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Spoiler Alert: There’s a potentially gross photo at the bottom of this story, but everyone ends up living happily ever after.
Many years ago – where I grew up, Garter Snakes were pretty common, and one time, as I was cleaning up the tools one day behind the garage my dad and I were building, I heard a rather strange noise rustling in the grass.
I looked around and saw a familiar, though large, garter snake, but there was something a bit different about this one, and I stepped down off the scaffolding and took a closer look.
What I saw made me look quickly at the fading light, run inside, grab the camera, and get a photo before I did what needed to be done next.
See, the snake was stuck… and in a bit of a bind.
And the newt (or salamander, or whatever it is there) was also stuck… and in a bit of a bind…
And neither of them was giving up.
The newt was, in its last act of defiance, not going to die, plain and simple.
So I put the camera down, and pulled the dazed newt out of the snake’s mouth, being careful to not injure either of them more than they were already were – well – worse for wear…
The newt for its part, spent awhile catching its breath.
The snake spent that time eyeing its former dinner and working the kinks out of its jaw.
After some time, they both took a look at each other and each slithered their own way back to their burrow, or nest, or whatever it called home.
And it got me thinking…
There are times when we’re the snake – and we’re just doing what we do, and we get stuck, and can’t figure out how to get out of the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.
And there are times when we’re the newt – and we’re just minding our own business and find ourselves being eaten alive and have no idea how to get out of the situation, but giving up without a heck of a fight isn’t even an option.
And then there are times – when you’ve got the rare privilege of being able to be in a position to help someone – or more than some “one” – get out of the situation they’re in – and by your position, your experience, your perspective, whatever it is – you’re able to help one – or all of the characters in our little story – the newt and the snake – go on and live happy lives – and without you – without that friend with perspective, with wisdom, with understanding, and with patience – they might just not be here today.
Think about that a bit.
So – for those of you who’ve been the newt, or the snake, or the big guy with the camera he tried to keep from getting newt slime on, allow me to thank you on behalf of newt and snake.
Oh, understand – this is not fiction – this is a true story – the photo below is my proof – but it’s also an allegory – in which many of you reading this may have played one of those parts at some point in someone’s life.
Keep doing that – because somehow – somewhere, you might find yourself smiling when you hear that newt be able to say, because of you, “I got better…”
Take care out there, folks – and don’t forget to take care of each other.
Oh – and here’s the picture…
I was out in the back yard some time ago and I noticed the Burley bicycle trailer (something like this) cowering from the weather underneath the little tree house I’d made for Michael years ago. He and I used to go all over the place with that thing… We found that we could pop the wheels off, fold it up and put it in the trunk, then pop the bike on the back of the car, then go someplace fun and go for a long bike ride without having to actually ride *there* to do the ride… It made for a lot more fun (and energy) during the ride itself.
One time, we went to the zoo, just riding from the house – it wasn’t far, but it was up a pretty steep hill – and it seemed a lot harder to get there that time. He was fine, but I found out that I’d accidentally left our daughter’s french horn in the ‘trunk’ of the trailer behind Michael. Turns out dragging random brass musical instruments around behind you slows you down when you’re going uphill. We begged the person at the gate to store it for us while we were at the zoo that day with the animals, and I made sure not to go too fast down the hills on the way home.
Other than the zoo, we went so many places with that bike and trailer…. to the Ballard Locks for picnics, to playgrounds for him to meet people and play, to Discovery Park to ride the trails and pick blackberries.
We always had a tall flag on the trailer with a little spinning wind sock on it, and it would flutter in the breeze as we went down the road or the trails. Because that made us stand out a bit, one time a lady saw us in the morning on our way to the playground, and in the afternoon out at Discovery Park (a few miles apart) – and stopped me, wondering, “Do you take him EVERYWHERE in that thing?”
I had to answer both yes and no, and explained how I did ride the bike everywhere, but sometimes used the car to get to ‘everywhere’. She seemed to appreciate that.
The time that stands out the most is one time when Cindy and Alyssa were out of town… I’m not exactly sure where, but I had no car to get to church in, and so Michael and I decided we’d go to church – well, me to church and him to Sunday School, and we did it on the bike.
