Only a Vapor

My mind goes wandering and my heart tags along.

The old trite saying tells us home is where the heart is.  Granting the general veracity of the adage, it seems at times that the heart is a little confused about where it lives.  

Perhaps, it remembers a different home in which it once sojourned.  Perhaps, it is looking forward to a future one as well.
It appears that moving past middle age into the silver years has led me to reconsider my youthful resoluteness that I rather like this earthly home.  I’m reminded that this mortal existence is not the final stop for any of us.  
For a number of years now, one of my favorite quotations has been these words spoken over sixty years ago by C.S. Lewis: 
“Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive….We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life.”*  
It’s an incredible and humbling thing to consider the import of eternity.  There is a different home in the future for all of us.  Our path and choices today will determine where each of us will spend those ages of immortality.
That’s not exactly what I’m thinking about tonight, though.  
I really love the life I’ve been blessed to live right now.  After amazingly full days like today, perhaps there are a few second thoughts about how much I love it, but they soon pass and I consider how privileged am I to be involved in the lives of so many fine human beings (and a few not-so-fine ones).  
Yet, time after time over the last few years I have sat and reminisced, both alone and with old friends, about days gone by.  There’s a certain yearning that pulls us back, perhaps remembering that the days were less busy, the hours less demanding.  It may be that the years color the memories, making them more pleasant than the reality of living them, but they are still enjoyable and enticing.
So, does that mean that my heart is still back there and not in the here and now?  
Is the past really home?  
The answer to both questions is an emphatic “No!”  
I wouldn’t go back for all the treasure that could be offered.  You see, I’ve figured out that the beauty, the allure of the past, is that events have moved on.  I’ve lived through the disasters, the triumphs, and they are over.  
But even today, my memory is not so bad that I don’t remember the frustration of raising teenagers and of dealing with the emotion and childishness of family squabbles.  In my near senility, I have not lost the feeling of terror when accidents occurred, the sadness when death took loved ones.  The glasses I am wearing are not so rosy that I don’t see truth, but they are colored with the satisfaction of moving on, of coming through.  
Emotions rise and I feel pride, remembering the generosity of my son as he shares with the whole family, and the tender heart of my daughter as she cries with me over my Grandma’s passing.  
Those memories and many more like them color my consideration of loved ones in my life still today, because history is folded into the present and makes up who they are and who I am.
But time won’t wait.  
We live in the present, with new experiences continuing to make us into who we are becoming.  
What a wonderful gift, to be able to look back, enjoying the memories which are evoked by the glance behind.  And, what incredible anticipation is ours, as we look ahead to where the path is leading.  There are still a few more corners to turn, still a few more hills to climb before we arrive at our destination.  
Of all the gifts, I’m thinking that I’m most thankful for the blank page of the day just ahead, awaiting our first step into it, our first words coloring the empty space.  Here is where the past and the future meet.  This is the place where we set the memories, about which we’ll reminisce in years to come, into the history books of our minds. 
That’s it for today.  
No stories.  No moral.  No instructions.  Some days are like that.  We live, we love, we learn. 
We keep walking.  
Together, I hope.
Photo by Sharafat Khan
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; 
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.”
(Lamentation 3:22,23 ESV)
“We all have our time machines.  Some take us back; they’re called memories.  Some take us forward; they’re called dreams.”
(Jeremy Irons~English actor)
*from “Transposition and Other Addresses” C.S. Lewis, published by Geoffrey Bles, 1949
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Ghosts’ Stories

I believe in ghosts.

I read those words and wonder what friends will say.  I wonder what my parents would say.  I even wonder what my own children would think.  We didn’t talk about such things at my house as I grew up, nor as my children grew.  It will come as a surprise to all of them to realize that I am a believer in ghosts.

I may need to clarify a bit.

The longer I live, the more I realize that words mean different things to different people.  To some, ghosts are nothing more than a cartoon–Casper and his cohorts floating around and scaring children and being scared by the same children.  Others think of ghosts as the malevolent spirits exposed by movies in recent years, but told about in countless late night fireside sessions throughout the centuries before television.  The ghosts they see are the spirits of cruel men, long dead, sentenced to walk the earth and terrify the living, whom they hate.

Poltergeists and phantoms, along with apparitions, all spring to mind when the word ghost is invoked.  The reader is free to believe in these as he or she wishes.

I have no fear of such things.

The ghosts I believe in are all in my head.  And in my heart.  Still, I talk to them and even listen for their advice.  Oh, they don’t actually speak, but once they did.

Funny, I talked to Wayne and Betty the other night.  I was on one of my nightly running treks and just happened to run past the stone marker that bears their names in the local cemetery.  The ghosts in my head woke up as I passed that marker.  Not because they are walking the earth.  They’re not.

The ghosts in my head are simply the memories I have of folk who have been a part of my life, but are no longer physically with me.

I heard, once again, Betty’s voice as she chided the Lovely Lady and me one day many years ago, before we were married.  The lovely young thing was spending the summer working at a local camp and the separation was too much for a young couple to bear.  We had arranged to meet at the river near the camp, I sitting impatiently on the hood of my yellow Chevy Nova, as she trudged the half mile down a dirt lane.

