A shovel, not an ice pick.

Years ago, after months of lurking, I finally posted in a Facebook group.

It was one of those neighborhood groups where people would comment on various events, everything from barbeques to break-ins. Fear and aggravation dominated the page. News of car windows being smashed and lamentations about the decaying of the neighborhood got the most responses and I consumed all of them.

I always felt uneasy when some of the responses to reported violence seemed to dehumanize the accused, and even further, the neighborhood in general. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing violence nor do I think anyone should have to experience fear and I understand we all want to protect ourselves and our property. The confounding and concerning thing was that most of the comments were by people who had never experienced the crime being described, yet their responses would make one think they had, were and will.

Before eventually leaving the group, one winter when the snow fell freely and often, I decided to create a post offering my snow removal services. I said I’d shovel for free for the elderly or those simply unable to do so and for a fee for anyone else.

This post was met with absolute support and an outpouring of likes.

The next two days consisted of trudging around the city with my shovel, meeting people, clearing blocks and steps of businesses and homes. I was even invited into living rooms and offered hot coffee – a welcomed respite from the cold.

Often times I encountered an icy walkway that remained dangerous, even after the few inches of snow were removed. Even the edges of the shovel weren’t enough to break some of the ice. Sometimes I would have to walk away defeated because after all, I had a shovel, not an ice pick.

I did what I could, and both of those nights I remember feeling really good about my contribution. There was a need, and I was able to be of service and provide a temporary solution.

What I didn’t do was solve any of the bigger issues facing Baltimore city, affordable housing, racial injustices, or the disparity between educational performances in our public schools compared to those in many parts of the county.

I didn’t offer to do that, nor was I expected to do so. These are issues, icebergs that are easier avoided than faced.

Ever since that experience, every time there’s a snow day – I’m out there with my shovel. Today I cleaned off some ramps, steps, and walkways. One house I’ve cleared the past few times belongs to a woman who came to the door to thank me and told me she had the flu. I told her to rest up and went about my work. Before finishing, I encountered an icy patch and found myself again, in need of an ice pick. Roughly ten minutes later, the ice relented and the steps were deemed safe and walkable.

On my way home, all I could think about was what I had done and more importantly, what I hadn’t.

Sure, shoveling is nice, necessary and good. It was a positive way to spend a few hours and it surely helped some people in the community, but what about the ice?

This reflection has reminded me to not diminish the importance of service and acts of kindness, but to make sure that they are done properly and for the right reasons. Intentionality and execution matter. I need to be aware when a shovel is a start and is certainly better than sitting back and lurking, but it simply isn’t enough. There needs to be a conversion of the heart, enough to motivate me to spend some extra time learning and taking action concerning those icebergs and at the very least, to remember to pick up an ice pick before heading out the door.

Screening My Time

Over the past few weeks, I’ve cut down the time I spend staring at my black mirror by 40%. Ever since Apple started sending screen time reports, I’ve been fascinated with the connection between my happiness and the time I spend on my phone. 

To paint the picture a bit let me tell you what my experience was like before cutting out Facebook and Instagram (for now at least, probably will go back to this one once in a while)

This is what a typical day looked like:

Alarms going off, reach for my phone, turn it off, while I’m at it – check Instagram, scroll for a bit then put the phone down and start my morning.

I tried to get to sleep early last night and could use some more sleep and recovery but with my early morning scroll I just lost ten to fifteen minutes that I could of spent sleeping. Damnit. 

After getting back from my run, grab the phone, check e-mail, check social media, scroll a bit before showering. 

My body could use some more time stretching, I’ve had issues with injuries since high school I just talked to a friend the other day about the importance of working on my core – too bad I just gave another ten minutes to my phone.

Eat a quick breakfast, maybe scroll and eat. Now off to work. 

Get into the flow of the day, now time to go to the bathroom – maybe take a few minutes and scroll while walking – repeat this a few times throughout the day, leaving exactly no time for day dreaming or ruminating over an idea. 

