful it was.

If ever I have been genuinely encouraged, this did the trick!

First, that the man even knew what instrument I played was astounding to me.  Half of the hometown folks couldn’t have told you that.  They just know I play in the group and they like the overall sound.  He picked out the instrument and knew who played it, as well as being aware of the performance itself.  This from a man who should have been standing and letting us compliment him on his stellar abilities at the keyboard, while playing in that outstanding ensemble.  We never got the chance to return his encouragement before he was off to the next group he wanted to greet.

Do you understand what he did?  I wonder if even he understands it.  My guess is he does not.

Praise from someone you don’t expect it from elevates the spirit, freeing the one complimented to do even better.

I’ve heard all of my life about people who have the gift of encouragement.  I hear from them frequently myself.  They are the people who look for opportunities to praise, to prod to do better, to lift the spirits of all around them.  As a writer and musician, I appreciate them incredibly.  That said, I sometimes come to expect their input.  I don’t want to take away from what they do, because it is so important.

But, these unexpected bright spots, the glare of the spotlight which the unexpected compliment shines on achievement–Ah, that makes the spirit soar and give fuel to go the distance!

Are you an encourager?  Keep doing what you’re doing!  The world needs you and your kind words, as well as your exhortation to do better.

What if you’re one who is uncomfortable with encouraging others?  I wonder if you have any idea what one sentence from you will accomplish, offered at the right time?  You may be one of the young coeds offering the high fives.  You may even be the professional turning aside praise to offer it instead to others.

Like the uncomfortable zone I move into every time I exercise, or leave the warmth of my home to go into the cold world, you may find it frightening the first time you do it.  It may even be frightening the first one hundred times.  Do it anyway.  You never know who you will inspire to do better, to reach further, to stretch themselves out of their own comfort zone.

All it takes is a high five.  Or a kind word.

You can afford to give those away.

You’ll probably get them back anyway.

“The praise of the praiseworthy is beyond all rewards.”
(from “The Two Towers” ~ J.R.R.Tolkien ~ 1892-1973)

“So, encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:11 ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Still Bright and Keen

“Hmmm…Plow won’t scour.”
I turn my head and look to my right at the person who has spoken those words dishearteningly.  You would not be surprised if I told you that the speaker was a weathered old farmer, grown aged before his time by battling the unforgiving elements and the uncooperative earth.  It is the kind of phrase that such a person would utter.
You could almost see him struggling behind a team of horses, fighting to keep the plow deep in the soil.  The old plow blade is no longer smooth and shiny as when it was new, but has seen better years.  The pits and creases lend their aid to the gummy clay dirt which clings stubbornly to the surface, refusing to slide up and over the top as the blade rives the soil.  Again and again, the old man has to halt his team, reaching down to clean the plow, performing the job which the action of plowing itself should accomplish.  What a frustrating task!
But the person on my right is no weathered farmer, simply a petite, retired piano teacher, her hands now unsuited for even the slightest amount of physical labor.  The object of her dismay is not a plow, splitting the dirt in a wheatfield, but a serving spoon, lifting rice from the bowl in front of her.  The sticky material is not cooperating, leaving clumps of the white grain behind on the spoon, making each successive trip to the serving bowl less productive.  She is not plying the spoon herself, but it is an annoyance she cannot abide.  I snicker a little as her hand reaches out with her own spoon to clean off the errant rice.  Satisfied once more, she allows the bowl and spoon to move out of her reach on down the table.
Plow won’t scour?
I will admit that I was confused the first time I heard the term from my mother-in-law’s mouth many years ago.  I raised my eyebrows and looked at her expectantly, knowing that an explanation would follow.  She told of watching farmers plow in the unforgiving soil of the Badlands in South Dakota when she was a girl.  Many times, they would have to stop the machinery to clean the blades, knowing that the time spent in cleaning the blades would pay off in time saved later on and a job done more efficiently.  In the unforgiving world of the farmer, it was foolishness to ignore trouble and put off finding a solution until the damage was done.  The furrows had to be clean and deep to allow the seed to take root and flourish below the surface, producing the crop that was essential for the farm’s success.  The way to make those furrows clean and deep was to keep the plow bright and sharp.
Probably the most famous use of the phrase is rumored to have occurred at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Immediately following the delivery of what was to become one of the most famous speeches in American history, President Abraham Lincoln supposedly turned to his bodyguard and told him that his speech, “like a bad plow, won’t scour.”  It is possible that he thought it a poor showing on his part, but time has certainly put the lie to that sentiment.  Many of President Lincoln’s opponents immediately held his words up to ridicule, but the intervening years have allowed us to see how cleanly and deeply the words have cut through the soil of our country’s experiences.
Who among us is not moved by hearing the opening words to that short, but powerful speech?  “Four-score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  I’m pretty sure that the plow still scours just fine, Mr. President.
I’m no farmer, but I understand how important it is that the rows in the wheat field run straight and true.  The whole process of growing a crop depends upon it.  Beyond the frustration and additional labor at plowing time, if the furrows are not uniform in depth and plane, the seeds will not be dropped in an even pattern, the plants won’t grow far enough apart to allow cultivation, and the crop will not be accessible to the combines as they move through the fields to reap the harvest.  At the very start, the plow must scour.
I get the feeling sometimes that I’m more than a little obvious in the morals with which I bring my stories to a conclusion.  If I say no more tonight, can I count on you to consider a minute or two longer the lessons to be drawn in our everyday life here?  Will you ponder, just for a moment, the importance of preparation, of diligence, of correction?  I’ll leave it with you then. 
Who knows?  The next time you’re eating dinner, you might even recall the lesson when the serving spoon starts to stack up with rice or cheesy potatoes, too.
Sometimes, the everyday examples are the best ones to help us to remember and to apply life’s deepest truths.
“You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”
(Old Irish proverb)
“‘Bright and keen for Christ our Savior’,
This our motto true.
We will try to live for him
In everything we do.”
(Christian Service Brigade theme song)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 

