Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Peace Offerings Farewell: "Love and Peace to All"

Saying good-bye is sometimes tough, even when it's the right thing to do.

When this particular blog began several years ago, I had several goals: to share my own journey along the path of renewed faith that inspired it; to encourage people that they were loved and that they mattered and that they had a purpose in the earth; and to be a forum for writing about my own thoughts and struggles and journeys as a truck driver living on the road (much as my original blog, Lonesome Dove Expressions, did).

Back then, blogging was still relevant, Facebook was just beginning, and I felt like it might be a useful tool for helping people and an enjoyable experiment for myself as an outlet for my own writing. There has always been a small core of regular readers, some of whom started with the original blog back in 2007, but as Facebook became more of a fixture in our lives, and I began to share most of whatever I chose to write there, this blog sort of went the way of the cassette-tape player and Mister Microphone (“Hey, good-lookin', we'll be back to pick you up later!”).

For a while now, I've been wondering whether this blog has served its purpose, and now, at the end of one year on the cusp of beginning a new one, it seems an appropriate time for a last good-bye here. I've had fun, I hope you've enjoyed reading when you have, and perhaps we'll meet again somewhere else.

For now, I leave you with this reminder, and hope you will take it to heart: you are loved, you matter, you have a purpose.

Thanks for sharing this part of the journey with me. Love and peace to all.

Friday, August 29, 2014

One Year On: "What A Long Strange Trip It's Been"

Beginning words. As I write these words – the first words in a long while in this mostly-defunct blog – it lacks only a couple of hours being exactly the time one year ago that I left Topeka, Kansas, with everything I felt I had to have packed into my little Kia Soul, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Credence Clearwater, The Eagles, Triumph, Gordon Lightfoot, and many others blasting the night and the miles away as I drove toward the town I had left almost exactly 30 years before: Rome, Georgia.

Rome hasn't changed all that much in the last 30 years, at least on the outside. All the things I always liked about being from Rome are there: small town, friendly folks for the most part, sweet tea most everywhere, Krystal, and all the things Southern that helped form who I am. Mostly, my family was still here. That's what brought me back.

But, as always happens, I had certainly changed in the last 30 years. I wasn't the same person, in many ways, as the 18-year-old preacher-boy who left for Dallas, Texas, sure he was going to be God's next Big-Deal-Preacher-Man, ready to change the world. Back then, fresh out of high school, I was a religious zealot, dogmatic to the point of legalistic in what I believed, and proud to be a part of the emerging Religious Right that would evolve into the nightmare-disaster-embarrassment that the Tea Party represents to me now. I was, barely 18, a dues-paying member of the John Birch Society (which, for those who may not know about that particular group, was more right-wing, anti-communist, paranoid, and conspiracy-driven than anything the Tea Party ever came up with). I was supremely confident that I knew the answers, even if I didn't know what the questions were yet.

Thirty years later, I returned, not religious (though my faith is as vital and vibrant as ever, even if it wouldn't fit into the box it used to fit into), certainly not part of the Religious Right, with plenty of questions and very few answers.

What? This ain't Texas!” For years, whenever I thought about getting off the road, I thought I would move back to Dallas – Texas has always been where my heart has felt most at home (and I wrote about Texas a while back in this blog in a six-part series called “My Texas Odyssey” if you want to read it). But, after my grandmother (“Nanny” to me) died in December, 2012, something changed, and my heart began to yearn to be closer to my flesh-and-blood family. I have recounted some of that story in previous entries of this blog.

Anyway, last year, feeling the call toward family, and feeling ready to get off the road after almost 10 years traveling the highways of this country in a big truck, I started making plans to leave Kansas. By the time I was ready to leave one year ago, I had the promise of a job that would get me off the road, and, to my surprise (because this happened after I had already decided to move back to Georgia), I had gotten back in touch with an old acquaintance from high school days, and there was (I felt, hoped) the potential for something good.

Within the first two weeks of crossing the Georgia state line, the promised job had evaporated, the potential relationship had ended, my small bit of money was gone, and things looked pretty bleak. Then there followed four months looking for work, being pushed against the ropes financially, and a very dark time for me in every way. Finally, in December, I found work, still driving a truck, but able to be home every night. But then, even after that, health problems (including a heart problem that required a stent to be put in), medical bills, and plans-gone-awry kept me in a whirlpool of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual chaos (some of that is reflected in my last entry in this blog from October).

From the vantage point of a year, looking back, I can say with great confidence: if I had known what it would entail, I would never have moved back to Georgia. And there have been times in the past year that I sincerely, desperately, wished I hadn't.

