“I ok”

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 6, I was returning to Richmond from Summerfield, North Carolina. 

Since Sunday, my wife and I had been helping out our oldest daughter and her family as she recovered from out patient knee surgery.

I was east of Danville on U.S. 58, when I picked up the first radio news reports about the turmoil in Washington, D.C.

At first, my ears could not believe what I was hearing. Every mile unfolded more chaos and concern.

There was a rawness to these news feeds and sound bytes. Reporters struggled for accuracy and confirmation in the unraveling.

Emotions ran through my heart and mind. 

I was saddened, disappointed, and quite honestly disgusted.

Even before the arrival of 2020, America has been festering for a long, long, long, long time.

In all honesty, we should not have been surprised by what occurred on January 6. This is another day of infamy when we pushed our freedom to its limits and attacked our democracy.

As an American, I failed. 

Over the last four years, I failed to use my voice to directly speak out against a president who clearly incited the mob who rioted on Wednesday afternoon.

Why did I fail—fear. 

Fear that I would lose friends, fear of what people would think of me, fear of how my family might be hurt, fear of how my speaking out could impact my work, fear, fear, fear, fear.

And in that fear is division, a division in America that is as sharp and dangerous as the dullest knife in your kitchen.

Whether we want to admit it or not, division has always been healthy in America. We continue to struggle with division. It is an open wound, a wound that appears immune from treatment.

If we allow our division to continue, we are dead—dead.

My father was a good, decent, God fearing man. 

He observed early on that I had a bad temper. I was a poor sport in athletic participation, and also as a fan if a favorite team lost a game to a rival.

In those instances, my father never raised a hand to combat my unacceptable behavior. With a gentle, but firm dignity he told me if I wanted to continue to participate in sports or to watch sporting events on television or in person— that I had to change. 

It will not be easy, but America—you, me, we, us must change.

Tom Hanks is my favorite actor

There is a scene in the movie Castaway that is pure terrifying chaos.  

Hanks who is portraying a Federal Express employee is a singular passenger on a Federal Express jumbo cargo jet. Out over the ocean, the plane encounters significant turbulence from a massive storm. 

The plane can’t handle this stress. The pilots lose control. The plane crashes. Somehow, Hanks is the only survivor in the descent, impact, and the fury of the storm in the ocean.

Wednesday afternoon was pure terrifying chaos in Washington, D.C. 

This was real life, not a Hollywood script. And yet, somehow, someway, I want America to be like Tom Hanks in that movie. I want us to survive our division, our chaos, our fears.

I want America to be like our two year old grandson after he takes a tumble. He looks up at me and states: “I ok.”

We have lots of work to do in America for us to be able to say: “I ok.”

As I drove, I thought—I wonder what God thinks about all of this?

Well, I think God has known for a long, long, long, long time that America  was in trouble. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we have for many, many years been pushing ourselves away from God, religion, church, kindness, and love.

Heck, church people, like myself, are even divided in how we view God’s teachings in the Bible. We can’t agree on how we interpret these teachings. And, truthfully these disagreements have contributed to our division.

I wonder why we can’t be drawn to these words from Isaiah, Chapter 1, verses 16-17: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice.”

As my old Toyota Highlander pushes north on U.S. 360, I marvel on this sun drenched afternoon at the stark, bare beauty of the forest on both sides of the highway. 

Winter clears the trees of their leaves. Even the undergrowth at the edge of these forest and at the base of the trees is tempered back by exposure to frost on cold mornings.

The trees stand tall, erect, basking in the late afternoon sun. Their trunks and limbs fully exposed.  Nothing is hidden. They appear so peaceful, free from turmoil as the sun begins to slowly sink in the west.

To move America forward, we must be willing to peer deeply into America with an unobstructed view. 

We must see with a clarity that exposes every fault, every division, every festering wound, every hurt, every social injustice,  every fear.  

Our hope and prayer must be to do this without any hesitation.

When I arrived at our home, I unloaded my car, and then I worked to set up my computer for a Zoom call with our college pals.

With out question, the events of the afternoon came up in our conversation. But as we were winding down, the topic of mental health came up. Our mental well being is so important, but as we all know—it is often overlooked.

During 2020 our individual and collective mental health has faced multiple challenges: COVID-19, social injustice, natural disasters, a contentious presidential campaign, and now at the very beginning of 2021 an insurrection fueled by a president unwilling to accept his defeat in the election.

In this thing called life, that is a lot of baggage.

And that baggage doesn’t even take into account all of the other stressors people face.

In a recent interview on the CBS program Sunday Morning, comedian Chris Rock talked about some of his baggage with the show’s co-host, Gayle King. 

When King asked Mr. Rock what was “the hardest truth” to learn about himself during his mental health therapy, he stated: 

“Sometimes I wasn’t kind,” said Rock, “and sometimes I wasn’t listening, and sometimes I was selfish.”

Sadly, I think wasn’t kind, wasn’t listening, and being selfish captures America’s current challenges.

As an American, I want me and my country to be kinder, to be better at listening, and to be less selfish.

I want America to be able to say “I ok” not for me, but for its future.

And even though Wednesday afternoon was ugly, hurtful, and unacceptable, I’ll hang on to hope.

Hope that our hearts will collectively say—enough.

Hope that our hearts learn from all of this. 

Hope that our hearts will work to rid ourselves of our division.

Hope that we want a future where we can all say, “I ok.”

God help us.

Photo by Bill Pike

blink

On Thursday, December 10, the Commander Supreme and I were in North Carolina. We had traveled to Summerfield where our oldest daughter and her family live.

Later that afternoon, we would all pile in one car and drive to Clemmons just outside of Winston-Salem. We were going to the Festival of Lights at Tanglewood Park.

This was to be a dangerous, pre-Christmas excursion. 