Reunited, we leaned against the car and, holding each other tight, spoke of empty arms and hours and our love for each other, wishing it could be different.  But, within moments the calls began to echo down the river valley.  Her name was being yelled out.

We were caught!  As Betty approached the car, she was wearing an angry, yet relieved, expression on her face.  She aimed most of her frustration at me, and rightfully so.

It was the summer of the Girl Scout Murders.  Three girls had been murdered in their camp tents less than thirty miles from where we stood, and the murderer was still at large.  There was reason to be fearful and to take extra care.

I will never forget Betty’s voice as she scolded  me.  I was a selfish young man who needed the words that reminded me of my responsibility to others.  It was an embarrassing moment, but one from which a valuable life lesson came.

The other night, as I smiled at the memory (after the initial grimace of guilt had passed) of Betty’s words,  I immediately heard the gravelly voice of Betty’s husband Wayne.

The deacons at my church had been sitting and discussing different projects which needed to be completed, when the aging man spoke up.

“That old door has a crack under it big enough to sling a dead cat through!”

The memory of the words triggers fond thoughts of the laughter we shared many times, but also of the selfless servant this old saint was.  He was willing to dirty his hands on any project and gave of himself liberally.  Whether it was a plumber’s plunger or a carpenter’s hammer in his hand, he worked with a joy that couldn’t be extinguished.

The ghosts talked as I ran on.  Not even the huge spider web I ran through moments later could quiet them down.  Frantically, I wiped the sticky material off of my face and arms, and I thought I heard Wayne laugh again.

It strikes me as I write this that I, too, will be a ghost one day.  So will each of us.  And I don’t mean the kind that haunts old houses and drags chains around, either.  Still, I’m wondering what kind of memories my ghost will evoke in people who might chance to remember me.

We had a conversation about a couple of other ghosts one day recently, after a family dinner.  The mother and son have both passed away within the last few years, leaving behind them an inheritance of arguments and threats, and hate.

The ghost I see is standing on the bank of a river, brandishing a shotgun.  The Doberman dog at her side is growling menacingly as she threatens physical harm if the teenagers in the canoe stop to swim on her property.

The ghost of her son is not any less formidable, as I hear him curse and demean church-going folks.  The arguments were many and ferocious, at times.  Although not one of my personal memories, the story is told of a gun and the same river bank his mother stood on, only there was gunfire on that day.


The book is shut on the words they can speak.  The last action they can take has been taken and is sealed in memories forever.  Their legacy is complete.

Again, I wonder.

What sort of ghost will I be?  What legacy is to be left behind as the memories of my words and actions are set free on those still remaining after me?

I hear and read the words everywhere.

YOLO!  You only live once, the letters scream out.

They lie.

We may pass this way only once, but the record of our passing remains.

I sit deep in thought, but suddenly I shake off the reverie.  I am alive still.

Not a ghost.  There is time yet to write the dialogue.  Still time to choreograph the dance.  Time to map out the movements of the player.

Not a ghost.


“Carve your names on hearts, not tombstones.  A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
(Shannon L Alder ~ American writer)

“…it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment.”
(Hebrews 9:27 ~ ESV)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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My old friend pushed my door open this morning.  I was glad to see him.  My piano needed his visit as much as I did.  You see, my friend is a piano tuner, trained in the technical art by some of the best in the business, at one of the largest and most respected piano manufacturers in the world.