Total Recall

I emptied the cookie crumbs out of my coat pocket tonight.  I have no idea how they got there.

The red-headed woman who raised me would have suggested I have a selective memory.  She always seemed to think I remembered the things I wanted to remember and forgot the things which were less convenient to recall.

She was right.

It is a common human trait.  I have related many memories which I have from my childhood and early adult years to you.  My siblings, who quite possibly follow my late night ramblings simply as a form of self-protection, often tell me they don’t remember events exactly as I have relayed them to my readers.  The interesting thing to me is that seldom do they disagree completely about whether an event occurred or not.  We simply differ in our remembrance of the details involved.

I have delighted in reaching back through the years to pull a memory out of the darkness of decades past, only to find we can still learn from the foolishness of youth, or the disasters which have overtaken us, or even the errors we make in our relationships.  Memories help us to keep strong ties with those we love, and to move on into the future, stronger and wiser for the experience.

This week, I read with dismay an article in a current science magazine.  The article suggested that memories are unreliable.  It even made the claim that science is on the verge of being able to erase and rewrite memories, as if this would be a good thing.  The article cited examples of wartime atrocities and childhood abuse as justification for the necessity of such a radical act.

I am terrified at the possibility that this “Total Recall” world might actually become reality.

Do I understand that some memories are horrible?  I do.  Do I have some of these horrible memories myself–memories so awful, so graphic, that I sometimes wish they had never been part of my experience?  I do.  Would I be happy to have these memories erased from my mind, as if those events had never occurred in my life?

I would not!

Before going any further, let me say that I don’t want to get into a contest to see whose memories are harshest.  I won’t try to prove I have more reason to wish my memories wiped away than anyone else, nor will I tell you mine are nothing but sunny and joyful recollections.  Neither position would be true.  There are people with images etched into their brains that I can’t imagine having.  I wouldn’t dare to burden you with some of mine.  That said, I cannot imagine having a single one of them removed from my consciousness forever.

Our experiences make us who we are today.  Our memories inform us and teach us, helping us to become better people.  They allow us to be sympathetic to people going through the same things and to be indignant about humans treating others in ways we know from experience are wrong and damaging.

Take away our memories and you take away our motivation, our responsibility even, to make this world a better place as we move through it.  If the memories of everyone who lived through the Holocaust had been wiped clean of that horror to make their later years more comfortable, we wouldn’t know that we needed to be vigilant to see that it never happened again.

In effect, if you wipe out the memory of an event, it didn’t happen.  As a consequence, it cannot be necessary to avoid its reoccurrence.