And yet . . .” In spite of all the challenges, struggles, disappointments, surprises, setbacks . . . even though I wouldn't have chosen this particular part of the journey on purpose . . . one year later, I know that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, in exactly the situation I am intended to be in.

I am here. I am connected deeply to people I love and who love me. I have a job that I mostly enjoy, working more hours that I would have dreamed were possible when I was looking for any kind of work, and I am doing well physically.

I am learning the lessons I came here to learn (even if it's sometimes kicking and screaming, lashing out in anger, and being put in time-out pretty often): trust, acceptance, purpose, possibility.

I am grateful, I am at peace, and all is well. And that's really all I ever wanted.

Until next time, I leave you with this reminder: you are loved, you matter, you have a purpose. Love and peace to all who may read these words.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Castaway In My Hometown

Introduction: A Few Steps Later.   I last wrote in this blog back in May, almost 5 months ago. At the time, I was still living in Kansas, driving a big truck with my great friend Terry, and looking forward to moving back to Georgia.

In the weeks leading up to my final departure from Kansas, the night of August 29, I had begun to fall in love with an old acquaintance from high school days, I had a probable job offer from someone that would get me out of the truck as I wanted, and things were looking pretty good to a man about to make a leap into the unknown. I felt Purpose and Possibility guiding my every step.

As I write this, it lacks only one day being six weeks since I left Kansas. In that time, my heart has been broken, the job I thought I had evaporated, and I am a 48-year-old man who is living with his mom for the first time since high school, feeling like a castaway in my own hometown. In many ways, it is a dark time, a confusing time, a depressing time, for me; yet, even so, I am at peace deep below the surface where those storms race across the landscape of my emotions and thoughts. And I know that Purpose and Possibility still guide my every step. I am exactly where and when I am supposed to be, being given the opportunity to learn the lessons of trust, living in the moment, being grateful for what I have, acceptance of what is as that which is exactly the way it is meant to be, even when I don't like it very much.

A very different cruise.   When I was in Texas back in June, my Daddy had called me one night to let me know that our family had a chance to take a cruise together at the end of September. It would be just after I was planning on coming back to Georgia anyway, and the potential for it to be a romantic adventure was in my mind as I joyfully accepted his invitation.

The cruise was wonderful, enjoyable, and I had a great time being around people I love. But it was not the cruise I originally thought it might be: I went alone, in spite of being with others, and it was a time when I was more withdrawn and brooding than I have been in a long, long time. But it was exactly the cruise I needed and the one I was supposed to have.

Richelle and Joseph.   The first full day out in open waters, I was sitting up on the open deck waiting on my Daddy and Hilda. While I was waiting, reading one of the books I had brought (an excellent collection of novellas by Andre Dubus calledWe Don't Live Here Anymore), this couple approached my table and asked if they could join me. Of course, I said.

The couple was Richelle and Joseph, and as I heard their story, I realized I had just met two of the reasons I was supposed to be on this cruise. Joseph is originally from Cuba, saw his father shot as a policeman in Cuba when he was a boy, and immigrated to the United States when he was 23 years old. He served several tours in the U.S. Army, and then became a chemical engineer, eventually settling in Orlando, Florida, after he divorced and his children were grown. One of the things he enjoyed most after retiring was cruising – and he did that a lot.

Richelle is originally from Savannah, Georgia, where she lived most of her life. She married her high school sweetheart at age 15, and was with him for 36 years until he passed away of cancer. With no kids or other family, she spent 8 months in Savannah grieving herself literally to death. Finally, as a last resort, a group of her friends bought her a ticket for a cruise, and told her, “You are getting on that boat. You can jump overboard after you leave, or you can get off somewhere and never come back, and you can write us off as your friends, but you are getting on that boat. You are dying here and you have to get away.”

So, about the age I am now, she is forced on a ship for the first time on a cruise she cared nothing about. The first night, assigned seating with other single people at dinner, she sat next to Joseph. After the meal, he asked her if she smoked. Yes, she said. He asked her if she wanted to go up on deck to have a cigarette. Okay, she said. They were together every waking moment the rest of that cruise.

Four days after that cruise, Richelle loaded up some things, including her guns, into her pickup truck in Savannah, and drove to Orlando. Just over a year later, they were married in Las Vegas. That was 18 years ago.

I spent time with them almost every day, soaking up their message to me: don't give up, it's never too late, better days are ahead.
Marlene, Nina, Eleanor, Debbie, Wanda: the Dinner Gang.   The way things were set up for us, we had assigned seating in one of the dining rooms for dinner each evening. That first night, we discovered that our dinner companions for the week were a lovely group of friends (mostly from North Carolina), and the nightly time with them proved to be one of the highlights of the whole week for me.

