jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: January, 2017

Who is my neighbor?

When I’m alone,

struggling to shake off the cold and fog of sleep,

driving over the cracked and barren asphalt,

and an old black man peddles his vintage Schwinn across my path,

and I encounter thick-waisted women covered in mismatched fleece,

adorned in fluorescent orange and green and blinking white lights,

wisps of breath pulsing with their every step,

and I pass the ordinary two story buildings,

where the gray-brown grass and brick merge,

and the smell of despair hangs in the air,

when I’m tempted to rebel against the staring red light,

and I look left and right, and think it’s okay,

no one will know,

when I’m desperate for a four-dollar cup of expresso and Sumatra,

and I wonder about the shivering hungry men sleeping on cardboard and plastic who long for the warmth of dawn,

when thoughts of helping had passed too quickly before,

and I remember those times when I looked away from hollow eyes and

now I wonder,

who is my neighbor?

when compassion supplants guilt,

and resolve takes hold,

I am free.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

Check out my latest column on Elephant Journal. 

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/01/my-heroes-have-always-been-cowboys-a-mindful-look-at-entertainment/

Unexpected Grace

 

Sarah hoped her face wasn’t red.  She kept her gaze downward, desperately trying to avoid making eye contact.  Her sins were public now.  A few people had admonished her, but most of the judgment came in the way of averted eyes and insincere smiles.  Even Jade, who had steadfastly supported Sarah during some of her worst days, had finally given her that how could you, Sarah? look.

 

As she walked into the room, Sarah could feel the heat of shame rising within her.  The walk across the room seemed endless.  Dead man walking.  Just get to your chair, she told herself.  She made it to her seat and breathed a silent sigh of relief then faked a good morning nod to several of the people already gathered at the table.  Thank God, she wasn’t the last one into the conference room.

 

When Ross walked in, all smiles and charisma, everyone’s attention turned to him. His entrance was, as always, a bit of theatre. Everyone loved Ross.  His way with people was as effortless as his seeming grasp of all things business.  He was perfect.  A Greek hero without the tragic flaw. Adam before biting into the apple.  Sarah wondered if she might be Eve soon to be banished from Eden, but alone.

 

Sarah tried to pay attention to the litany of performance measures Ross was spewing.  New clients.  Revenue per client.  Average daily sales revenue.  She was busily making notes in her planner, while her mind was on other things.  Did her parents know?  Would her marriage survive?  Would there be a please see me after the meeting moment soon to be followed by a blank-faced HR staffer sent their to deliver the message, We’re grateful for your work, but considering the circumstances…

 

“So what do you guys think we should do?” Ross asked the group.  “Any thoughts, Sarah?’

 

God.  He must not know.  There’s no way he would ask me if he knew.  Doesn’t he read the paper?  Or look at the internet.  Maybe, he’s just trying to embarrass me.  But that’s not him.  He couldn’t possibly know. 

 

“Um.  I’m sorry, Ross.  Could you repeat the question?  I was making notes and I’m not quite sure what you want me to comment on.”

 

Later, Sarah wouldn’t be able to remember what it was she had been asked or how she had answered the question.  But she must have managed to say something that satisfied him.  When the meeting came to it’s merciful end, she couldn’t decide whether racing out the door, feigning the need to be somewhere, or pretending to add things to her list of Things to Do Today. Unfortunately, her hesitation only left her mired in the bog of humanity all trying to get out the door at the same time.

 

Just as she thought she had freed herself from the glass-walled prison, she heard Ross call her name.

 

“Sarah.  Hey, Sarah.  Hang on.  Can I walk with you.”

 

Here it comes.  He knows.  She muttered a curse under her breath, tried to reassure herself that she had a good bit in savings and maybe a fresh start in another career would be good no matter what circumstances had led to it. Sarah braced herself for the onslaught when Ross closed the door to her office behind him.

 

“Look, Ross. I’ll save you the trouble.  I’ve already typed up my resignation.  I’ll clean out my—“

 

“Whoa.  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Wait a minute.  Who said anything about a resignation?”