It is slightly apropos that I mentioned my mother when I talked about selective memory earlier.  You see, she is one who has little by little lost her memories.  I spoke with her some time ago about the house in which I grew up, her home for over thirty years.  She has no memory of the place–cannot see it in her head at all.  Many other memories have been lost to her, including the names of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.

I grieve for her lost years.  I am not alone in that grief.

Are there some memories she is better off without?  Possibly.  Is it preferable she have the bad memories, along with the good?  Undoubtedly.

It is impossible to consider the possibility of having memories erased without at least momentarily considering some specific events I’d like to never recall again.  I’d like to never see that lady’s face again as she died in the car wreck.  I’d like to forget the cruelty of certain childhood bullies.  I’d like to forget the pain on my father’s face as he sat and tried to talk about my run-in with the police.

But then again, no

I don’t want to forget a single one of those occasions.  Not one.

They are part of the fabric of my life, the integrity of who I am, if you will.  Without every one of them, collectively, I would not be who I am, nor could I be of any use to others who are walking the path along with me.

And even as I write, I recall where the cookie crumbs came from.  I’ll pay for them later with an extra mile or two of running.  I’m still learning from the past, you see.

Good–Bad.  They are all memories that I need and use every day of my life.

I’ll keep them, thanks.

“Memories are the key, not to the past, but to the future.”
(Corrie Ten Boom ~ Dutch Christian & Holocaust survivor ~ 1892-1983)

“You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.  Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”
(Clarence in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” ~ Frank Capra, director ~ 1947)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Insufficient Funds

Photo: Kenny Louie (Vancouver Canada)

The female voice at the other end of the phone line was terse.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Phillips.  The account is closed.  You can never collect that check.”

The call ended and I sat at my desk, stunned.  Eight hundred dollars!  Gone, like smoke blowing in the breeze!  Eight hundred dollars!

The couple had come in to buy the guitar and amplifier just days before.  Well, to be honest, they had come in separately, sort of like a tag team, on succeeding days.  The first day, the man came in–you know–to case the joint.  That’s what they call it in the movies, isn’t it?  He was a big, friendly fellow, showing an informed understanding of the guitars and amplifiers.  Before he left, he had selected an instrument and an amplifier that complemented the electric guitar he wanted.  After I gave him the total for the items, including tax, he headed for the door.  He would be back.  It was possible that he couldn’t make it, but his girlfriend would come to get them if that was the case.

He couldn’t make it.  She came in the next day, a quiet, withdrawn young lady who knew nothing about music, save that she needed to pick up the merchandise her boyfriend had set back.  She wished to pay with a check which he had already made out for the exact amount.  It was after banking hours, so I couldn’t call the bank to confirm the funds, but fresh in my mind was the picture of that big, likeable man.

Sure, it will be fine!  A pleasure to do business with you!  Thank your boyfriend for me, won’t you?

I had even helped her load the items in the trunk of the car.  Almost without another word to me, she backed out of the parking space and sped down the street.  I never saw her again.

I stormed into the County Prosecuting Attorney’s office the next week.  The lady at the desk laughed unsympathetically when I told her the name of the person against whom I wished to file charges.

“Get in line,” she quipped dryly.  “Those people papered the whole area.  They must really have been good at what they do.”

I never recovered a dime of that money and, because of the way the law reads, the merchandise was no longer mine to claim, either.  Eight hundred dollars worth of equipment gone!  It was a hard blow to take.

Insufficient funds.

I wonder sometimes if I haven’t been guilty of the same crime that couple committed.  Oh, I’ve never written a hot check, never forged a check, never tried to pass off a closed account as a viable one.  But, I have made promises for which I didn’t have the resources to follow through.

Let me see if I can explain.

Tonight I’m contemplating the debt I have piled up over the years of my life.  If you are a follower of Jesus, as I am, you will no doubt recall that the Apostle gave us instructions about which debts are acceptable for us.  Well, not debts (plural).  It is actually only one debt which we may legitimately owe.  That’s right.  We owe the debt of love to our fellow man.  The Teacher said that it was the second most important Law from God.  The most important is for us to love God with everything we have.  The second?  Love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I like that.  Always have.  Simple.  Concise.  Love God, love each other.  Any questions?