Their contagious joy and laughter was a welcome bright spot in my heart, and I came to feel like I'd known these beautiful ladies a lot longer than a few days by the end of the trip. They were a lifeline to my heart to help me stay connected to joy and light even in a difficult place. In their smiles and laughter and conversation, I found an oasis of strength and hope. Thank you, ladies!

Words from books.   Of course, as I mentioned before, I had taken books along on the cruise. And, even better for being made fun of by my Daddy and others, I even located the library on the ship, and spent time most every day there, enjoying the peace and solitude looking out over the open water casting my thoughts like “bread upon the waters”.

One of the books I took was Looking For Alaska by John Green. The theme of the main character's search for “The Great Perhaps” resonates with my own thoughts about Purpose and Possibility. When his search for love ends tragically, the main character must navigate the waters of how to continue on even when things didn't work out as he had hoped. This book was written for me and this time in my life.

After I finished Alaska, I turned to a volume of poetry I love to read from most days at least a little bit. I re-discovered two poems by Emily Dickinson that spoke to me. I insert them here without comment.

Poem 126
THE Brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

Poem 466.

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

You never know . . .”   Lastly, because it is always so profound in its impact upon my heart, especially in times of uncertainty and searching as I am now in, I share a clip from one of my favorite movies, Cast Away . It is worth watching all of it.

Until next time . . . love and peace to you all.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Next Step

Introduction: First Thoughts

As I sit down to write this, I realize that, even as I write for others to read who might be interested, mostly I'm writing (more journaling than anything, I suppose) for my own benefit, to help clarify thoughts, anticipate goals, and plan things as much as I am able. With that in mind, I welcome your company, your prayers, your thoughts and feedback, and your help, to whatever extent you are inclined and able to give it. Thanks for looking over my shoulder as I write.

Part 1: What Came Before

When I first started to drive a truck over 8 years ago, I was literally starting my life over. I had been sick for about two years (with what was finally determined to be Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome [CFIDS] or, more popularly and very incorrectly, simply as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), was going through a very painful divorce from my precious wife of 10 years, Charlotte, wasn't in ministry, didn't even have my substitute career as a stockbroker, and the faith that had once formed the boundaries and framework of my whole life was gone.

I didn't really care about living back then, thought my life was over in all the ways that mattered, and, though I wasn't going to actively end it, many times in those days, I certainly just wished my life could be over. Many nights when I first started driving a truck, raw with pain and anguish from the death of my marriage, I curled up in a fetal position, keening and moaning (it was beyond crying, and I hope I never hear that awful sound again), praying to a god I didn't believe in any more to please-please-please-god-please just let me go to sleep and not wake up.

But, I always woke up, and always climbed behind the wheel to go to the next place. I didn't even care where it was. In those earliest, darkest days, my handholds of sanity were primarily the contact I had on the phone with my Mama, Daddy, my Nanny, and my sister, Cindy. They never let go of me, were always there for me, and always let me know they loved me and cared whether I lived or died.

And, over the days, months, years, and the miles, the crucible of my greatest pain in that big truck slowly, mostly imperceptibly to me at the time, became an incubator of healing.

In fits and starts, I slowly began to rebuild my life from the inside out, questioning everything, reconsidering all that I had once considered valuable, testing everything, and one day I realized that I had a life again. And I was enjoying it. The natural wanderlust I had always had was satisfied in always being on the road, going to new places, seeing parts of this land that I had only dreamed of seeing, especially out West. Driving out West, especially in the mountains, was healing in itself for me. I also had time on the road for the things I enjoyed most: reading, writing, thinking deeply about things great and small.

This joy was only magnified and intensified when I was able to begin driving with my long-time friend, Terry. And, I have to say, that in the years since, he has been the witness, the encourager, the healer who has done more to help me rebuild my life than any other single person I've ever known. He has seen me at my worst, has encouraged me to be my best, has taught me, listened without judgment, loved and accepted me, and has remained a true and faithful friend even when I didn't know how to be that in return.

It is a rare gift for a person to know that another person knows all his (or her) deepest secrets, failures, doubts, fears, and still be accepted and loved no matter what. I have been doubly blessed in that: my great friend Terry and my Daddy have both been the keepers of my darkest thoughts and I have been met at every turn with the gift of love, acceptance, healing and forgiveness. For that, I am grateful and blessed beyond words to measure it.

And that is the reason that, whatever else I do the rest of my life, my primary goal is to be that “soft place to fall” (thanks Dr. Phil for that phrase) for those who need it. To give what I have so freely been given, even when it wasn't deserved: to love without condition, to listen without judgment, to just be with another person in quiet empathy and understanding. If I have a ministry today, that's what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. And it is enough.