Never mind that he now looks the part of a mountain man, a backwoods kind of character in blue jeans and sandals, sporting an unruly beard.  He decided years ago that the demands of corporate life were not for him and hightailed it to the foothills of the Ozark Mountains to slow things down a bit.  In spite of his own rebellious streak, he is still the kind of fellow who can take a couple hundred unruly and out-of-tune lengths of piano wire and make them behave.  He has promised to take a shot at accomplishing that for my hundred twenty-five year old piano today.
It would be a welcome change.  The piano sounds atrocious.  Some notes are sharp; some are flat. When one plays in the key of D, it actually sounds like the notes are battling each other, going this way and that, but never coming to any agreement.  My head hurts to hear it.
I am not a fan of discord.  I like it when all the notes on an instrument cooperate, blending and taking their place in the chords.  
As I write the words, the mental picture of  the various notes fitting together comfortably makes me shift my focus.  I think it was something the Piano Man said when he arrived at my door.
I asked him how he was doing.  
He replied, perhaps a little sarcastically, “Oh, just another day in paradise.”
I literally jerked my head up to look at him.  The last man who said those words to me was not so unlike my friend.  I wrote of him a couple of years ago after his unexpected passing from this earth.  That man, who I called Mountain Man, had always answered my opening question with exactly the same words.  Only, he had added a second phrase every time.
“Just another day in paradise.  It keeps getting better and better all the time.”
As my mind drifted back to my acquaintance with my late friend, I recalled again our visits with each other.
We fought like a couple of  schoolyard bullies, each looking for an advantage, but neither gaining one.  It happened every time he came to visit.  I would make a comment and he would challenge it.  Perhaps it would happen the other way around and I was the contentious one.  
No matter.  
We argued.  We taunted each other.  We raised our voices.
The noise was not attractive.
Like jangling strings, slightly off-pitch from each other, we made our noises concurrently, but we simply could not blend.  There was never a pleasant chord, never any harmony.
Still.  I miss him.
I want to think that I’ve learned a few things in the intervening years, one of which is to live peaceably with my friends.  I want to think that.
Funny.  This morning, as the memories that flooded my head were still spinning in the gray matter, another friend wandered in.  This other fellow and I  have almost exactly the same relationship as the Mountain Man and I did, so much so that the Lovely Lady has to warn me to be on my best behavior whenever he comes to visit. 
She wasn’t here to warn me today.  But, the thought had already been planted in my brain, so I was prepared.  Harmony would reign.  It would.
This friend waited his opportunity and then he was off.  Up one row and down the other he went, looking for the button that would set me off.  Or, so it seemed to me.  
One subject after another was broached.  A few false starts on my part gave him hope, but I was able to quell the impulses.  Finally, I simply turned my attention to a job which had to be completed this morning and  I let him talk.  After a few moments, he realized that I couldn’t be baited into arguing and he made a quiet–for him–exit.
The Piano Man returned from his task, with a report of success.  Strings which had wandered from the fold had been gathered back in.  Errant unisons were again at the same frequency.  Chords would soothe now, instead of riling up.  
I look around me.  
No. Further than that.  Past the front door.
Further even than my town and the next town, and the next county.  I hear the raucous and jangly sounds of the world around and my heart sinks again. 
Where is the Tuner for this mess?  
Years ago, I learned to tune pianos myself.  The Lovely Lady’s father was a master tuner who taught others to follow the craft.  It didn’t take with me.  I wanted to make music, not to sit and pluck one, two, or three strings together, trying to make sense of the beats and overtones.
I did learn this:  The tuner starts with one string.
From that one, he moves to another, tuning it to the first.  Then another is tuned to that second one, and then another to that third one.
But, it starts with one.  One string that is willing to move into the correct frequency, to exactly the right pitch.
One string that will stay true as all the strings around it are tuned, each one counting on the one before it to stay true.
The result is astounding beauty.  Astounding.
Don’t believe it?  You should have heard my old piano when the Piano Man played his little concert on it after the tuning was done today.
There is a Master Tuner who is ready to bring harmony out of discord, music from noise.
He does it one string at a time.
Maybe it’s my turn to take the stretching.  And then to stay true.
Who’s next?
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people.”
(Romans 12:18 ~ ISV)
“In a long meter hymn, a singer–they call it lays out a line.  And then the whole church joins in in repeating that line.  And they form a wall of harmony so tight, you can’t wedge a pin between it.”
(Maya Angelou ~ American poet ~ 1928-2014)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved. 

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Photo by Onascout


“Do you know me, Bert?”

I can hear the high pitched voice of Jimmy Stewart, as George Bailey, blurting out the words in one of the final scenes of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  The classic holiday film is still a favorite in our house every Christmas season and we love to quote bits from it in our everyday conversation.

I’m not thinking about the feel-good stuff tonight, though.  Well, perhaps I am, but it’s a different kind of feel-good stuff.  Without going into the plot of the movie too much, let me explain.

The main character, when the quote cited above was delivered, was attempting to determine if his life was going to get back to normal, or if things were still very much awry.

He asked the question and then immediately starting recalling events which had happened before, as if they would prove his existence.  Digging in his pocket, he found, with great glee, the petals of a flower his daughter had asked him to fix earlier.

He also wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and declared, as if it were a discovery that brought great joy, “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert!”

Memories of the past.

They give us a point of reference.

We all want a place at which to shove a finger and declare, “I matter.  Because–that!”

I wonder.  Do you know me?

Perhaps, if I tell some more stories, the world will know who I am.  Like George Baily, my memories are both pleasant and painful.  They are a part of who I am.  There are, however, many of those memories which I would like for everyone to leave alone.  I don’t wish to be defined by those actions which have embarrassed and hurt others.

There are many of those.

No.  Perhaps, not the memories.

Maybe, I can find a document or two to show what I’ve accomplished.  It might be a diploma that hangs on an office wall to prove achievement in a chosen field, maybe even a certificate of appreciation from folks I’ve helped.  It is possible I could turn up a few of those.

Now do you know me?

I suspect that most other people have a few of those, as well.  Likely, many more than I.  They give a picture, of sorts, of what we’ve accomplished.  But, the documents can’t prove where we’ve been and what we’ve learned in the school of life.  There may even be a few testimonials that it would be best to leave in the drawer.  Not all of them would be glowing and warm.

No.  Probably not the achievement awards either.

Oh, all of the above are pieces of who we are, they simply do not give a complete picture of the whole person.