From our house, it’s about a mile and a half down hill – which is fun and fast, and then it’s the Burke Gilman trail, which is flat, then we cross the Fremont Bridge (lowest drawbridge in the US, and therefore the busiest). Then it was up a gentle hill (Florentia Street) for a bit, and then left up a very steep hill (First Avenue) to go on a bicycle, much less a bicycle pulling a trailer with a little boy in it (wisely, we left the French horn at home this time)
What was interesting is that it was so steep that I was in first gear, and each time I pedaled, the front wheel would pop off the ground just a little, so clearly I couldn’t steer with the wheel off the ground, but when the wheel wasn’t on the ground was the only time I had power. I got going slower and slower until I was making S-turns up the road – going from side to side to build up a little speed, then u-turning up the hill and doing it over again, until I got to an entrance to a parking lot where First Avenue was level.
At that point I was huffing and puffing, and just rode in circles on that level bit of ground for a bit to catch my breath, only to hear a small voice behind me say, “Papa! You Made it!”
I’d completely missed the fact that he was sitting back there watching me.
I’d completely missed the fact that I was being an example to him, just by doing what I was doing.
As hard as I was working, as much as I was struggling to keep us moving – I was unaware that little eyes were on me.
I completely lost whatever lesson there was at church and realized the lesson was right there…
And of course, it got me thinking.
How many times does that happen to us?
How many times are people watching us, silently cheering us on?
And how many times would we keep going just that one extra step if we knew that?
So I’m going to put this out there for you, because there have been times where I’ve been the one cheering people on privately, but there have been other times when I’ve been the one quietly, no, silently cheering someone on…
Without actually telling them.
I’d be quietly watching, hoping for them to succeed in whatever battle they’re fighting.
And I’d want them to win.
I want them to climb that mountain.
I want them to find the balance between powering when they need to move forward, and steering when they need to change direction.
I. Want. Them. To. Win.
So… for me – for you… respond to this. It can be at the end of this blog, but it doesn’t have to be. But respond to that someone you’re quietly cheering on, and put in it a note about someone you’re cheering on and why… Doesn’t have to include their name – in fact, it’d be better if you didn’t here… That’d protect their privacy, which would be good, because so many of these battles, climbs, challenges are so private – and then share this with them to actually let them know what you mean.
But be bold and let them know.
You have no idea how much a little bit of encouragement can mean to them in their battle.
Take care, God bless, and thanks.
I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
I was going through some old photos awhile back from when I was in Sidney, Ohio, and my mind started wandering through the memories.
Going through this one set of negatives (yes, really, and they were black and white, too), I’d been shooting high school baseball – a tournament all the way down in Dayton, and the kids were out there playing, I had been by the field and had watched with everyone, as a storm came in. While the game was going on, I could see the officials huddled off to one side trying to decide when or if to call the game. They were paying close attention to the storm.
It turns out that thunderstorms in the Midwest are common, far more than they are here in the Pacific Northwest, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have the sense to climb down from the aluminum bleachers I was on as even I knew that lightning struck the highest object first. And, given that I’d been standing on the top bleacher, leaning against the rail at the back – yeah… it was time to come down where it was a little safer.
I’d just gotten to the ground and was standing near the first base line when I heard a loud “Tick” and looked out past the first baseman in time to see a lightning bolt blow a tree apart just past the right field fence.
It was close enough to other things that I could actually gauge the size of the bolt, at least 8 inches across, and the thunder was absolutely instant.
Needless to say, the game was cancelled. Enough kids get killed by lightning every year that they take it pretty seriously in Ohio, so the kids were running in full tilt before the bits and pieces of the tree even hit the ground. The parents hustled them to the cars when they got close, and then the rain came pouring down so fast the only thing missing was the Ark…
I got all my camera gear into the car, tossing it onto the passenger’s seat of my ’79 Ford Fairmont, and started the trip up Interstate 75 to the newspaper in Sidney where I’d process the film and get photos ready for the next day’s edition.
The rain, by now, was pretty brutal, and the lighting was constant, to the point where I got to wondering how bright it actually was, so while the traffic was stopped on the freeway, I rummaged around in the camera bag for my light meter that I used to adjust camera settings for Studio Strobe lights, and put it up on the dash.
And then I set it to wait for the next flash.
Which happened about 4 seconds later.
Which, when the light meter was set for ISO 400 film in the camera, registered an f/8.0 aperture.
Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.
Which tied in to what they used to say in Grad School: the best way to get a shot was “f/8 and be there” – Because f/8 stopped down the lens enough (think of the lens as squinting) to sharpen things up if you didn’t have the lens completely in focus, but didn’t ‘squint’ so hard that it darkened things to the point you couldn’t see them at all.