Part 2: The Present Moment

When Terry and I decided to take a team driving job in Topeka, Kansas, in January, 2010, it was for the money. Our company was offering a nice sign-on bonus for teams that would stay in Kansas for a year. Terry and I both knew we weren't interested in staying in Kansas for more than a year – we had no connections there. And, besides: it was Kansas! Who would want to live permanently in Kansas – of all possible places, surely not there. Not us anyway.

Of course, you know with thoughts like that, it wouldn't be that simple. It never is. Terry found a wonderful reason to stay in Kansas (or anywhere else he would have met her) in the person of his sweet wife, and now my own friend also, Shannon. I would be glad we came to Kansas for that if no other reason. It is truly a rare blessing, one to be treasured, to find love so sweet, no matter where it is found.

And, for me, moving to Kansas was a good thing as well. For the first time since being on the road, I had a regular home, regular time off, and in some respects, the outer trappings of a life off the road. I discovered that being off the road allowed me to engage my other deepest passion, perhaps the motivating passion of my life since I can remember: helping other people. That desire was realized when I met Jon and his wonderful family through my work with Big Brothers and Big Sisters here in Topeka.

For the last three years, Jon and his family have become my family here, and have helped me to stay connected to what matters most in this world, and it's given me an opportunity to serve and give in small ways that have been returned to me in so many big ways. And that connection has kept me anchored here in Kansas, mostly content and happy about it. If you have read any of my writing, in blogs or on Facebook over the past few years, you have read the words I've written so many times: “I will stay in Kansas until my work here is done”, or words to that effect.

At the same time, over the past couple of years, many of the things I have enjoyed most about driving a truck have come to mean less to me than they once did. I have found myself longing for the chance not just to have the external framework of a life apart from the road, but the actual life itself, mostly the connections to people I care about. And the things that I've never liked about driving over the road (driving in winter, being constantly fatigued, being disconnected from people I love) have grown recently to be more of a struggle for me, where they weren't that great a struggle before.

All of those circumstantial elements have come together with this internal sense in my heart that I first sensed last year, last summer, that change was on the way. I had no idea what it was, but was content that when the time was right, I would know what it was and would know what to do about it, if I needed to do anything at all.

I have always thought that when I came off the road (and I thought I probably would at some point), I would move back to Texas. I have many connections there that are as important and dear to me as any I have in the world. Since leaving Texas in 1991, to move to Chicago, I have longed to be back there. This sense was only intensified after my last trip to Texas last year, which I wrote about in my series of blog entries called “My Texas Odyssey”, and which some of you have read.

Then, in December, my Nanny passed away. And, in those last days of last year, being there with her and my family and people I love and care about in Georgia, something happened in my heart that I can express no reason or rhyme to because I do not know. It just happened. That's all I can say. It happened because it was supposed to happen.

I began to think that maybe I would move back to Georgia, even though the other two times I moved back to my hometown, once when I was in college in 1988, and another time in 2006-2007 to help take care of Nanny, it was never a place I wanted to go back to permanently. It just never felt like home.

So, it was rather counter-intuitive to my assumptions and my past experience to even begin considering such a thing. But, I just held on to it, let it be there, along with my equally compelling desire to move to Texas, to see where it would lead, if anywhere.

In the middle of all this, we had the worst winter of driving that I can remember. Perhaps there have been worse winters, but this one affected me very differently in any case. And several weeks ago, sometime in April, after being stuck in Wyoming during a winter storm, while driving down toward Las Vegas out of Utah with howling winds and a dust storm, I was hating the road and that truck so bad, and right in the middle of that storm, I knew it was time.

And, to myself, I decided right then and there: it's time to start working on getting off the road and moving back to Georgia. Just that simple. It was said and done. And, even though the storm was still raging outside, I had the sweetest peace in my heart that I had had in many months. I knew it was The Right Thing To Do.

I told Terry when he woke up, and he was like, “ Well, I've been waiting on you to decide something. It's about time. It's a good thing.” His words sealed it for me.

It is time. And it's right.

Part 3: Into the Unknown

So. That's pretty much it. My intention is set. That's the easy part. The hard part is working all that intention and decision out in practical terms to start my life again in a place I never dreamed it would happen.

There are many things to contend with: I know getting off the road will mean many changes, mostly good, some very challenging. It is almost certain that doing anything else after driving a truck for 8 years will be a huge adjustment. It is almost a certainty that doing something different will mean a reduction in income. And, because of my own poor decisions the last few years with regard to credit cards and living on the road, I have created an additional challenge in that arena that I could wish didn't exist. And yet, it is there, and must be dealt with.

There are many things I am looking forward to about making some of these changes: mostly reconnecting more with people I love, and devoting more energy to the things that are important to me, especially my writing and some other personal family-related projects.