I’m still casting about for that thing to point to–that thing about which I can say, “I matter.  Because–that!”

As as I search among my files and papers, my mind suddenly settles upon the very thing!

It seemed that it might be one of those tender moments, one worth recording on the hard drive of my mind.  It happened just last Saturday.  I was helping to put away the laundry, a task I haven’t always been so vigilant about assisting with.

The Lovely Lady (who may change her mind about me, after reading this), leaned over near me as I picked up a pile of towels and spoke lovingly.

“I want you to know that there is something I really appreciate about you.”

I was ready for the earth-shattering declaration.  I guess I finally am getting the hang of this marriage partner thing.  I was already patting myself on the back in anticipation of learning the amazing character trait which had attracted her attention.

“What do you appreciate?”

She smiled and said the tender words.  “When you take off your tee-shirts, you make sure they’re right side out.  It makes doing the laundry so much easier.”

You’re laughing, aren’t you?

I’ll admit, it wasn’t quite what I expected either.  But, I want you to know the more I thought about it, the more I understand that this Lady knows me.  I get lots of tee-shirts dirty.  Running or biking five or six times a week leaves a heap of sweaty, stinky shirts.  Also, I’m a geek from way back and I can’t bring myself to wear a button-down shirt without a tee-shirt underneath.  Yep.  Another heap.

I’ve got to tell you.  A reference like that from the person who knows me better than any other human being is worth putting up on a billboard.  The small things make a huge difference when laid down, one after another, along the road we walk together.

I’m learning.  Baby steps, but I’m learning.

I matter.  Because–that!

A young friend introduced his brother to me in the music store today with the words.  I argued for a moment.  Only for a moment.

He said, “This is the finest man in this town.”

My young friend is, of course, wrong.  But then, I remembered that the Lovely Lady thinks so.  I do, after all, turn my tee-shirts right-side out before I toss them in the hamper.

I’ll take it.

I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention the most important thing to which we can all point and say those words, but you will, no doubt, already be thinking of the event.  Last week, as the group of people with whom I worship met for our Sunday services, we celebrated Communion.

It is a time in which we revisit the last meal the Teacher ate with His followers before His death.  The symbolism is powerful and moving every time.

Every time.

In the grand scheme of things, that event, the death of our Savior, is the one thing at which all of us who believe can point.  Together, we can say it, not because we’ve earned it, but because of the enormity of mercy undeserved.

“I matter.  Because–that!”

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
(Dr. Seuss ~ American children’s writer ~ 1904-1991)

“God’s mercy and grace give me hope–for myself and for our world.”
(Billy Graham ~ American evangelist/author)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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The Sharpest Tool in the Shed

I sell tools.  That’s it.


The children who scramble through my doors on any given day will argue with that description.  Their eyes light up like diamonds as they look around and see the treasures which hang on the walls and stand waiting on the floor.


They see toys.  Strings to run fingers over.  Drums to beat on.  Mouthpieces in which to blow.  The cacophony in the toy store is astounding when the children are here.  They don’t care in the slightest about the intended purpose for any of the joyous delights they’ve discovered.

The kids present a dilemma for me.  I love to see them pushing my door open.  I love the look on their expectant faces.  I love the thrill of discovery that springs up new in almost every one of them.

My problem is that I also love to see them pulling the door open to go out.  I love the sigh of relief that I breathe as quiet and calm reign once again.

You see, I don’t sell toys.

I sell tools.

Tools have purposes and correct ways of being wielded.  When the children are here, those purposes and techniques are nowhere to be found.  The noise and banging and blowing, unless harnessed and guided and controlled, tend to overwhelm me.  I am happy to wave a weary goodbye to the young tykes.

Funny thing.  I don’t run a hardware store.  I have a music store.  My walls and shelves (and floor) are covered with musical instruments.

Musical instruments.  Which are tools, not toys.

One hot summer night many years ago, I watched the cabinet maker at work in his shop.  The rough slabs of cherry wood had, one by one, been cut and routed and sanded.  Glued and fitted together, the individual pieces of wood had become beautiful paneled doors, ready to mount to the framework he had also laboriously cut and assembled.

The doors were perfect.  Perfect.  The stain he had sprayed on them a day or two before had only brought out the amazing grain in the wood, the reddish tint accenting the natural beauty that had always been there.  There was a slight gloss which the lacquer finish added; the lights overhead simply drawing attention to the exquisite design, both of the artisan and the Creator.

I said that they were perfect.  They were nearly perfect.  In order for the doors to serve their intended purpose, one thing remained.  They needed hinges to be mounted.  Not just any hinges would do.  They couldn’t just be slapped on, mounted to the surface, detracting from the perfection.  No.  They had to enhance it.  The hinges had to be recessed, becoming one with the doors.

Out came the wood chisel.  I cringed.

The craftsman glanced up at me and smiled.  He may have been remembering the same thing I was;  I don’t know.  I just had an image in my mind from a few days before, when the same man had been helping me with a mechanical repair on my old Chevy automobile.