And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.
Without either of them, neither of them worked.
f/8 and be there…
Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.
I pondered some more, but my curiosity satisfied, I put the light meter back in the camera bag and concentrated on traffic, driving, and just plain seeing the taillights in front of me. It was a pretty bad storm, honestly… Eventually I got back to the paper and developed the film in the darkroom and did indeed get something for the next day’s paper.
I’d have other experiences with lightning later on, at other newspapers, but it was during one moment that’s lost to time that I got to thinking about storms, and specifically thunderstorms, and the lessons they could teach us.
See, when I was little, we lived in Illinois, where the storms were similar to the ones in Ohio.
I knew other kids who were scared of storms, and like them, we’d all head into mom and dad’s bedroom when the thunder woke us up.
But mom didn’t feed the fear at all. We went there because that bedroom had the best view of the storms, and since dad worked nights, mom would always invite us up onto the bed or over to the window and say, “Ooh, let’s look at the lightning!”
And we did – and we were fascinated with how clear and sharp everything was in that brilliant flash, and how the darker the storm got, the clearer we could see when the lightning hit.
And it got me thinking.
Last December here in Seattle, we lived up to our reputation for rain and got enough of it here in the lowlands in three weeks to overcome a summer’s worth of drought. The mountains got eight feet of snow in one week. In fact, there was enough rain out on the Olympic Peninsula to put out a forest fire that had been burning all summer.
It was… a lot of rain.
And the storms in life sometimes come softly – like that snow – you don’t realize it’s an issue until you can’t get out of your driveway, or walk down the street.
Sometimes they come faster – like those rain storms in December where there were days where we had an inch or two of rain a day, for a long time… The land couldn’t soak it up fast enough, and there were consequences, the flooding that happened right away, and landslides that happened later.
But some of those consequences could come almost instantly – with very little or no warning. Like there would be if you were standing on the top of an aluminum set of bleachers and idly noticed clouds coming in a little faster than you were expecting.
I learned that sometimes, you can be out in the worst weather – and find yourself absolutely terrified by it – but then realize that the lightning in that dark storm gives you a clarity of vision that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
The lightning may be scary, but it’s also amazing in how it clears things up…
…the lightning has struck before, and I – we – we learned from it that time.
Well, those times.
And of course, it all got me thinking some more…
See, I’m going through a storm myself as I write this – and it’s close. It’s close enough to where the lightning and thunder happen at the same time – and it’s disorienting.
I don’t have the clarity that I’d like to have right now.
There are times when I am flummoxed at where God is during some of these storms. I’ve seen so many variations of answers in all of this that with the other things that have happened in my life I’m never sure whether to be upset when the answer to a prayer I have isn’t the one I’m expecting…
…or the one I want…
But the answer…
It will come.
I just need to remember the lessons I learned many years ago looking out mom’s bedroom window, and the lessons I learned standing on top of a bunch of aluminum bleachers, and lessons we’ve learned more recently, going through our own storms…
…I guess another way to look at it is you can either be terrified of the lightning or you can let the lightning bring you wisdom and clarity.
Deal with what you can.
When you can.
With the information you have.
And the resources you have.
I guess you could add to that:
Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t deal with. Just work with what you can…
Those of you who read the Bible might be familiar with this verse from Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
So very true.
So instead of focusing so much on the worries of tomorrow…
Be there today.
…instead of focusing on the regrets of yesterday…
Be there today.
It’s far easier to say it than it is to do it, but if you were a photographer, that’s another way of saying “f/8 and be there”
So… I guess the biggest thought in all of this is that I’m not so much waiting for the lightning as much as I’m searching for it.
And the clarity that comes from a bright flash of lightning in a dark storm.
Take care, folks…
Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.
I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.
One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.
Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.
If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:
You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.
So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.
The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.
And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.
And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.
And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.
In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.
I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.
I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.
And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.
And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.
There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.
I thought back to that tree there in the picture. It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight. Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.
I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.
Without the constant care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.
It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.
I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people can break down and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.
It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.
Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak. It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.
There is a difference.
And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.
See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.
And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They develop a stronger core with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.
By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.
And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).
Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.
Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.
And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.
I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.
They curl their toes together. No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.
There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.
Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.
Support each other.
Be there for each other.
Forgive each other.
Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.
I saw an old movie awhile back, and saw this fellow walking down the sidewalk, carefree, flipping a coin into the air and catching it, over and over, and laughing as he did it.