 

“I know what I’ve done.  I know it looks bad—and that the company can’t run the risk of bad press from my foolishness, from this dumpster fire I’ve set in my life.”

 

“Hang on, Sarah.  Just hang on a second.  I’m not here to ask for your resignation.  And I’m not here to throw any stones or give you any lectures.  I’m sure you’ve had plenty of that already.  I’m guessin’ your weekend was pretty close to horrible.”

 

Moisture pooled at the corner of Sarah’s wide eyes.  She said nothing, fearing that an attempt to speak would lead to her coming completely unhinged.

 

“Look, I’m not gonna sugarcoat this.  Yeah, I’ll admit the possibility someone over my pay grade will want to avoid the risk of getting embroiled in your personal situation.  But the truth is, the last thing you need right now is judgment.  The stuff you’re going through is difficult enough.  And I’m pretty sure you’re beating yourself up already.  And some people are gonna want to abandon you. I just don’t want to be one of those people.  That’s all I wanted to say.”

 

Sarah had prepared herself for almost everything except this.  Compassion?  Understanding?  Given what she had done, they had never figured into her calculus.

 

“I—I don’t know what to say, Ross.  I mean—thank you.”

 

“There’s no need to thank me, Sarah.  None of us are perfect.  Heaven knows, I’ve slid along the razor’s edge of calamity myself.  Most of us, if we are honest, live no more than a few decisions away from being in situations similar to yours.  Maybe it might be a different kind of trial, but the magnitude of them would be about the same.

 

“When people go through something like what you’re going through, well, they just don’t think how vulnerable they really are.  Admitting that would just be too frightening for most people.  So they hide behind their pride when humility and compassion would be so much more appropriate.  Not the kind of trite “but for the grace of God,” kind of humility or “bless her heart” sort of counterfeit compassion that is so commonplace.  I’m talking about the real deal.  The kind of humility and compassion that might cost them something.”

 

Sarah offered Ross a smile of gratitude as a tear rolled down her cheek.

 

“Any way, if HR calls me, I will be the first one to defend you.  I can’t promise you any more than that—except that I will shoot straight with you.  Fair enough?”

 

“Fair enough, Ross.”

 

“Now, I gotta go see who I can boss around today. You should get to work, too.  I know it will be hard to concentrate but do your best.  And don’t forget to breathe.” With that, he smiled, pivoted, and left Sarah to contemplate what had just taken place.

 

A few minutes later, Jade was at Sarah’s doorway.

 

“You okay?” she asked, her voice full of repentance.

 

“I’m okay,” said Sarah.

 

“What did he say?”

 

“Not much.  But just the right thing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you measure a life?

It’s a place where old men will gently lift a hand from the steering wheel offering a waive to oncoming cars, where generations of families lay beside one another in solemn church cemeteries, where muddy dogs of indeterminate heritage roam free of human restraint.  And though it’s not the place where I was raised, it’s the place  I have always called home.

On that gray Tuesday  morning, I left before I should have.  I’m not sure why.  I suppose after so many years I just needed to go home. There was a time when this journey required travel over an ancient U.S. highway that meandered through small towns, where one drove alongside the rattle and whoosh of coal and log trucks spewing oily black diesel smoke from chrome exhaust pipes. But not today.  Today’s trip was mostly over a freshly paved stretch of interstate that delivered me to rural Alabama far more quickly than I had expected. Despite the sputtering rain, just a few days after Christmas, this was a peaceful journey, when most drivers were still enjoying their respite from daily commutes or other urgent matters.

Somewhere along my path, the reassuring voice of my GPS urged me to exit the interstate and begin the final leg of my journey home—my journey back through time and memories.  Eventually, I turned onto what had been a narrow kidney-rattling road that the county had once deemed paved.  Wider now, the road was also adorned with bright yellow lines running down its center, cautioning me to stay to the right.  I had already passed the funeral home where she would be memorialized, where I would soon be expected to share some words that might honor this woman who had meant so much to so many of us.  In a place so many of my family had been honored in the past, I hoped I was up to the task.