I had needed to remove a part from under the hood.  It was mounted to the firewall with two screws.  I didn’t have a flat screwdriver handy, but I did have the solution.  I reached into my toolbox and grabbed–the wood chisel.  It was flat on the end.  It fit into the screw’s slot and I twisted.  Eventually, the screw turned and was removed, but not before the blade slipped out of the slot a time or two.

My craftsman friend was astounded.  Not in a good way.

“You just ruined that chisel,”  was all he said.  It was almost as if I had injured him.

I just grunted and stubbornly started on the other screw.  The repair was completed and the car functioned again, but the chisel was indeed, ruined.

That memory was going through my head as I watched the cabinet maker take his razor sharp chisel and cut a perfect mortise for the brass hinge.  Then he cut another and another.  Like the rest of the door, each one was perfect, the hinge butting up against the raised edge of the wood with precision.  A thing of beauty.

The master craftsman wielded the tool with purpose and understanding.

The result was perfection.

Back in my store, the tools hang on the walls and stand on the floor, waiting for master craftsmen or women.

I have heard the result when they are wielded with purpose and understanding.

The music is astounding.

I don’t exaggerate when I tell you there are times I stand and weep at the beauty of the product of such perfectly wielded tools.  I’m not sure the music in heaven will be much sweeter.

You’ve heard it too, haven’t you?

I can’t help but wonder what the result would be if we would ever understand our own place in this world, in creation.  We could be tools in the hands of the Master Craftsman.

Imagine the beauty!  Hear the sweet music!

I look at the reality of the world around me and realize the kids are playing with toys instead.  The chaos and the cacophony of noise as the instruments are wielded by immature and ignorant hands is confusing and deafening.

Surely, we were designed for better things.

Perhaps, I’ve said more than I should.  I think it’s time for rest.

And quiet.

I have more tools to sell tomorrow.



Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
(from Gotta Serve Somebody ~ Bob Dylan ~ American singer)


Stop offering the parts of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.  Instead, offer yourselves to God as people who have been brought from death to life, and the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness to God.
(Romans 6:13 ~ ISV)


© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.



Stitches, one after another, become the fabric,
     the stuff of life.
The hands of the artisan grow old and slow,
     and still the pattern unfolds.
Changes come, direction reversed, and the
     stitches are altered.
No matter; they yet follow what’s
     been woven before.
The hands falter; the count is lost. With a glance back,
     the pattern is recalled.
Dropped stitches picked up, the passage ahead is
     clear once more.
Through the whole of our lives the fabric is crafted,
     with integrity, one would hope.
But, with or without, the cloth unfolds,
     one day to become the narrative of a life.
What will be read in my history? Perhaps the tale will be a warm wrap,
     shielding from the numbing cold.
But then again—as likely—a rag, suited only to mop up filth.
     Choices today determine utility tomorrow.
Stitches, one after another, become the fabric,
     the stuff of life.
The hands of the artisan grow old and slow,
     and still the pattern unfolds.
 “The righteous who walks in his integrity–blessed are his children after him!”
(Proverbs 20:7 ~ ESV)
“Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric?  Think first about the foundations of humility.  The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”
(Saint Augustine ~ Ancient Roman Christian theologian, Bishop of Hippo ~ 354-430)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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The Story of Her Life

“There’s not enough!  The story of my life.”

The red-headed lady who raised me was disgusted.  A new baby was due soon to a young couple in our church and she was on a deadline to finish the crocheted blanket.  The baby shower had come and gone without a gift to offer, but she remained confident the project would be completed before the little tyke’s arrival.


Just inches short of the intended size, she had run out of the variegated yarn she loved to use on such projects.  There was no way she had time to order more.  Alas, the child might actually come into this world without the blanket.  From her perspective, it would be a disaster.

“The story of my life!”  She repeated the plaintive phrase.  She threw up her hands in disgust and, sticking the crochet needle through the loosely-knit material, tossed the blanket into the wicker basket beside her chair.

She was done, it seemed.

Giving up.

Ah!  But we knew better.  It was only a matter of time.

She sat, moping, in the easy chair.

Anytime now

There it was.  The index finger on her right hand went to her mouth.  She tapped her lips, muttering.

“I wonder…”

The change was abrupt when it came.  Her left hand plunged into the basket and pulled the good-for-nothing blanket back onto her lap.  She began to yank on the single tendril of yarn hanging out of the edge, at exactly the same place she had ceased her labor only moments before.

Like a mad-woman, she worked–ripping out the same stitches she had put in laboriously in the hours preceding.  We wondered if she had gone mad.  The thought didn’t last long.  She soon stopped and examined the blanket to see where she was.  Then, more slowly than at first, she continued to pull at the yarn.  There was a sizable pile at her feet when she finally stopped.

Talking to herself, she said,  “That should do it.  I hope this works.”

Grabbing a full skein of contrasting colored yarn from the shelf beside her, she began to work once more.  The stitch pattern was different than the main body of the blanket, but she was no longer making the blanket.  This was a border.  Before it was done, it would be two inches wide around all four sides of the little blanket.