Anytime you put five adults in a vehicle with a five year old and a two year old to drive through a park to stare blankly into miles and miles of Christmas light displays—the risk factors are high. No underwriters from Lloyd’s of London would even consider issuing a policy.

We had been warned about the back up traffic on the highway. But luckily, we missed it.

Once we were in the park on the scenic loop, we had been warned about having a car or cars in front of us whose sense of urgency to keep the line moving is like that of an Eastern box turtle chomping on a summer tomato—none.

Also, we were alerted that our bladders needed to be strong as portable johns were few. Making a decision to relieve yourself by bolting from your car into the coal-black woods was high risk too.

 No telling what nocturnal creatures might be out there ready to greet you. 

If you sprinted from your car and happened to startle the skunk family as they were attempting to get their children down to sleep, bladder or no bladder that would not be a pleasant encounter. 

Plus, there is no way you would be allowed back in the car with your family after an aromatic meeting with the skunks. If lucky, your family might strap you to the roof of the car.

Overall, we had a good viewing experience. I can now say I have been there.  I am also happy not be responsible for paying the electrical bill at Tanglewood.

Prior to Christmas, we made two similar visits to the Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Henrico County, Virginia where we live.

 This was a walking tour of miles of lights and clever displays. Particularly impressive were how the lights reflected off water surfaces of a lake and streams in certain locations. 

On Monday, December 21, phase one of the Christmas invasion started. Our youngest daughter came in from Raleigh. 

The second expeditionary force arrived from Summerfield on Tuesday. This was our oldest daughter and her two children. Our son-in-law would drive in after work on Wednesday afternoon.

Don’t ask me how, but at 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve our family was seated at our dining room table. 

This now included our son, his wife, and their two daughters. There were eleven of us. Thanks to precautions related to COVID-19, my wife’s brother and his family were not present, nor was my 92 year old mother-in-law.

Thanks again to COVID-19, worshipping at our church on Christmas Eve was disrupted. 

So instead, at 8 that evening, we watched the virtual service created by our church staff for broadcast. While the service was very well done, I know we missed being in a packed sanctuary.

Michael H. Dickinson is an American fly bioengineer and neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. 

Dr. Dickinson has made discoveries like this:  “We discovered that fruit flies alter course in less than one one-hundredth of a second, 50 times faster than we blink our eyes, which is faster than we ever imagined.” (Brainy Quote) 

No wonder fruit flies are so hard to whack!

But, this is an undeniable fact for me—at some point between the first hours of Christmas Eve and the last hours of Christmas Day— Christmas becomes a blink. 

Despite all the anticipation, all the buildup, all the excitement, all the energy generated, all the preparation— Christmas moves fast. I always knew that Christmas moved fast, but now thanks to Dr. Dickinson, I understand that Christmas moves at the speed of a fruit fly.

And in all those one one-hundredths of a second, all of our human emotions are tangled at Christmas. 

Christmas makes us laugh, cry, ponder, love, hope. 

Christmas creates an undertow of its own tension. 

This tension can be a compilation of its weariness frazzling multiple nerves or one singular nerve plucked. The result can be a meltdown for children and adults.

Christmas has a kind heart. But, I sense that I let the commercial trappings of the season push me away from its original simple path.

In a blink, on Saturday and Sunday we packed cars for their returns to North Carolina. Truthfully, a tractor trailer or a military Chinook helicopter would have been more appropriate.

Anyone along the interstate who stared blankly into the passenger seat of our oldest daughter’s SUV would have seen a Paw Patrol Mighty Lookout Tower with a seatbelt holding it in place. That is a far cry from my days of Lincoln logs and Tinker toys. 

In a blink the world has changed. 

But, I guess the question to ask is has the world really changed since I was a kid?

For sure it has, but in all of those blinks, we still have so many problems facing us that need to be fixed— fixed for all of us. 

For me, our inability to fix our on-going  challenges are just as annoying as a pesky fruit fly. 

As we push into 2021, we must commit to making changes—changes that are grounded in understanding that we can’t continue to live in denial of things that have be broken for a long, long, long, long time. 

I’m sorry, but we can’t blink the restlessness of these challenges away. 

No matter how much we blink, these challenges are not going to vanish. Truth is we know this. But, the stubbornness in our blinks keeps us from making the right commitments to change.

While I yearn for a simpler Christmas, I also wish life was as simple as a container of Play-Doh. 

At the preschool where our grandson attends with his older sister, Hudson’s teacher gave him a container of Play-Doh as a Christmas gift.

The day after the Tanglewood visit, Hudson was finishing lunch on the back porch.  He asked for the container of Play-Doh to be opened. I obliged.

We sat at a small table, and we both worked with the Play-Doh. Eventually, we pounded it down to make a flat surface. That allowed us to take the utensil shaped like a reindeer and make reindeer shapes.

Of course, the beauty of the Play-Doh was if we didn’t like the outcome, we could start over. We could reshape, remold, and flatten the material over again.

I wonder what might happen to our challenges in our world if we treated them like Play-Doh? This isn’t working. Let’s start over. Let’s find a better solution—flatten, reshape, remold.

 Or, what might happen in times of an urgent need if we could be as nimble as a fruit fly? What might this mean for people in dire situations if we quickly adjust our thinking, altering our path for a better outcome?

As miserable as 2020 has been for us, we can’t ignore the lessons it offers to teach.

Without question, our willingness to learn from 2020 is critical to our futures.

In a blink, the Christmas of 2021 will be here.

 Will Christmas in 2021 be different from what we just experienced?

I pray it will be. 

But, I also pray that we can change, adapt, adjust and apply the lessons of 2020 to our immediate future and beyond.

This is one blink we can’t afford to miss.

Photo by Bill Pike