Well, yes.  What do I do when the debt gets too much for me to pay?

I have spent a lot of time over the last few years lecturing my readers about our responsibility to take care of those who have need of earthly goods.  What I am coming to realize is that this is the cheap part of the repayment of our debt of love for our fellow man.

Money?  I can part with it.  Food?  No problem–take what you need.  Need a car for a few days?  Take mine.  It’s available.

I am coming up a little short of funds in servicing the love debt, though.  The part which is not so cheap has been coming due with more frequency lately.  I really don’t have what it takes to pay up anymore, at least not from my own resources.

I can pay the debt as long as I can keep those I’m supposed to love at arm’s length.  It’s what occurs when my neighbor needs me to hold them close and give of myself that costs more than I have to spend.  Again and again, the call comes to comfort, to serve, to hold people who are hurting.  They have lost husbands and parents.  They have children who are making horrendous life choices and are lost to them.  Many of them have even lost themselves in the hubbub and din of the world around them.

They reach out to me, but I have no reserves.  There is nothing left with which to love them.

It costs too much to love these people!

I owe a debt I cannot pay.

I think though, that I am finally beginning–just beginning–to glimpse the beauty of the system.

I remember the old preacher saying the words years ago.  I resented them at the time, because I thought he had an ulterior purpose in saying them.  He may have; it doesn’t matter.  The words are still true.

“God never orders anything that He doesn’t pay for.  When He tells us to do something, He has already written the check for the full amount.”

And, here’s the beauty of it all:  When we love Him with everything that is in us, He pours out His own love into our hearts.  Did you get that?  Pours out!  Love is not doled out as needed, not rationed as if there is a shortage of it in the world.  He pours it out into our hearts–for us to pour out into those around us.

The debt has already been paid in full!  Poured out till it runs over.

We are without excuse.  We still owe the debt, but the funds have already been set aside and made available.

Will we pay it?

“…Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
(Romans 5:5 ~ NASB)

“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
(Mother Teresa ~ Roman Catholic Sister ~ 1910-1997)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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A Game of Catch

I really don’t know what happened.

She came into my place of business with a smart phone in her hand.  That in itself is not unusual.  Recently, I have even become used to customers who spend their whole visit filling the air in my shop with the words of one side of a conversation.  Merchandise is selected as they talk about the woes of dating, or the disaster of yesterday’s calculus exam.  Frequently, they even come in while receiving instructions from a friend about what product they should select while in the music store.  The last variety of call, I can tolerate.  The others?  Not so much.

This young lady, however, had the phone in her hand, not up to her ear.  Maybe we could get this one taken care of without interruption, if we hurried.  We sailed through the initial stage of our transaction.  I found the book she wanted and the girl stood at the counter, prepared to hand over the payment for her purchase.

Too late!

The phone in her hand buzzed right about the time she proffered her debit card.  Instead of raising the offending device to her ear, she typed in a message on the tiny keyboard and then clicked one last button.  Looking back at me, as if seeing me for the first time, she visibly jerked a little.

“Oh.  Sorry.  I’m having a political argument.  Most of the time, I’d just wait to answer, but he’s really making me angry.”  She shrugged her shoulders, as if to indicate the hopelessness of her position and laid the card on the glass counter top, sliding it to me.

As I ran the transaction through my card terminal, her phone buzzed anew.  She looked down at it and sighed, a loud indicator of her frustration.  I wished for a moment that her partner in communication could hear the sigh himself.  Perhaps then he would refrain from further messages.  I handed her back the card and the receipt to sign.  She motioned for me to wait, intent on the screen on her phone.

Did I say it was a smart phone?  They may not be so smart, if they can’t hold a message for a minute or two, while their owner takes care of business.  Then again, it may be the owners of said pieces of electronic gadgetry who aren’t so intelligent.  It was obvious that this lady was agitated, but also just as clear that she was a willing participant in the ongoing argument which was taking place.

By now, you may be wondering if I’m ever going to get to what happened that was so confusing to me. What happened is that before she left the store, this young thing was arguing with me!  Worse–I was arguing with her!

Pen and receipt lying in front of her, she continued to peck away at her little keyboard.  With a final angry flourish, she banged on the send button.  Seeing that she was starting to sign the receipt, I stated (a little smugly) that I didn’t get into political arguments anymore because they were so pointless.  I didn’t know it, but she already had me roped in.