It looked like a lot of fun, that whole carefree attitude and all.
He made the coin look light and easy, and it got me thinking.
The ‘coin’ I was flipping at the time didn’t seem light and easy at all.
In fact, it seemed like the coin I was trying to flip had grown to the size and weight of a manhole cover. It was hard enough to flip, much less lift.
And then one day, I got a glimpse of what someone else was going through. Someone whose life seemed so together. They looked like they had everything they wanted in the world. A good job, to provide for a wonderful family…
But it wasn’t like that at all.
Their life was falling apart.
They were going through a breakup and their marriage, their home, their family as they knew it, was finished.
In fact, the coin I saw them flipping was clearly heavier than it looked.
I had a friend who lost a good paying IT job. For years no one would hire him. Not because he didn’t have skills, he did, and he does. He ran the entire IT department at his company, and they decided that since everything was going so well, they didn’t need him anymore. So they let him go.
He’s looked for a long time, and now has a job, but it’s changing oil for people at 1/4 the salary he was making before, has gone through his retirement account and all his savings, and is wondering where next month’s mortgage is coming from.
His coin is heavy.
Another friend, similar situation. Lost his job, tried to make it on his own. Economic downturn, real estate bubble, and they lost their house and had to move out of the home they’d had for decades.
Their coins are heavy.
A work colleague just lost his mom.
Another lost his mother-in-law.
A good friend lost his dad and had to fly out of the country while dealing with other family issues, then came back to unexpected health issues of his own.
A friend is worried about his children, their faith, their ability to find work. One has a good college degree, another has no degree and has health issues.
Neither has work.
One friend sees the path his kids are on – let’s just say there were some bad choices made that the parents warned about, and now the consequences are rearing their ugly heads.
Another friend is dealing with a chronic health issue that simply won’t go away.
Those coins are heavy.
It makes the coins I’m flipping feel so small.
So what to do?
I thought about it a little more, and realized there was a depth to the situation that wasn’t obvious on the surface.
The coin flipping ones were also making decisions, and each flip was a choice…
Do I fight this battle? (whatever the battle is, health, faith, family, job)
Do I give up?
Heads… I keep fighting.
Tails… I give up.
Do I go out swinging?
Heads… I swing.
Tails… I get knocked out.
Do I try to smile through it all?
Heads… I try to see the bright side.
…if there is no bright side, then as my son once said, I have lots of practice polishing up the dull side.
I was privileged to have friends share some of their hard and dark moments with me, and the above things I mentioned are all true – and have happened within the last few months, and it really kept me thinking. I finally came not to a conclusion, but to a realization.
Everyone has decisions to make every day that you will never see.
Sometimes their coin comes up heads, sometimes tails.
Sometimes folks have the energy to claw up the manhole cover that fell down tails and use the last bit of their strength to make it heads, and the expression on their face as they do it is no longer a smile, but a grimace.
The decisions and tasks some folks have to consciously go through are things so many are blessed to take for granted, and it takes me to these simple sentences:
Respect that others around you have their own journey even if you don’t see it.
Respect that those around you have their own struggles along that journey of theirs, and you cannot tell from the surface how difficult their journey is.
There will be some around you who have been carrying their burden so long that they’re no longer even capable of putting it down, or would know what to do if they could put it down.
Be kind to them. Be gentle with them.
And if you can, if they can, maybe you could put your manhole cover down next to theirs, and you can lean them together and roll them along your journey, each of you helping the other, and recovering a little as you go.
Take care out there, folks.
We were visiting a good friend in Albuquerque awhile back and were doing some touristy things when I saw an image I wanted to make. Given that I didn’t have my Nikon with me, I had to use my phone – which, frankly, has a pretty decent camera, but I was trying to go for a wider shot than I could get with it.
It was a church in Old Albuquerque, “The Church of San Felipe de Neri“. It was Monday, the area was quiet – and I saw the white crosses on the church, and saw the wall and gate surrounding it, and thought I could try to make an image that had the archway the gate was in framing the church and the sky. To do that, I’d have to get down on my hands and knees and get the camera as low as I could get it, so I’d be looking up and be able to contrast the crosses on the church with the deeply blue Albuquerque sky.
I thought about it – and then got down on the sidewalk with my phone, slowly skootching forward like a Marine, on elbows and hips, constantly looking all over the place, to make sure I wasn’t going to crawl into anything, but also keeping my eyes on the crosses, because of that archway I was trying to frame them in.