I am excited. I am scared. I am confident. I am riddled with doubt. I am hopeful. I am overwhelmed by the obstacles.

I know that no amount of planning can guarantee outcomes. Indeed, one lesson I am trying to learn more and more is the simple lesson of acceptance, of being unattached to outcomes, letting what needs to be just be. Not trying to control what I can not and am not supposed to control. It is the idea captured most effectively in the words, “Your will, not mine, be done.”

The final result of all this is not so important, I think, as the process and journey of getting there. And I intend, as much as I am able, to enjoy that, and using all the wisdom I have to plan the things in my control, leaving the rest to God. Where it belongs.

So, over the next few months, as I begin to actively look for a new career, a place to live, and all the practical things that entail beginning again, I ask for your prayers. And, if you hear about something that might work for me, feel free to let me know. I'll keep you posted. And thank you.

Until next time . . . love and peace to all.

Monday, February 25, 2013

My Texas Odyssey: Part 6

Note: this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas. I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.

If you are coming to this series here at the end, or if you have missed some parts, links to each of the previous parts of the series are below:
My Texas Odyssey: Part 1 (Introduction and Chapter 1: Journey To Blossom)
My Texas Odyssey: Part 2 (Chapter 2: Heartlight and Chapter 3: The Early Days)
My Texas Odyssey: Part 3 (Chapter 4: First Things)
My Texas Odyssey: Part 4 (Chapter 5: My Kids)
My Texas Odyssey: Part 5 (Chapter 6: The Vision of J.C.'s House)

And, now, the next chapter of My Texas Odyssey:

Chapter 7: Something About Henry

Most of you are probably familiar with the question sometimes asked of people being interviewed where they ask the person to name the person they'd most like to have dinner with. Most of the time, folks name a famous person (Jesus is a typical answer) from history or a contemporary political or pop-culture figure.

If I was asked that question (and since this is my blog, I'll pretend I was), among a short list of folks I'd have to choose between, there is a man in Austin, Texas, named Henry who would be at the top of the list. You've likely never heard of him, unless you are in the happening scene of Austin, but if you ever met him, you would never forget him. And, like anyone else who's ever met him, even casually and in passing, you would have a story to tell about the encounter. It might begin with, “There's just something about Henry . . .”

So it happened, on this last trip to Texas when I had so many people I wanted to see and not enough time (there never is on those kinds of trips), on Friday, September 28, 2012, I drove 200 miles from Dallas to Austin to spend a few precious hours with this man called Henry. We didn't manage dinner, but we did do a fascinating and enjoyable lunch.

Unlike most of the people I have written about in this series, my history with Henry does not go back decades; indeed, it only measures a few short years. It began about 10 years ago, when my great friend, Terry Roberts, was living in Texas. He kept telling me about this man called Henry. I knew one day, I'd have to meet him for myself if possible.

And, one day, I did. Before I take you back there, though, I will go a little further back, to 2007. I was living in Rome, Georgia, at my Nanny's house (Nanny is what I call my grandmother, and that house will always represent “home” to me), driving a truck for a local company, trying to help delay the time when Nanny would have to go live in a nursing home. By then, Nanny had gone to live with my aunt, Joan, and I was ready to go back on the road, this time to team with my great friend Terry Roberts.

One of the things I had learned about Henry from Terry was that he was very liberal in his politics (I don't know if that's the term Henry would use to describe himself, but in broad terms it fits for my purposes here). I also learned that he absolutely hated Fox News (only half of which is true), and all of that dislike was iconified in their popular host, Bill O'Reilly. (And, for the record, I am also comfortable with being called a liberal or progressive in many areas, though, mostly for my own self-labeling purposes, I probably fall into more libertarian terms. I like President Obama and many of his policy positions, so you can label me what you will from that.)

Anyway, I decided it would be fun to mess with Henry. So I bought a coffee mug from the Bill O'Reilly web site, and it had the words “Bill O'Reilly” and “Patriot” on it somewhere (and for those of us who loathe the Tea Party and what they have done to the Republican Party, “patriot” is particularly an unfortunate word because of the fact that it, like other once-honorable and meaningful terms, has been hijacked by them as though they invented it, and especially when “subversive” would be a more truthful term, in my opinion).

So, I have this Bill O'Reilly mug. And I write this very nice letter to Henry, telling him how I've heard so much about him from Terry. Then I write something along the lines of how I know Henry is a “true patriot” standing for truth and defending the takeover of our country by “left-wing nuts”, and how I imagine that, like me, he loves Bill O'Reilly and Fox News and the service they are providing to our great republic. Laying it on thick. Everything I knew Henry stood for, I complimented him for being the opposite. And, by the way, Henry, here's a Bill O'Reilly Patriot mug to remind you of how you and I stand in solidarity in these things. And I mailed it. It was Henry's introduction to me.