One short little sentence at a time, she drew me into her web, first asking my opinion about a comment her texting friend had made.  From my answer, one tiny point after another, she extrapolated a position until she thought she knew what I believed and then she sprang her trap.  Before I knew it, she was not only arguing with her partner in crime on the phone, but she was going back and forth with me about the same subject.

Evidently, she didn’t have anywhere else she needed to be.  She just stood, leaning on the counter, and argued both in person and virtually.  Periodically, the phone in her hand would buzz again and she would turn her attention to the other combatant, taking a momentary truce in our battle of wits and leaving me to gather my thoughts about me once more.

It was in one of these silent moments that my head actually did clear and I saw what was happening.  Unlike her, I didn’t have time for this activity.  On top of that, I really am convinced of the futility of arguments.  When she turned her attention to me again, I spoke quietly.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t intend to argue with you.”

She snorted.  “We’re not arguing.  We’re debating.”  It was obvious that she was actually enjoying this and wanted to continue the argument.

I wasn’t and didn’t.

Moments later, she left, disappointed that I would not continue with the verbal game of catch.  I have to wonder; who wins such a game?  One party winds up a thought and throws it full speed at the other.  Deftly, the second participant catches the thought and throws another one back at the same speed.  Back and forth, the ideas fly, never taking root, never resting long enough to get a fair hearing.

Does anyone ever win a game of catch?

Before she was out to her car, she was clicking away at the buttons on her smart phone again.  Angry?  I don’t think so.  She was just doing what came naturally to her–still playing catch with words and ideas.  She had no intent to stop, nor indeed, to take action on any point of the discussion.

I’m not going to quote the usual scripture verse about living with a contentious woman.  It might fit the circumstances, but to dismiss her actions based solely on her gender seems to miss the point entirely.

No.  Her actions are those of many today, both male and female.  Eager to discuss, to debate, even to argue the current state of things, they decry the actions and opinions of those in power, as well as the actions or opinions of anyone else who disagrees with them.

The problem is that folks of words and arguments are seldom people of action.  I have been such a person as the former.  I want to become the latter.  I can’t get there by repeating the mistakes of my past.  I will never accomplish any of my goals as long as I simply stand and discuss the ways and means.

There is little more than enough energy to just perform the task.  If we spend our energy in talk, we’ll lose the window of opportunity to get the job done.

Every day, we see an amazing number of people who are intent on drawing us into their web of conversation.  They are at work constantly.  They don’t always walk in our doors, but they will use whatever tools at their disposal to waste our time.

There are still more people around us who actually need us to get busy.  They are awaiting the result of our efforts.

I’ve told you before that the red-headed lady who raised me suggested to me frequently that I would argue with a fence post.  She was not wrong.  That said, I’m learning that it’s really not the fence posts which trip me up anymore.

The pesky people who lean on them–or on my counter–them I’ll have to learn to avoid.

It’s time to be up and doing.

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”
(Proverbs 26:4 ~ ESV)

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
(Walt Disney ~ American cartoonist/businessman ~ 1901-1966)

“Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor, and to wait.”
(From “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ~ American poet ~ 1807-1882)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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What Did I Come In Here For?

The sky is raining again.  I knew it would.

Funny.  I’m not unhappy about it.  Usually, around this time of year, I start to get a little more moody.  The time change last weekend means that I have almost no free time during daylight hours, so I live my life under lights, instead of out in the sunshine.  Add to that mix the shorter days, along with a little adverse weather, and most of the ingredients for depression have been tossed into the mixing bowl of life.

I usually dive in without a second thought.

But, in much the same manner as I abstained from the chocolate-chip brownies as they were passed around the table after supper tonight, I think the proper answer this time is, “No thanks.  I’ve had enough.”

Those of you who read my last post may not have been impressed with the sagacity of my biking friend, who made me change gears, so to speak, in my thought processes.  But, his wise words are making me rethink much of how I approach the less joyful events which happen in all of our lives.

The simple words, “You’ll get there when you get there,” have led to a few more questions on my part.  I asked a couple of them to another friend as we talked today while I worked on a project at the music store.