I came close, but wasn’t quite ready to take the photo when a gentleman walked up and saw I was on the ground. He immediately wanted to help me up, as he thought I had fallen. I tried to explain that I was fine, but he insisted on helping me up. My trying to convince him that I was on the ground on purpose simply didn’t compute for him, so I took his hand, and tried to get up, slowly and carefully.
This would have been okay, had I not injured my knee several years ago, and in the process of letting him help me get up, it dislocated (which was a touch on the painful side), stretched a tendon in the back, and then popped back into place (which was also a touch on the painful side).
I thanked him to be polite, chatted with him a bit, and walked back and forth just a little, gently testing my knee to make sure everything was okay. It was, relatively speaking, and we parted, kindly, as he and his grandson went their way and I went mine – and he had no idea what lesson he’d just taught me.
See, I was on my own journey to that cross, and I was going at the speed that was right for me, and it was working.
The fellow, I don’t remember his name, insisted on ‘helping’ me, and it got me thinking…
See, I wasn’t ready for his help.
In fact, because of his help, I re-injured my knee as I was getting up.
But the journey to the cross was my own to make. Not his.
And the journey to the cross had obstacles for me that he couldn’t see.
And he had no way of knowing that by “helping” me, he actually hurt me, a pain that has since healed, but took several weeks to do so.
And it makes me think of the times we see someone we think needs help.
Do we provide them that? The help?
Do we listen to them to make sure that the help they need is the help we’re giving them?
Or do we try to help folks in ways that only make sense to us?
I thought about that a lot, and as I was going through my images, and realized the image that I’d wanted to take was not there. I never did take it the way I wanted to.
In fact, here’s the first attempt at it – one I took standing up, a panorama – and you can see that the tops of the steeples are cut off (which is why I was down on the ground in the first place)
And it got me thinking again.
Because the fellow helped me, on his time, not on mine, things didn’t work out the way I wanted, the way I’d planned.
I walked around a little more, gently shaking and testing my leg while taking a few more photos, finally ending up on the right side of the above shot with this one:
And it’s there that I saw the beginnings of the image I really liked.
And I walked up, and framed it, and then made an image that I’m quite happy with, this one below:
I like it.
I really do.
It reminds me of how beautiful things can be if you let them happen in their own time.
So even though I didn’t get the image I wanted, I did get one I liked, and I wouldn’t have done that had I not wandered off to the right to do it.
Which I wouldn’t have done had I not needed to shake off the pain in my knee.
Which wouldn’t have happened if…
…it makes me ponder things even more.
What would have happened if the gentleman hadn’t insisted on helping me up?
Would I have gotten a shot I’m as happy with as I am with this one?
Or would I have been satisfied with some variation of that first shot up there?
I honestly don’t know.
Sometimes bad, painful stuff happens that turns out well in the end.
I know God works all sorts of strange things into my life – into our lives – and I’m never sure when the story is actually finished.
Doesn’t make the painful parts hurt any less, not by a long shot, but as I look at the picture above, I don’t wince at the pain in my knee…
I smile at the image I was able to capture because of it.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years, but it has.
I’ve learned that for those of you reading the stories I write here, a number of things happen.
Sometimes you come here on purpose.
Sometimes you come here by habit.
Sometimes you come here by accident (you wouldn’t believe some of the searches that get people to this blog).
But what you always get when you come here is a story.
Sometimes you get a lesson mixed in with that story.
Sometimes the story makes you laugh as you see me learn that lesson from my own mistakes.
Sometimes the lesson makes you wince as you see the pain in the story.
And sometimes, in some of the hardest stories, I’ve heard from some of you, that you see yourself in either the story or the lesson.
I’ve learned, to my surprise (and I’m being quite honest here) that people thought I was good enough at writing stories that several have honored me in ways I cannot comprehend, by asking me to tell a very specific story.
To everyone they cherish and hold dear; their family, their loved ones, their friends.
It is a story that they have lived, that they have asked me to tell, but they won’t ever hear.
And this brings us back to me being amazed that those eight years have gone by already.
Back then, my friend Glenda asked me to tell her story.
And it came easily in some ways.
It was very hard in others.
I stood in front of a crowd of her family and friends 8 years ago, and told this story of my friend Glenda.