Day is done, head home, tired, spend some time on the couch with the T.V. on but not really watching it, open Instagram, close, it, open Facebook, close it, maybe open Instagram again and my phone just won another half hour of my time. 

I’ve been saying for years how I need to go to the gym more and get stronger. I’m always in awe of people who make time to read everyday, it’s so interesting to hear all the things they’ve learned. 

Never did get around to learning the piano. 

My Spanish is still weak, wasn’t I going to get Rosetta Stone?

My good friend called me the other day, maybe I should give a call – too late, it’s 10:00pm now I’ll go to bed and scroll a bit before falling asleep.

Now my mind is racing, I can’t believe some of the things I just saw – they went where?!? Wow, that’s so awesome. I’ve always wanted to go there…alright time for sleep, damnit it’s already 11:00pm I should have been in bed an hour ago…

Recently I listened to an interview with David Goggins who has an unbelievable story of triumph in how he has managed to thrive despite a tumultuous childhood. His mentality and dedication led to him losing over 100 lbs and becoming a Navy SEAL, among other remarkable accomplishments. He spent time discussing various injuries and recovery, specifically touching on the importance of identifying the true source of pain. He said if your knee hurts, it’s most likely because of a tight quad, not the actual knee.

This threw me for a loop and caused me to reflect on the root of some of the major decisions in my life.

It might seem like a small thing for you, but for me, not spending two-three hours a day on Instagram and Facebook has been a life altering change. But why did I do it really?

Was it a call for attention?

Was it just to be different?

Where is the real catalyst?

After a lot of thought over the past month or so, the answers have materialized, crystal clear.

I was fed up. I have a strong desire to belong and despite all the connection, I felt lonely. 

I think it’s why my faith has grown over the past few years because I really do experience a strong sense of belonging in my relationship with God. I feel accepted and can operate without shame or worry about not being enough.

For a long time I would retreat to distractions when longing to belong. Sometimes I still do. I reach for my phone when I’m uncomfortable, in an elevator, walking to the store, anytime I’m bored. 

When I dive deeper into social media and then put my phone away, I’m still left with this void, sometimes it even becomes bigger because all the time I’ve spent paying attention to the lives of others is now gone. Time I really could have used for me.

Time to address my deep-rooted insecurity or the unrelenting sense of not being enough – important issues that deserve attention I’ve been giving elsewhere. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve made the decision to screen my time and not give it away so haphazardly. 

Being deliberate with the time I give to others, even by thinking about them or looking at their pictures, has helped me reclaim some self worth by entertaining the notion that I’m worth my time. I’m worth checking in on, following and paying attention to. 

This time has also reminded me about what it means to really connect with someone. I always considered myself a positive presence online, liking a lot of pictures, making positive comments and celebrating accomplishments of others. Now, the challenge is even greater, I need to go out of my way to check-in with people and see how they’re doing. If I want to celebrate something, then it might look like a card or a phone call. This takes a lot more effort but maybe if that same person is getting virtual support and in person support then the impact could be even greater. 

Regardless of where this journey ends, with me getting a flip phone or just being mindful of my use, I know it’s a worthy endeavor because it’s making me think about what’s really important and what I can do to better live my life for myself and others. Thank you for being a part of it. 

Same Team! Same Team!

When it came to basketball, although I desperately wanted to be good, I was just not.

My parents even made a small court next to the house so I could practice. There was the ever-present challenge to not have the ball bounce into the neighbor’s yard or hit the house too hard, but all in all, it was a dream.

They sent me to basketball camps at LuHi, entered me in leagues and even bought me a pair of Nike Air More Uptempo 96’s which are still one of my favorite sneakers even though that pair is long gone.

My problem was never dedication or effort, I simply lacked the ability to harness my speed, control my dribbling and show poise in times of pressure. I lacked court vision and just didn’t have “it” – everyone knows what “it” is. There is a sense of quiet confidence necessary to play ball, especially at the point guard position. A scenario that depicts my inability to play the game is one familiar to anyone who has played. When going for a loose ball, everyone tries to get their hands around it and claim possession. Every once in a while, two teammates will be fighting for the same ball because, in the chaos, the only focus is only on the ball. Someone usually yells out, “Same team! Same team!”