As I expected and hoped, it wasn't long before Terry got a phone call from Henry asking him who this nut-case was who had just sent him a Bill O'Reilly mug. Sometime during the conversation, Henry got it. It was a joke. And there was laughter. And he got ready to return the favor.

It was quite a while after Terry and I started teaming when I finally met Henry. We had been to Laredo, and were coming back up through Austin, on our way to somewhere I can't remember with our next load. We parked at a Cabella's that had truck parking, and Henry came to pick us up.

Henry greeted Terry as an old friend, and then turned his eye to me, looking me up and down, as though he wasn't quite sure about me yet. Then, he said, “Allan, I've got a gift for you that I know you'll appreciate.” Uh-oh. I half expected to get the pieces of the smashed Bill O'Reilly cup I'd sent to him. It was even better. It turned out to be a worn copy of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.

We both howled with laughter, and Terry smiled and shook his head. At that moment, I knew Henry and I would be friends.

We decided to go eat at a Chili's restaurant that was nearby. And I got to witness the phenomenon that is Henry. We were greeted by the hostess at the entrance, and Henry began casting about to see where he wanted to sit. A place with not too much noise (so we could talk), not too much or too little light (for the right ambiance), plenty of room. In ten seconds, after charming her and making her smile, that young lady would have taken us back into the kitchen if Henry had directed her to do so.

Our server came over, expecting a boring, slow-afternoon table of sedate diners. What she got was Henry (for her, after that first moment, Terry and I were just set-pieces). Henry regaled her with his charm, told her some stories, and in under two minutes knew her story. She was in college, studying I-don't-remember-what, but when Henry was finished with her, she was inspired and challenged to do her best, pursue her dreams, and do it with laughter.

Henry is one of those people who enters a room, and immediately all conversation stops, and people lean in to each other to whisper, “Who is that?” We've all seen people like that. Sometimes, the result is that all the oxygen and energy is sucked out of the room. Such people are boorish, social vampires who feed on the energy of others and leave them empty, lifeless.

Henry is just the opposite. He brings energy with him, and when he's around, there is more life, more animation. He transmits a zest and love for life that is absorbed by anyone in his orbit.

Henry was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Miami, Florida. As a young man, he joined the army, and was stationed in Germany much of that time. After leaving the army, Henry stayed in Europe, visiting in 21 countries. He helped excavate at Masada in Israel and worked at a bank in England.

When he returned to the United States, he joined the civil rights movement, and he was part of the protest in Washington against the Vietnam War in 1967. Eventually, he found his true passion and calling in photography, ended up in Austin, Texas, and began a long, productive career as a professional photographer.

Henry has also been a college professor, and he hosted a radio show in Austin for several years. But all those biographical details do not explain the essence of what makes Henry the person he is. Henry is not just someone you know; he is someone you experience. And at the end, perhaps the best explanation of Henry is just this: “there's something about Henry.”

My great friend, Terry Roberts, who introduced me to Henry, recently wrote a poem about Henry that conveys very well the spirit of “there's something about Henry”, and I include it here with his kind permission.

There is a man in Texas whom if you had met when he was a child in Brooklyn or Miami you would not have asked the question "are you from Texas?"
There is a man in TX whom if you had met at boot camp you would perhaps find as angry as some young men you knew from TX, but would never have asked "are you from TX?"
There is a man in TX whom if you had been nursed to health by while recuperating in an army hospital in Germany he may have reminded you of compassionate and skilled men from TX, but you would never have said "you must be from Tx."
There is a man in TX whom if you had offered a lift to as he backpacked across Europe your first question would have been. "American?" But most undoubtedly the second would never have been "Texas, right?"
There is a man in TX who while excavating Masada met Ariel Sharon, ,........ you may have heard them say,"ah yes, the American" but none would have dreamed of TX.
There is a man who while teaching the first photography program at a summer camp in CT (which the program remains til this day, which was 44 years ago at the time of this writing for the present year is 2013 and that year was 1969) took a date who would later become wife number 1 and last, to a picture show in Manhattan to see "Midnigt Cowboy". But even then no one certainly would have supposed he may be from TX.
There is a man in TX who once took a self portrait upon the pallet of a moving bus as he once again discovered the certainty of Newton's law of gravity. A moment in time capturing a panicked man as his camera collided with concert sidewalk. If you were on the bus, diving by in car, be it your own or a taxi, or better yet a limosine, since this was on Wall Street, or perhaps a pedestrian you would have grieved for the poor boy or perhaps laughed. But never in you wildest imaginations have said,"that Texan just dropped his camera."
There is man in TX whom upon meeting for the first time while the both of you are in TX you know immediately and without the slightest equivocation he indeed is not a Texan.
But an Austinite?! Indeed and from the 04 of course where else could such a man exist?