June 1, 2007
Glenda first caught my eye when she sat down beside me in Dr. Bob Chamberlain’s “History of Western Rhetoric” class over in Peterson Hall at Seattle Pacific University. She was different because unlike all the other college aged young women in the class, Glenda had her daughter, Daisy, sleeping on the floor beside her. Class time and nap time happened to coincide, so Glenda did what worked, and Daisy got a head start on a lot of freshmen by sleeping through a very early college education.
I learned a lot about Daisy, and her brothers and sister in the next few years. I also learned a lot about Glenda.
This was a mom who clearly loved her four kids, and these were four kids who clearly loved their mom. One time, a few months after we graduated, Glenda asked if I would watch them while she went into the hospital for a few days.
This meant a couple of things.
- Glenda, though in the hospital, didn’t have to deal with or get four kids up and ready for school or daycare every day
- Tom, not in the hospital, got to learn what it was like for Glenda to get four kids up, fed, dressed…
No, wait, almost dressed – first have to find their socks…
“Where did you say you put your shoes?”
“What do you mean you can’t find your homework?”
“There isn’t a dog to have eaten it!”
“I’m supposed to sign what?”
…pray that at least the socks matched, and get them out to the bus stop in time for school.
That haggard looks of the other moms waiting with their kids at the bus stops made so much more sense after that.
I understood so much more what it was to be a mom in those few days.
And I learned a lot about Glenda.
When it was time to visit her in the hospital, it was – well, I am still amazed at how she was able to get four kids packed up and ready to go – anywhere – on time. It was just amazing. She loved to tell this story – and always with that wonderful laugh of hers.
When Tom the Mobile set of Monkey Bars got to the hospital room, four kids either on me or around me, I saw in Glenda’s face the exhaustion that comes from being in the hospital, from all the poking, the prodding, the middle of the night waking you up to give you your sleeping medicine, and so on. But in her eyes, I saw something different. I saw a sparkle, a relaxation, a rest, that is only seen in a woman’s eyes – no, a mom’s eyes when, for whatever reason, she’s had a chance to recover a little from being a mom by being away from the kids, and then when she gets to be with them again.
She tells the same story from another viewpoint, seeing her kids scamper into the room, at least one of them (Daisy) still hanging from a very bedraggled me, when our eyes met, she remembers me saying, “Two! Only Two!” – I couldn’t imagine how she could be a mom of four, but she was, and she made it look easy.
She did that a lot in life…
We lost touch for a number of years, then ran into each other at a cancer survivor’s support group. We hugged, as old friends do.
…and then the reason for our meeting there, in that place, sunk in to both of us.
And you know what?
She made cancer look easy.
She made raising four kids look easy.
She planned enough to where there weren’t many surprises for her – except this one, and even then, then she handled it the same way she always did.
Glenda made dying look easy.
She loved those kids, she loved her husband Mike.
A few weeks ago we talked, and it was clear to her that time was short. We chatted about all sorts of things for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said, “Tom, can you do me a favor?”
Understand this is the lady who trusted me with her most prized possessions, her kids. And she did it regularly. There was a trust built up there over the years, and I figured that this “favor” wasn’t going to be, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” or “Can you feed the cat while I’m gone?”
But I didn’t know what to expect.
“Sure Glenda, anything.”
“Can you speak at my funeral?”
What do you say?
You just do it.
Because that’s what friends do.
She told me it was going to be a “fun” eral – and to remember something “fun” about her.
She wanted me to tell the story of the kids when we visited her in the hospital, because it made her laugh that wonderful laugh of hers so often, so I did…
And I can tell you that I did indeed, only have two.
It’s Memorial day as I write this, and I’m in a pensive mood…
I was at Chris’s memorial service yesterday, and I’ve been to a few of these lately – and among the food on a table was what appeared to be a rather out-of-place crumpled up McDonald’s bag.
I didn’t think much of it until I heard the story behind it. See Pat, the fellow who brought it, had been best friends with Chris, and they’d spend hours driving around, sometimes in Chris’s tow truck, sometimes not, and as often as not, they would end up stopping at a very particular McDonalds, where the two of them would order 11 cheeseburgers.
The question was asked, “Why 11? And who got to eat six of them?” and Pat said he wasn’t sure exactly where it came from, likely Chris going through the drive through with his truck to get some dinner, a hankering for cheeseburgers, and the clerk asking the simple question of “How many?”
Chris and Pat shared the unspoken question with a look, shrugged their shoulders, and next thing they knew, they had 11 cheeseburgers to share and accompany the conversations ranging from the nature of gravity to the physics of electricity and radio waves as they waited on the next call.