A two-inch border of ingenuity and flexibility.

The finished blanket was beautiful–a perfect wrapping for the tiny baby who would arrive that week.  And, every time she saw the baby in its carrier, swaddled in the little blanket, the red-headed lady would stop and admire him.

I wonder if anyone else noticed that she always took hold of the border of the little guy’s blanket and rubbed it between her fingers.  Perhaps they thought the smile on her face was because of the baby.

I wonder.

I will always be sad to remember her initial reaction.  She seemed to truly believe that unhappy events were just her personal due in life.  Like her mother before her, my mom wasn’t much of an optimist.

Frequently, she would use phrases like the story of my life and par for the course to describe her expectations.  Anytime an unplanned or unhappy event occurred, she thought it was simply what she had coming to her.

And, that makes me sad.

What doesn’t make me sad is the realization that she didn’t let that expectation stop her from both starting, and seeing projects through to completion, even when interrupted by the frequent checks that momentarily discouraged her from continuing.

Like a dog worrying a particularly tough bone, her surrender was nearly always short-lived.  Even if it took hours of concentration and exploration of alternatives, she would eventually crack the problem open to savor the sweet taste of success.

Funny.  We all experience the momentary setbacks.  The disappointment of plans gone awry are common to every one of us.

Every one of us.  Our Savior promised us trouble in this world.

It’s not personal.

Maybe, it’s time to get past the par for the course thinking and get on with finishing the blanket. Or whatever task God has put in front of us.

We’ll take pride in the result.  Even if it’s not what we envisioned to begin with.

We tackle our problems head-on and finish the job.

And, that is the story of our lives.

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road.  Unless you fail to make the turn.”
(Helen Keller ~ Deaf & blind American author/lecturer ~ 1880-1968)

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33 ~ NIV)

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
(Psalm 23:6a ~ KJV)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Old Shells

The old man sat inches away from the television screen, staring at, but not seeing, the figures flitting on the screen.  As always, the volume was cranked up to an excruciatingly obnoxious level.  Still, he didn’t comprehend any of the conversation coming from the speakers.

We went to the nursing home every Sunday.

Every Sunday.

We sang songs.  Dad spoke.  I’d say he preached, but his messages were never like the sermons you heard in church.  He talked to people about God.  He told stories that helped make sense of the sometimes obscure words from the pages of the King James Bible in his hands.

If I told you they listened, I’d be exaggerating for most of them.  They sat.  Perhaps, they enjoyed the music, but for most, the words no longer sank in.

I didn’t understand why we were there.

Before the singing and the talking, we went and found people who wanted to come and sit.  We’d gather them from the dining room and the common rooms where the televisions blared out their drivel and roll them in their wheelchairs or take their arms as they scooted their feet along the hard tile floor in a tedious and laborious imitation of walking.

I preferred the wheelchair people.

On the day I am thinking about, I had the bad luck to be the one sent after the old, nearly deaf man sitting with his nose next to the television screen.  A Hispanic man, Juan spoke only broken English, but he loved to hear the music and didn’t want to miss a Sunday.  I reluctantly (and resentfully) took the time to walk him down the hallway, his feet shuffling slowly all the way.

One of the other residents had the good fortune to have a family member with her that day, a beautiful young lady who sat and sang along with the hymns.  She also sat attentively and smiled throughout the entire talk Dad had prepared.

I know.  I was watching her the whole time.  What teenage boy wouldn’t?

The meeting over, I helped Juan back to his feet and the old fellow, in his eighties, looked over at the pretty girl and smiled.  She rewarded him with a beaming smile of her own and a little wave.

I turned the old fellow around and walked/dragged him back to the common area from whence we had come almost an hour before.  He wasn’t in a hurry.  He wanted to talk.  It was mostly in Spanish, but I understood a few of the words.

He talked about his wife.  And kisses.  I heard him say the word esposa and beso several times.  I looked at his face as he talked.

The old man’s voice was animated and his eyes danced as he spoke.  The young girl had reminded him of a happier time, many years before.

He remembered.

In his mind, he was back there again, back in the land of the living.  When I left him sitting, nose against the television screen once more, the smile she gave to him was still plastered across his face.

I realized on that day, why we were wasting our time on these old worn-out shells of humans.

There were people inside those shells.

Jenny Kiss’d Me

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I’m growing old, but add–
Jenny kissed me.

(James Henry Leigh Hunt ~ English author/poet ~ 1784-1859)

There aren’t often poems included in these little articles, but it seemed appropriate tonight.  Did you really read it? Perhaps it would be helpful to read it again before we go on.

I’ll wait.

Every day they come through my doors.  Every day.  Old people.  Lives over, but still wanting attention.  Bossy, know-it-all, ancient has-beens who want me to recognize who they were and what they’ve done.

I’m learning to see past the blue hair (or no hair), the physical impairments, and the wrinkles.  Finally.  I’m trying to see them.  The real them.

Like the old man at the nursing home, they have lived.  They’re still living, but circumstances limit their new experiences.  But, they still need folks around them to see who they are and to recognize their accomplishments.