So, now you know a little about Henry, at least as much as my feeble attempt to translate Henry into words on a page can convey.

Special thanks to Shannon Roberts for permission to use a college research paper she did on Henry to glean some of the details of Henry's early life.

Here's Henry's web site (and it's well worth a visit):

And, to conclude, a couple of pictures (both properly Photoshopped and approved by Henry).

Concluding Thoughts: The Odyssey Continues
As I write this, it is now five months since the trip to Texas which inspired this series of reflections about my love affair with Texas and people who live there. The personal history, character sketches, and thoughts I've written about have confirmed one thing to me: I still love Texas, I love the people there who have captured my heart over the years, and for me, the personal journey which is My Texas Odyssey will never end.

For me, nothing could conclude a series about Texas any better than Tanya Tucker's awesome tribute “Texas (When I Die)”, so I will leave you with that. Until next time, be well, and thanks for joining me on this journey. (And Go Cowboys!)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Texas Odyssey: Part 5

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series of blog entries centered around my recent trip to Texas.  I'm publishing it as a series because it's too long to publish as one article.  If you come to this in the middle, I will post links to the first, previous and next articles each week.

If you missed Part 1, here's the link: 
My Texas Odyssey:  Part 1
For Part 2, here's the link:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 2
For Part 3, here's the link: My Texas Odyssey: Part 3
For Part 4, here ya go:  My Texas Odyssey:  Part 4

Chapter 6: The Vision of J.C.'s House

There is much about my trip to Texas that brought joy to my heart, and there is much in writing this recounting of my love for Texas and the people there that continues to do so. But there is no joy more full and complete for me than this part of the journey.

On Thursday, September 27th, my second full day in Dallas, I actually went about an hour and a half southwest of Dallas, to Cleburne, an unassuming small town.  It is also the heart of a vision bigger than Texas and as timeless as eternity. It was birthed, in human terms, in the hearts of my cousin Chris, and his wife Deb, who live in Cleburne.

But, as with all the people of whom I write in this series, their story doesn't begin on this trip. It actually begins over 30 years ago in the little town in Georgia where I grew up . . .

I didn't grow up around my cousin Chris very much of our childhood. His Daddy, Jackie, was in the Army, which carried him to far-away places for long periods of time. One of my favorite people in the world, my great-aunt Mary (Chris's grandmother; “Granny” to him), went to those far-away places also.

But, occasionally, they would come to Georgia, and it was during those times that Chris and I became as close as brothers, the best of friends.

It was during one of those visits that Chris taught me to play chess, a game which I love to this day, but which I am still very lacking in for skill. No doubt, he could still beat me easily.

During that same visit in the 1970's, between his living in Okinawa and Maryland, we created memories which we still love to recount again to this day.

Chris's little brother, Shane, whom I also dearly loved, was about 5 on this particular trip to Georgia. Chris and I discovered a wonderful secret about Shane: he would repeat anything we told him to say, without reservation or fear. And, since both Jackie and Mary were no strangers to casual cursing, we couldn't get him to repeat much of anything he hadn't already heard. So Chris and I thought how hilarious it would be to send Shane into my Nanny's house, where all the adults were playing Aggravation (a board game that was a hallmark of any typical day in my Nanny's house back then), and repeat one of these witty curses which we had been having private fun with all morning long. Chris and I would be free of blame, and we figured they probably wouldn't get after Shane too much because of his age.

I never said we were geniuses.

We made sure Shane had it down what he was supposed to say, and then we sent him in the house to make his pronouncement. We hid in the back yard behind the storage shed, and Shane ran across the back yard, flung open the back door, went in and yelled, “Shut yer damn mouth!”

For a rare moment, there was silence around the table. Then, Aunt Mary, who by-God wasn't gonna hear something like this from nobody's kid, especially not one of her damn grandkids, pushed the chair back. Shane knew the wrath of God Almighty was about to descend upon him, so he did what any intelligent boy would do in that situation. He blamed Chris and me (which happened to be the truth, but we all know that wouldn't have mattered in any case).

Chris and I were laughing at the cleverness of our little scheme when we heard the back screen door slam open. Uh-oh.

“Chris! Allan! Git yer asses up here NOW!”   It was Aunt Mary.

I don't remember what we said, but it was something approximating, “Oh, shit”.   As my Nanny might say, “Y'all just as well as signed your death warrant to git Mary riled up like that.”