Let’s just say I found myself in that position more often than not. I was hyper-competitive and a lot of times my misguided energy led to an ill-timed foul or turn over.

It has been a year filled with revelatory experiences.

In many ways, I am still the over spirited and under talented kid just trying to get more time on the court to play the game I love.

This year, a few times I have found myself thinking, “Slow down, just slow down” and “Geez why did you have to get so excited about that?” There have been times where I’ve dribbled with my head down, focusing too much on one area, not giving me the ability to see another area that requires attention. Sometimes there have been wide open shots that I’ve passed on because of lack of confidence.

On the other hand, I’ve grown tremendously.

Selection from “The Living Series” by Jenny Holzer

The greatest thing about basketball is the beauty of a successful team. Often comprised of players that have different strengths and weaknesses, a great team works together in a way that highlights the good and makes the bad almost go unnoticed. Everyone has their role and trusts that if they play it, they will be a complete unit.

This year I have discovered my role. I figured out who I am and where I fit.

My best role on the court has always been a defensively minded, pass first and bring the energy kind of team player. Even when I play basketball now, I always look for help when feeling pressed and am constantly looking for the better pass or a way to help the team. The best games I’ve played are when I focus on these things and when I do have an open shot, take it with confidence.

So instead of blindly diving on the floor and fighting for the ball – sometimes even against someone on my own team. There needs to be finesse and care in my efforts, recognizing the beautiful power in the people around me. This year I’m going to focus on playing my role.

Do my part. Protect and share the ball. Keep my head up. Know when to pass and when to shoot, ask for feedback and pointers on how I’m doing. I will also be there to help others play their role better when needed, knowing when it’s time to back off and remember:

Same team! Same team!

Scratching and Clawing

I’m constantly in awe of TED talks. 

Whenever I listen to them or watch them, I am always inspired by the mastery of content matter, the confidence in the delivery, and the importance of the message. They have a way of making sense of complex topics. 

Yesterday I was walking home from getting dinner and was feeling a bit down, a bit lonely, so I decided to listen to a podcast – on happiness. 

Usually I don’t like to have my headphones in while walking anywhere at night because it makes me more unaware of my surroundings and calls attention to the fact that I have something valuable on me, but I lowered the volume, hid them under my hoodie and tried to learn a little more about what makes us happy or unhappy. 

One of the fascinating insights (the podcast is titled “Simply Happy”) was that our minds are often wandering. This might not seem like a big deal, but part of the research showed that we are most happy when we are most focused

When I used to teach, I would often have a lot of trouble getting the attention of my students when trying to deliver a lecture on topics like checks and balances rather than an engaging activity. This usually culminated with them solemnly leaving class, probably yawning on their way out the door. I’d return to my desk and on my really close minded days probably lament to a co-worker some version of, “kids these days” while letting out a frustrated sigh.  

Upon further reflection, it all makes perfect sense. If I was giving a lecture and it wasn’t engaging, most likely there were a lot of wandering minds which meant a room full of unhappy students.

Not giving them opportunities to be focused meant I was robbing them of happiness. 

In a previous post, I mentioned that before I decided to back off social media that I’d even be on my phone when I watched TV. It’s really interesting to think about the fact that maybe part of the reason that I felt even more empty after an hour of watching TV while also on my phone was that yes both of them can qualify as distractions but the truth was I wasn’t focusing on either of them

I know that sometimes this is going to look like scratching and clawing. Just like my students in History class – some of them really fought to pay attention even when their compatriots had thrown in the towel. Maybe their reward for this was a better grade, but looking back on what I know now, they were also creating more happiness. 

Thinking more on my life and relationships, I already know that giving attention, simply to the primacy of focus will have an impact on my future happiness. The people in my life that work to do this, especially when I am sharing a particularly long-winded story, are not only being kind and patient, they’re choosing to be happier.