I read the poem above earlier tonight and I couldn’t help but catch my breath as the truth I remember seeing in that nursing home over forty years ago hit me once again.

We don’t treat people well because they are useful to us.  We don’t give them respect because of their youth and vigor.  We don’t esteem folks for what they can do today.

We respect and honor people because they are people.  Human beings–made in the image of their Creator, just as all of us are.

There are real people in those shells.  Short or tall, thin or stout, gorgeous or plain.

Real people.

Who were kissed by Jenny.  Or Gabriela.

It still matters.

“It is lovely to meet an old person whose face is deeply lined, a face that has been deeply inhabited, to look in the eyes and find light there.”
(John O’Donohue ~ Irish priest/author ~ 1956-2008)

“And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.  Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.”
(Psalm 71:9 ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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I Don’t Know

“Do you know what you know?”

She stood in the doorway and stared down at me.  It was a trick question, no doubt.

She is a business associate and has watched me at work for almost fifteen years now–has seen and heard me demonstrate and explain any number of techniques, and usages, and applications.  She has witnessed my interaction with customers and friends.

She seemed to be serious in her attempt to discern the extent of my knowledge.  It didn’t matter.

I didn’t know how to answer the question.

I was even confused.  Did she want a synopsis right that moment?  The river of knowledge may be wide, but it’s not necessarily deep.

I suppose I know a little about a lot of things.  I am a collector of trivial bits of information about a wide range of subjects.  I think I know what I know.

But, I really don’t want you to know what I don’t know

Then again, if we’re talking about business principles and repair techniques–those, I have gathered in as one picks up coins lying on the sidewalk and throws them into an old coffee can.  The collection of facts and methods has grown steadily throughout my time in my chosen field.

I am beginning to become aware of what I know in that respect.

And with that thought, my confusion faded.  That was it.  My friend was simply complimenting me on my store of knowledge within the field of music and its accoutrements.

I smiled and nodded.  “I’ve learned a little bit in the last thirty-five years, I guess.  About time, too.”

The conversation ended and I was left to my own thoughts.  My euphoria at  her recognition of my abilities didn’t last long.  As often happens these days, my mind turned the words it had heard around and around, looking at them from first one angle and then another.

Do I know what I know?

I used to.  I certainly knew more when I was younger. 

When I was twenty, no one could tell me anything.  As a child, and then a teenager, I had soaked up knowledge like a sponge and was self-assured, almost to the point of cockiness.  Arguments were the rule, rather than the exception, likely to break out in almost any situation.  Parties, funerals, ballgames–all were prime locations for me to prove my expertise on almost any subject.

I didn’t care who I hurt.  I was obviously doing them a favor.  Surely, they would rise up and call me blessed, seeing that I was so concerned for them that I would share from my precious hoard of expert opinion.

I knew what I knew!

I am older now.

Not necessarily wiser, just older.

As I age, I find myself looking back more frequently.  I have discovered, to my chagrin, that the bodies I have left scattered in the path behind weren’t aided all that much by me sharing my wealth.

They were simply injured. Maimed, some of them.  I didn’t know that would happen.

I am ashamed that I didn’t know it.

I am beginning–just now beginning–to find ways to listen instead of always speaking.  I am a slow learner, as I’ve mentioned often before.  Perhaps, there is yet time for me to help to heal the damage I have done.

Still, I know what I know, don’t I?

At times, I still wax dogmatic about those tenets I have always believed.  I hold firmly to the faith of my childhood.  I know what I know about that, at least.

But, in the last few years, as I have watched others struggling with doubts and hard situations, questions–questions which I never asked before–have been raised, at least internally.  I’m not absolutely sure anymore that I know what I have always known.

And finally, in the last few years, with the moral failures of some of my strongest early influences, even the foundations have begun to appear a bit shaky.  The questions have become doubts at times, the searching–accusations.

For the first time that I can remember, I don’t know.

I don’t know.

But, I do want to know.

Funny.  It’s a good place to be.

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Job.  He starts out a righteous man.  He ends up a righteous man.  In between, he begins to give instruction to God.  Seriously.  He tells God what He should be doing.  God’s answer to Job is to impress on him how much he does not know.  With example after example, Job begins to understand his lack of the knowledge necessary to be an advisor to God

Job finally admits that he tried to speak of things he had no way of knowing.  He begins to know what he doesn’t know.  And, in making that admission, he opens the way to be instructed once again.  We find that the end of his life was more blessed than the early years.

I want that.

I’m finally–finally–understanding that I know what I don’t know.  I don’t yet know what I know.  And that’s okay.

I’ll take it a step at a time from here.


I’ll need some company along the way.  How about it?

Do you know what you don’t know?

Perhaps that’s the beginning of wisdom.

We can find out together.

“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did.  I said I didn’t know.”
(Mark Twain ~ American humorist/author ~ 1835-1910)

“Don’t think you are better than you really are.  Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.”
(Romans 12:3b ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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Nasty Things

“It sounds like there are all kinds of nasty things going on inside of you!”