I rehearsed the words once more.

How do you measure a life?

As I pressed further into the pines, passing double-wide trailers and fragile “stick-built” homes through which dim light and mild winds might easily pass, I drew closer to my father’s childhood home.  Once nothing more than a log cabin, I passed the home in which I spent so many hours—the smell of coffee, frying bacon, and love wafted through my mind, as did the sound of my slightly-built grandmother’s unceasing soft whistling. A two-car garage had supplanted the portion of the house that had once been a general store, a place where both bodies and spirits had found nourishment.

I neared the cemetery where she would be placed to rest, quietly mouthing the words.

Is it measured by the worldly riches we possess in this life?  Surely not. 

Stepping from my car, I noticed the giant Oak tree that stood in front of the church.  I imagined my father and his two brothers as boys, plotting their next adventure or perhaps whispering about some beautiful girl.  I imagined my grandfather, his worn black-leather King James Bible in hand, climbing the steps to teach yet another Sunday School lesson.  I saw my grandmother, though never losing track of her three boys, quietly encouraging a young mother holding her infant child.

Or is a life measured by the achievements for which we might be admired?  Achievements are often surpassed. 

 

This morning had been incongruous—warmer than it should have been, even for an Alabama December.  While the roads I had travelled were different, the destination was somehow unchanged.  After spending some quiet moments wandering the grounds of the New Canaan Baptist Church, I headed back to the funeral home, where tears and warm embraces would accompany sometimes awkward laughter.  As if to punctuate the disparate emotions with which I struggled, I encountered three empty Amazon boxes blowing across the road.  What a peculiar thing, these boxes.  In a place where Christmas gifts were once purchased only after a forty-five-minute drive to town, often by parents of limited means, now FedEx and UPS deliver here.

Might our lives be measured by the fame we enjoy?  Remarkable people are often not famous and famous people are often not very remarkable.

When the moment finally came, after the music had played and the preacher had said his words, I rose to face my family and the many friends who had gather here to honor this mother, this aunt, this grandmother, this sister and friend.  I had not expected to be overcome, to need to press back tears, but as I looked into the eyes of my family my voice quivered. Moisture pooled in the corners of my eyes. These were not tears of sorrow, but of gratitude for the woman and family I had the privilege of honoring—gratitude for home.  And while I had struggled with the words more than a writer should, they came.

Perhaps a life is best measured by how someone makes us feel.  In her presence I felt safe.  I never felt hurried.  I felt her kindness and her compassion.   I felt her determination.  In a time when I might have expected myself to be more, or when others surely did, in her presence I felt as if I were—enough.   

 

Long after our memories have left us unable to recall all the details of a life, we will never forget how someone made us feel.   

 

Or perhaps a life is best measured in the stories we will tell one another about someone.  Stories about kindness.  Stories about humility.  Or even perhaps stories of a well-deserved rebuke. 

 

If we will but tell those stories, the ones that make us laugh and the ones that make us cry, we honor the legacy of a life well-lived.  These are the treasures left behind for those of us who weep.

In the memory of how someone made us feel and in the stories we tell one another about them we honor them. So today, tell one another the stories.  Tell one another how she made you feel.  And be grateful for the time we had with her—for the time we have with one another.  For if it is by these things we measure a life, hers was truly remarkable. 

 

As I left my family that day—as I left home—I drove without turning on the radio.  I switched off my phone. I wanted to be present, to be mindful of the gift this day had been.  I wanted to feel all of its emotions.  Sometime during the morning, the rain had stopped.  I rolled down the window, wanting to feel the breeze on my face and hear the sound of tires rolling over the pavement, and to inhale deeply the scent of damp earth and trees—to hear and see and feel home.  And though I was returning to where I live, I was taking home—and her—with me.  As I always have.