“Why do we let the events we are involved in change our resolve and intent?”

He looked at me blankly, wondering if it was the lead-in to another joke to be groaned at.  Then, seeing that I was serious, he played along, realizing that it was futile to try to change the subject.

“What do you mean?”

I mentioned another of my friends who is a biking enthusiast.  Unlike me, this other friend has not jumped into his hobby with all the gusto of a miser being told that he must pay to air up his tires at the corner gas station.  No.  This friend has opened his wallet again and again, to the tune of thousands of dollars, all to avoid the very thing that drew him to the pastime in the first place.

You see, most of us who ride do so to stay in good physical shape.  What happens to many is that, as we become more and more focused on the activity (and not the benefit), we look for ways to eliminate the physical exertion.  Thinner tires, lighter frames, more gears, less air drag–the list goes on and on.  Soon, we don’t even remember that we needed to get our heart rate up and climb those hills. We just want to talk about the latest and boldest way to remove any obstacles to ease.

We didn’t start out looking for ease.

We began our journey by seeking to better ourselves.

How did we lose sight of the goal so quickly?

I laughed today as the Lovely Lady walked behind the counter that holds our band instrument accessories and then just stood there looking around, not moving.

“What are you doing?”  I asked, a little confused by her actions, or lack thereof.

She shrugged.  “Oh, nothing.  I can’t really remember why I came over here.”  With that, she walked into her office and sat down to work at her computer.

Don’t laugh at her.  You’ve done it yourself.

That’s exactly what we do when we lose sight of our life goals, as well.  When we started down this road, we understood clearly what it was that we needed to accomplish.  Now weeks, months, years down the way, we have become distracted by the scenery.  We are fascinated with the equipment required for the journey.

Did I tell you recently that the journey was the important thing?  I think I may have done that.  I do not repent of my words.  There is joy in the journey.

What I failed to mention is that we must stay on the course to our destination.  Detours are dangerous.  Side errands become quests.  Short breaks turn into extended vacations.

Tonight, as I struggled with the very same project I was working on as I talked with my friend earlier, I almost dove into that mixing bowl of emotional distress again.  Nothing was working!  I removed the same pieces I had replaced three times already and walked away from my workbench in disgust.  But, as I did, in my head I heard the voice of a young boy who had wandered into my work area yesterday.

The precocious little imp had looked around him and then sighed.  Gazing up at me as he shook his head, he said, half scolding, half sympathetically, “You sure have a lot of jobs that you haven’t finished here.”

Tonight, with that little voice echoing in the empty places in my head, I turned back to my workbench and persevered on the project, replacing the parts yet again.  When I went home a little later, the Lovely Lady looked at me, expecting to see the storm clouds still hovering about my head.  When she saw no evidence of them, she wondered aloud how I had fared.

“I’m not done, but I can see the end from here,” were my words.

How about it?  As you look ahead, along that road still to be traveled, do you see the goal clearly?  Maybe you’ll need to get back to the main road before that happens.  Perhaps, you’ll even need to get a fresh start after an extended leave of absence.

Don’t let the delays deter you from making the journey at all.  The storms ahead can’t keep you from going on through to the end.  We dare not allow equipment malfunctions to turn our focus from the task our hand has been put to.

The rain is still falling as I bring this to a close.  It is a reminder that the distractions will always be there.

So will the task before us.  I know what I have to do.

Are you coming with?

“I don’t have a short attention span.  I just–Oh look!  A squirrel!”

“Short cuts make long delays.”
(from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien ~ British educator/author ~ 1892-1973)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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I have come to the conclusion that I am a fair-weather cyclist.

Over the last few years, I have begun to appreciate the joy of riding a bicycle through the country side–over hills, around lakes and streams, and between grassy fields full of livestock.  From my first attempts that were only two or three miles long, I have gradually extended the distance and increased my energy output.

I was thinking that I would continue that through the coming fall and winter months.  I may need to rethink my optimism.

Yesterday, I headed out for an afternoon ride in the sunshine.   The temperature was a brisk fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit.  I was dressed appropriately.  What I hadn’t prepared for was the even brisker wind blowing from the northwest.  The seventeen to twenty mile per hour breeze was surprisingly difficult to ride against.  Biking either to the west or the north slowed my progress substantially.