From her accustomed seat at the end of the sofa close to me, the Lovely Lady peered disgustedly over the tops of her magnifying lenses.

We were alone at last, but I could tell this was not one of those unforgettable romantic moments that seem to come along occasionally.  No, my silver tongue had not impressed the lady of the house at all.  In fact, it seemed that because of it, I was just as likely to be disposed of with the rest of the scraps left over from the wonderful Sunday dinner we had just enjoyed.

I have babbled on before about my enjoyment of the respite provided by Sundays–the enjoyment of time spent with others who believe as I do, with an hour or two spent in music, and in the Word, and in fellowship.  After that comes the Meal of the week, Sunday Dinner.  What can compare with friends and family–and grandchildren?  Noise and laughter, in tandem with food and good conversation–what could be better?

But grandchildren grow tired and their parents have trains to meet; friends have their own schedules to keep and Scrabble games to play.  Alas, all good things come to an end, and so it is with Sunday dinner.  The Lovely Lady and I have a tradition of chasing our guests out of the house without allowing them to help with the clean-up–our parting gift to them.  The practice also allows us the time to ease our way down from the mountain peak of commotion to a quiet plateau of teamwork, a pleasant place in which we reside most of the time.

We had finished our kitchen cleanup and our kingdom was once more in order–the puzzles picked up from the living room, the Star Wars costumes removed from the den to their storage bin, and the doll house closed up and pushed back against the wall to await the next visit.

She sat down to do a little needlework.  I just sat down.  I had no plans when I did it.  I certainly didn’t intend to embark on a private discussion with myself which would last for the rest of the day.  But, such is the result of making unthinking comments all too frequently, even when they are intended only to amuse.

” I wonder–should I sit here and take a nap, or should I go out and work off some calories with a long bicycle ride?”

I was half talking to myself, half hoping for some guidance.  But, as is common, the wise lady sitting nearby was having no part of the decision.

“That depends on what’s going inside of you today.”

She meant going on emotionally.  I knew she did.  I understand her pretty well.  But, I’ve always been a clown.  I almost couldn’t stop the words that her comment called forth.

“Well, inside of me, my heart is pumping blood into my veins, and my lungs are working to mix oxygen into said blood.  My stomach is at work on that delicious meal of ribs and baked beans, along with a little potato salad stuffed down into the cracks.  Right about now, it’s…”

She stopped me right there.  I guess she didn’t need the rest of the guided tour.  That’s when she made the statement I started with above.

“It sounds like there are all kinds of nasty things going on inside of you.”

I retorted, “No more than usual,”  and was silent.  I may even have dozed off for a few moments.

But, her comment really got my mind to working overtime.

If only she knew!  Nasty things.

Well.  Think of it.

You shake my hand and there is only the thin epidermis of skin between your own hand and the blood, the muscle, and the bone inside of mine.

You give me a quick hug and that same skin, along with a rib cage, are all that keep you from touching the organs and intestines–to say nothing of the material being moved along inside them.

Not a pretty picture, is it?

But, you know those are not the things my mind was working on, don’t you?  There are all kinds of nasty things at work inside.

If only she knew.

I shiver at the thought.  The anger I feel and surpress almost daily, the hatred of people and things I cannot abide.  There is the lust with which I wrestle nearly every day, and the pride which gets the better of me–also almost every day.

The list goes on without end.  Selfishness, gluttony, greed.  Lies and thievery.  Murder.  Well, not the physical act, but if wishing a person dead is the equivalent, that nastiness lives inside me, too.

If only she knew?  Ah, but she does.  She knows me.  She has seen all of those spill out, has lived with the evidence of those nasty things for the better part of forty years.

She knows me.  Still, she loves me.  Nasty things notwithstanding.

She loves me.

I am overwhelmed.

I said this wasn’t about romantic moments.  And, it’s really not.

I’m wondering if you recognize those nasty things, too.  I’m even curious to know if you have the same certainty that those nasty things are going on inside of you.

The Teacher wasn’t talking to the drunkards and the moral degenerates on that day.  The day He called His audience whitewashed tombs and hypocrites, He was talking to the religious men of the time.  He described them as beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones and impurity inside.

As I leaned back in my chair this afternoon and later, as I pedaled my bicycle all those miles, I couldn’t get that one phrase out of my head.

Whitewashed tomb.

Again and again, I returned to it.  There are nasty things going on inside of me.

But, I told you that there is a Lady at home who loves me.

Here’s something more important than that.

There is Someone else who loves me in spite of those nasty things.  He knows about them, without question. That same Teacher, the one who condemned those unrepentent religious men, paid the price for their impurities and dead men’s bones Himself.

And, here is the really overwhelming part.  His payment, His grace, is intended for every single one of us who has those nasty things inside.

Every one of us.  Me.  You.

He takes broken things and makes them whole again.

Not nasty.


“…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
(from Isaiah 61:3 ~ NIV)

“Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth.”
(Aesop ~ Ancient Greek fable writer ~ 620 BC-564 BC)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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