And over time, it became a tradition.
Every time they went to McDonald’s, they ordered 11 cheeseburgers.
In a bag.
It became almost sacred, the way Pat told it.
And it got me thinking…
I’m in that stage of life when it’s becoming obvious that there’s a changing of the guard going on, where you realize, sometimes slowly, sometimes with a stunning realization, that you’re now the very close to being the oldest generation living in your family, where you used to be able to have conversations with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, who simply aren’t there anymore for you to have conversations with.
And with Chris, I realized that it’s not limited to people older than you.
It made me wonder, what kinds of little things will be precious to you when someone close to you leaves this life to live on in your memories?
I really started wondering…
There are friends who know, for example, that I will only call them a butthead if they’ve earned that privilege. (Of course, I have to explain to them that it is a privilege, a badge of honor, to be called that, only then do they get it)
I think of my dad, who I used to simultaneously love and get frustrated with, who loved me as best as he knew how, and I realize I miss hearing his greeting, “Hello sonshine.” Or yelling at us to shut the living room door as we ran out it.
I think of Glenda’s peaceful presence, and her laugh, as she took life, and death, in stride and made it work.
Betty – how we were able to take off the day to day masks we wear to protect ourselves, and just talk about the stuff that really mattered.
I think of people who are still part of my life, and realize there are things that are inexplicably special, things that have become the “11 cheeseburgers” of our lives…
The Grand Coulee Dam.
“How are things in Gloccamurra?”
A shoe shine kit.
A jar of homemade Quince jelly.
An Egg carton.
A yellow superball.
A phone call from a long-lost friend.
A tennis ball cannon made of a bunch of pop cans and masking tape..
An old Saab.
Two rocks, now shiny, that I’ve carried around in my pocket – one since 1997 (my son’s first day of kindergarten) one since 2010 (his first day of college)
A pair of red Converse High Tops.
And so many others.
It’s not what they are, it’s what they symbolize.
Things that in and of themselves, mean nothing to someone who doesn’t share a history with you, I mean, it’s a bag of cheeseburgers… it’s a greeting… it’s an old car.
But for Chris and Pat, it was more than a bag of cheeseburgers – it was friendship, (and it was theoretical physics) and it signified that all was right with the world.
And maybe – just maybe, you’ve got your own version of a bag of 11 cheeseburgers and a bunch of memories.
What are they?
Write as much or as little as you’d like, but I know we all have them, I’d just never seen it done the way Pat did it yesterday.
And as little as I knew Chris directly, the hole he leaves in people’s lives is very real.
I was walking in to work the other day, a normal day, just another guy on his cellphone, walking down the sidewalk, in my case, talking to my mom on the phone… Most days when I walk this sidewalk, I walk it lost in thought, shifting gears from personal life to work life, thoughts drifting… the background noise of traffic, the cars, the buses, the jackhammers and the like, was just that, background noise, when a fellow rushed past, and did something I had never seen before.
Well, I had, but not there.
See, I usually walk down this one street past a church – you can see it here.
Like most people, I walk down this sidewalk without looking, without seeing…
Not only are the sounds background noise, but the sights are, too, if that makes sense. They are so often ignored, rarely acknowledged.
But this fellow appeared from around the corner. He was wearing faded, torn jeans, worn running shoes, and an old dark blue jacket that barely covered what it needed to cover.
I wasn’t sure whether to dodge out of his way or brace for impact, but I did dodge, and kept walking. Curiosity turned me around and I looked back to see he’d stopped running.
He’d stopped alright, but he wasn’t standing.
He was kneeling.
He was doing more than that. He was praying in a way I’d definitely done, but very rarely seen.
He appeared so deeply, profoundly distraught that I was speechless, and I stood, rooted to the spot. I added my prayer to his, but couldn’t decide what to actually *do*.
I couldn’t tell what he needed physically – I mean, he’d run around the corner so fast, so he was physically okay. He was praying, and praying hard, and to interrupt seemed… I don’t know, out of place?
My mind went all over the place…Why was he there? Was his family in danger? Hurt? Had he done something wrong and was there literally at the feet of Jesus, asking for forgiveness?
I didn’t know.
And I didn’t ask.
I felt very much like one of the characters in the story of The Good Samaritan – only I wasn’t the Samaritan who helped the fellow.
I was one of the other guys.