On relatively flat stretches of the road, I can normally average 15 to 20 miles per hour.  Imagine my surprise when I attempted to achieve those speeds yesterday, only to find that I could hardly reach them, much less sustain them.  What I found was that if I dawdled along at 10 miles per hour, I could ride almost comfortably, but over that, for each mile per hour I sped up, the effort required was an amazing amount.  If I reached 15 miles per hour, I was pumping so hard it felt as if I was climbing the steepest hill I have ever attempted on a bicycle.

I struggled for the whole ride.  To top it off, I was exhausted when I finished a relatively short ride, almost as if I had ridden uphill the entire route.  Arriving home, I shoved my bicycle into the storage barn disgustedly.

It may just stay there until spring arrives.

But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty.

I talked about the problem with a fellow rider today.  I call him a fellow rider.  I’m certainly not in his league, but he is kind enough to play along with my little charade, so we’ll leave it at that.  When I complained about the difficulty, he wondered aloud about my purpose in making the ride.

“Are you trying to go really fast, or are you wanting the benefit of the exercise?”

The answer was obvious.  “The exercise, of course.  What are you driving at?”

His quiet reply came, “You don’t have to ride any faster.  Go as fast as you can without causing distress.  You’ll get there when you get there.”

Need I say any more?

What task is in front of you today?  Does it get more difficult with every step, every mile?  Every time you try to speed up, does the difficulty increase exponentially?

I wonder if we focus too much on the wrong things.

We’ve heard it again and again–there is joy in the journey.  In.  Not after.  Not at journey’s end, but in the journey itself.

The destination is not the goal, but rather accomplishing the task.  The goal includes the enjoyment of taking each step along the way.

Slow down. But keep going.

You’ll get there when you get there.

Exponential is a good term here.  No, I don’t mean the difficulty–this time.  What I’m saying is I’m pretty sure the benefits to finishing well are multiplied many times that of the drudgery and effort.  But, we’ll never know if we don’t keep at it.

Yeah.  I even see another bike ride or two in my very near future.  I may be slow, but I’m determined.

I’ll get there when I get there.

Photo: © David Lally

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.  They will soar high on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:31 ~ NLT)

“Get a bicycle.  You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”
(Mark Twain ~ American novelist ~ 1835-1910)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Seasonal Rambling

“Don’t you have any seasons down here?” 

The elderly man was standing outside the Luby’s cafeteria in the South Texas sun, in his hand a handkerchief, with which he mopped his brow. It was January–by strict definition, the middle of winter, yet the eighty-five degree temperature belied the description. The long line at the cafeteria was populated generally by older folks, like this gentleman, from parts much further north. They suffered in the heat while the natives who stood impatiently in the line with the Snow-Birds, as we commonly called these northerners, noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

I heard a man nearby reply laconically to the old Winter Texan’s (the Chamber of Commerce’s name for them) query. “Yep. Two. Hot and Hotter.” 

He wasn’t lying. The temperate climate of the Rio Grande Valley, where I spent my childhood (I almost inserted “wasted”, but in fact, it wasn’t), was such that the trees and foliage were covered in leaves and blooms year round. The folks from the colder climes came year after year to spend their winters in a place where the snow didn’t blanket the ground, nor ice cover the streets. We commonly joked about the rubber-necking habits of the old folks, as they drove the highways and roads, exclaiming in disbelief about the plethora of fruit-bearing trees and the flourishing tropical greenery. It was the middle of the winter! How was it possible that everything was still growing? They thought it was a paradise of sorts. 

I haven’t always agreed.

I left my childhood home at the end of my teen years, looking for a place to start out on my own. One of the prerequisites I had for the place in which I would settle was the presence of four distinct seasons. I wanted to experience winter. (Ah, the foolishness of youth!) I also wanted to see the blossoming forth of the spring. The summer season, I understood all too well, but I knew I could endure it. I even looked forward to the autumn, as the trees began to go into hibernation, pausing for a few weeks before that to bring out their finest adornments for one last fling. What an explosion of beauty, short lived though it might be! 

The foothills of the Ozarks proved to be the perfect locale for experiencing all of the seasons, most of them fairly mild…the winters with just the right amount of cold and snow, the springtime not too stormy, but beautiful with new life, nor the summers unbearably hot. And, the autumn? Ah! The autumn did not disappoint, with brilliant colors and spectacular vistas. I, like the aforementioned Snow-Birds further south, thought it paradise. 