The mind has a way of blocking out traumatic events, so I can't say for certain what happened after that. But I know we didn't ever tell Shane to repeat anything ever again.

Another memory from that time: my Daddy had given me an old Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder to play with. And Jackie had scores of old 45 rpm records from the 60's that we somehow got access to. So, sitting in the floor of the living room at my Nanny's house, we created our own radio shows, with us as DJ's. We'd spin records, do interviews, commercials, all on tape, which we would then play back with much delight.

Yet another memory: I had gotten a replica of the bridge of the starship Enterprise from my favorite TV show Star Trek, along with dolls for Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, for Christmas. Chris and Shane came over to spend the night with me several times, and during those visits, we loved to act out scenes from our favorite Star Trek episodes. And we created our own episodes . . .

Mr. Spock approaches Captain Kirk on the bridge. They are alone.

Spock: “Captain, I've got to admit it! I can't hide it any longer! I've always loved you, Jim!”

Captain Kirk: “Oh, Spock, I've been waiting for years to hear you finally say it. And it's true for me, too, you handsome pointy-eared Vulcan, you. Come here.”

At that point, to our 10-year-old-perverse-delight, the Captain and Mr. Spock would come together in a sloppy-kiss embrace that could rival anything in any romantic drama ever to come out of Hollywood.

On one of those periodic visits also, in 1977, Chris's mom Bobbie (whom I still love to this day), took Chris, Shane and I to see the original Star Wars movie.

At some point when they were older, Chris and Shane went to live with their mom in Fort Worth, and they were all still living in Fort Worth part of the time I was in Dallas, so we got to see each other occasionally, and I took the kids there more than once on a visit.

That was another thing, among many, that Chris and I had in common: we both loved Texas, and came to adopt it as our home of choice in our young adult days.

Perhaps the most important thing we discovered about one another was that, around the same age, we had both gotten serious about our faith, and we shared a sense of God's call on our lives for ministry and service. To discover that we were not only cousins and best of friends, but brothers in our faith, was a joy and delight to both of us that remains so to this day.

One thing that will always mean a lot to me is that when my granddaddy Boe passed away in March, 1988, Chris was there at Nanny's, along with our cousin Kristi, giving what comfort and care they could in Boe's last hours. I will always be grateful that Chris was there that day, and that was one more thing that cemented my love and appreciation for Chris over the years.

Another point of memory for me: I had come from Dallas to visit in the summer of 1991, before I lived on the streets of Fort Worth, and before I moved to Chicago and Jesus People USA. Chris was living in Rome at the time, but was moving back to Texas. So, in the pretense of helping him move, I got a ride with him back to Texas. That was a special time for me that I will always treasure.

In 2002, when I made my visit to Texas during one of the darkest periods of my own life, I met Deb for the first time. And, from that first meeting, she wasn't just married to my cousin Chris: she was my cousin, as much as if we were knitted together by flesh and blood. I love and admire my cousin Chris, who is a great man, but I will have to admit that this is one of those cases, as I have experienced in my own marriage to Charlotte, where Chris married above himself in this precious woman named Deb. She is a treasure in the earth if there ever was one.

I discerned in both of them a love and partnership rooted in their faith and passion for people that was far more than just chance and choice; they bore the mark of destiny, a shared destiny, an eternal partnership.

During our visit, the encouragement, strength and hope I received from them renewed my own hope and gave me strength for the hard days that were yet before me. I will always be grateful to them for their friendship and love during that time.

So, on to the present. Chris and Deb both work full-time jobs, but their real vocation and passion is the ministry they have to teenagers. I have seen teenagers at their home and when they are there, it is their home, too. And they know it. They are just as comfortable in this home (perhaps moreso) than any home they name as their own.

Chris and Deb love their kids, and the kids know it. Chris and Deb are literally giving their lives – all that they have and all that they are – for the vision they have to be a place of refuge for teenagers in need, whatever the need.

Their name for this vision: J.C.'s House.

As Deb has told me more than once, if they had the room, they'd move every teenager they know who needs a safe place into their house now. And, over the past few years, there has never been a time when they were not providing a home for at least one of their youth group, and many times more than one.

On this last visit that I enjoyed, along with Chris and Deb, there was Chris's daughter Maegan, a young man from their youth group who has lived with them several years, and a precious woman of God from their church named “Little Eagle”, who blessed me with her contagious humor and love of God and people.

Cleburne, Texas, doesn't seem like a place that would warrant much attention from people who are not from there. But it is truly a bright spot in the earth that is the focus of heaven itself, and where a work of eternal significance is taking place.

I'm just glad I'm getting to watch it happen.

Next time, I will talk about someone named Henry, and what it is about him that could make me drive 200 miles just to spend a couple of hours with him . . . I hope you will join me.