Who for whatever reason, didn’t help.
And it got me thinking.
Like the other guys, I had my reasons, all of which have the strength of wet toilet paper when I look back on them.
How many times do we not help someone out when we could?
How many times have we let someone down when we could have helped them up?
How many times…
Then I got to thinking just a little more about the figure this fellow was kneeling at the feet of…
The fellow whose birth an awful lot of the world is celebrating in one form or another this month.
The first bit of the story – the one of The Good Samaritan – quoted from the book of Luke,
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Now at this point, it says clearly in that last verse, that he wanted to “justify himself” – He was an expert in the law, Jesus knew that. This guy was looking for a way out, a loophole. He was trying to do something that should be familiar to all of us: find a way to obey the law and be comfortable doing it, so he asked that second question:
“Who is my neighbor?”
Unspoken there is the question, “Who isn’t my neighbor?” “Who do I even have to acknowledge?” More simply put is this: “Who can I ignore?”
And then Jesus told this story:
30-32 “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
(from the book of Luke, chapter 10, The Message Translation)
So a little history here:
A priest walked by…
He. Walked. By.
The priest… the holy man who should have been able to do all sorts of things to help the injured traveler, not only walked by, but actively avoided him by walking on the other side of the road. Understand, this was not, shall we say, a good neighborhood. (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to have bandits and the like, but you’d think someone seeing an injured person would try to help that person, rather than walking off to the side and avoiding him.)
But he didn’t.
It wasn’t convenient.
A Levite walked by…
Levites were special people according to the Bible. They were from the tribe of Levi, They were supposed to watch over and take care of the priestly duties in the Sanctuary. They couldn’t inherit land like all the other tribes, and they had extra responsibilities, but they got the best of everything in return. That didn’t mean they were perfect, but they were definitely considered special. Some translations imply that the Levite actually went over to look at the fellow, but then went on his way, not touching him, as that could have made him unclean. (there were many rules about touching dead bodies, which would prevent people from doing the things they were supposed to do), so that was his excuse…
And he kept walking.
It wasn’t socially acceptable.
It’s just that both he and the priest were walking *from* Jerusalem, meaning their tasks, ritual and otherwise, were done. They were going home. Their duties were done. The excuse of being unclean would have been pretty much a wash.
And then a Samaritan walked by.
Understand, at the time, the country of Israel was split into the northern and southern halves, and while those halves could trace their lineage back to common ancestors, they had definitely diverged in culture, beliefs, and – well, prejudices.
It got to the point where people would not only walk to the other side of the road to avoid each other, but would actively go out and try to wipe each other off the map (see here). We see this kind of stuff on the news even today.
The Samaritan was treated as not only an enemy, but a much less than second class citizen, one to be avoided, one to not speak to or associate with.
So when Jesus talked about Samaritans, he wasn’t being gentle about it, he was being pretty hard core, and telling the Jews there to love their neighbors.
Not just when it was comfortable.
Not just when it was convenient.
Not just when it was socially acceptable.
And he used what they thought was the lowest form of life on the planet to get that point across, with all the gentleness and finesse of a sledgehammer.
“Here, see this guy? The injured one? The Hurting one? The one down on his luck? He needs help, and he needs it now. And you guys are too ‘Holy’ to do it. So who does? The guy you hate (the Samaritan) helps the guy you say is one of your own more than your holiest of people. Take that and think about it for a bit, THEN tell me who the neighbor that you’re supposed to love actually is.”
So much harm has been done to people in the name of religion. Be it physical harm, psychological harm or whatever, to the point where Christians are parodied, and become caricatures of what God meant us to be. And the people causing harm in the name of religion (on purpose or by accident) are missing the point altogether. The folks who need our help are often ignored, rarely acknowledged, or are simply relegated to the same background as the normal sights and sounds of the city.
What did Jesus Himself say we should do? He put it in pretty simple terms. You’ve heard of the 10 Commandments. The religious types of his day, trying to trap him, asked, “What’s the most important commandment?” and in that story above, Jesus narrowed it down to two.
There’s quite a bit said in the Bible about the “Body of Christ” – and for a long time I had a hard time getting my head around that concept…
Then I realized that we – those who are supposed to be following Christ, imperfect as we are, are His body here on earth.
We are His hands.
We are His feet.
We are the ones who are supposed to help…
And I realized that that traveler from Samaria, reviled by so many in his day, still had lessons to teach 2,000 years later…