It’s funny how the years can change your perspective. For the last decade, I have begun to dread certain seasons. At first, I thought nothing of it. Spring, I still love without reserve. New life–the earth is unfettered and fertile. How can one not love spring? And summer, with the kudzu covered hillsides, and its long lazy days easing into beautiful star-lit nights? Aside from those few with extreme temperatures and lack of rain, I love summer and am always sorry to see it wane. And now, as the years continue on, I have begun to question the reason for my change of heart, because I am loath to see the coming of fall and am downright rebellious about entering the winter. 

At first, I blamed the autumn for its part in portending the chill and bleakness of winter. 

Winter itself, I despise because it makes me cold–Period. I do not enjoy being cold. I contend that anyone who pretends to love winter actually loves the fact that they can be warm in winter, either in the nest they have built for themselves, or in the multiple layers with which they wrap themselves to ward off the cold while outside. They don’t love cold, but simply the sense of conquering it. Unfortunately, it conquers me. And, mercilessly it rubs the conquest in. I spend my winters huddled in front of the fireplace, awaiting the return of my beloved springtime and the warmth it brings back to my old bones.

But, is it just about physical changes that occur? Or, is there some deeper meaning to my antagonism toward the two waning seasons, autumn and winter? I’m beginning to think there might be. 

The Lovely Lady and I sat and teased each other on a recent evening, as I prepared to leave her and write for awhile. She spoke of our middle age and the fact that it was already in the past. I joked that I hadn’t yet enjoyed my mid-life crisis and might demand one. Again, she reiterated the fact that my chance for that was gone, since I would not see middle-age again. She is right. I know not a single person who has reached the ripe old age of one-hundred and twelve, so I can no longer claim to be middle-aged and must move semi-gracefully into my senior years. I’m not anxiously awaiting the autumn of my life.

And, now it becomes more clear. 

I understand, at least in part, that my objection to the seasons which show decay and then death are a reaction to a different sort of reality that is still to come. In the spring and summer of life, there is little thought to what the future will bring. We are vital and strong, with a sense of invincibility. We ignore the warnings of older folks, all well-intentioned, who caution that the invincibility will prove fleeting. Educations are acquired, partners are chosen and offspring arrive. We build our little empires, ruling them with no thought that the future might find them any less impregnable than they are while we are in our prime. But, little by little as the years pass, we begin to realize that, like all flesh, we are edging inexorably toward the coming latter seasons. 

Do you detect a sense of sadness, a note of gloom in my writing tonight? You shouldn’t. As life passes, I have come to realize that, although our human nature says the coming autumn and winter are times to be afraid of, they are actually seasons to exult in. 

What season is more spectacular than fall? Nature displays its glory, unashamed and proud. And we, appropriately, applaud. The autumn of life is somewhat like that, as we think about what has been accomplished and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Our families are our glory, as grandchildren and grand-nieces and grand-nephews proliferate. What an exhibition! Friends gather close and the joy of fellowship is multiplied. What a great season of life!

The winter is coming. I’m not ready to celebrate it yet. But still, in spite of the cold and the seemingly lifeless landscape, preparation is being made for new life to come. Need I say more? Those of you who have entered that season will understand. Sadness and joy are mixed with expectation. I think that I may just enjoy winter also. We’ll see.

“To everything, there is a season.” 

The Preacher, for all of his rambling, knew it. I’ll take them as they come. Who knows? I may even get some new winter clothes this year, so I can actually thrive in that chilly season too. The fireplace will still be there if I need it…

Fall is exploding all around us. I think I’m enjoying it more than ever before.

All nature sings!

Photo: Tyler Carroll

“So it is with you
And how You make me new
With every season’s change.
And so it will be
As You are re-creating me…
Summer, autumn, winter, spring.”
(from “Every Season” by Nichole Nordeman ~ American singer/songwriter)

“Springs passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”
(Yoko Ono ~ Japanese musician) 

Thanks to Tyler Carroll for the spectacular photo above.  Fall in Siloam Springs, AR. 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 

Edited and reprinted from a post on 8/29/2012.