More focus = more happiness. I know it’s not infallible, but it makes a lot of sense to me. 

Dull idea

Excitement can be crushed in seconds. 

Have you ever had someone express a new endeavor or way of thinking to you and your response be an unnecessary critique? Something like this:

Person A: I’m thinking of starting a garden. I’ve always enjoyed helping out with them and think that my own would provide me a positive outlet, a new hobby.

Person B: Sounds like a lot of work. Gardens are fickle. 

I’ve certainly done it before, thankfully I’ve finally figured out why. 

‘Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [idea] by Joseph Kosuth’

When I was twenty three or so, I woke up after a late night of hanging out with my friends. We had gone out downtown, had a bunch of drinks and ate late night food. 

I woke up feeling awful. 

Seeking a change, something that might improve future nights out – I told some of my friends that I was going to stop drinking hard liquor. The responses to my idea varied drastically – some chuckled and others just nodded their heads. One even said something to the tune of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” 

I remember being so upset. Here I was with an idea for self-improvement and even some of my own friends didn’t believe in me. For many years I have been hurt by this, but as I’ve grown older and wiser I better understand their responses. 

So often we hear people around us or see people online talking about making a change and often times those changes never come. Often times our pessimism is based in facts. 

I had been regularly drinking with my friends for a few years at the point when I started talking about cutting back, they didn’t exactly have reason to believe I was actually going to do it. Why would they? Recent evidence pointed to anything but that. 

Turns out that they were right. This conversation was about two years before I actually stopped. I’ve already written in the post On Drinking about how people reacted when I told them I was quitting drinking completely – it was a spectrum from disregard and disbelief to total support.

Now I don’t blame anyone for their actions or hold resentment because I’ve taken ownership of my own. If their reactions were more positive, could this change have happened earlier? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was just a matter of not understanding the whole situation or maybe I never provided the real reasoning behind my idea. Looking back, I never shared with them how desperately I wanted this change. How much I wanted a different life – one filled with confidence and fun that didn’t involve drinking. Part of the problem was I didn’t think this life existed. I thought everyone’s social lives revolved around drinking and drinking a lot.

Regardless, life isn’t about talking about change, it’s showing the change. People shouldn’t have to take my word for things or be convinced, they should plainly see the efforts and intentionality. It needs to come from me and it is not their responsibility.

All this being said, I know I do have the power to brighten or support ideas shared with me. So why does this dulling or disbelieving of ideas happen, and why have I done this to others up until my recent realization? Well, for me my reactions are often most negative when someone is discussing a change I haven’t been able to get myself to do. For you, it might be a different reason, the reasoning behind being negative can be complex and can also involve mental health. Often times it is easy to bring others down when I’m going through tough times – maybe you feel the same way. 

I’ve been the person who laughed off or gave a snarky response to someone saying they were going to make a change. Just thinking of doing this eats at me, and it should. 

Finally, there is a big difference between this negative response and one that is filled with constructive criticism, suggestions, and care. I’m not advocating for simply agreeing with every idea that is shared. I do know that being honest and sharing my opinion can be helpful – often someone who speaks helpful truth can be rare. Having people who proceed like this in my life has certainly helped me grow. 

So what am I saying? I’m saying excitement can be crushed in seconds, it can also be created. 

I need to let ideas grow.

Starting your own garden? So cool. That sounds like a bright idea to me!

Someone Forgot to Tell the Kids

The other day I read about racism, war, famine, drought, and depression and that was just the front page of the paper.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to tour the Loyola Early Learning Center in Baltimore. Walking around the school I noticed student artwork, colorful learning tools, toys and areas to play. The student learning spilled over into the hallways in the best of ways – answers yelled with excitement, students accompanied by warm and caring teachers navigating their way to meet friends.

My mom taught children this age. I vividly remember visiting her classrooms. Thoroughly and thoughtfully decorated and intentionally designed with the student in mind – the space welcomed and encouraged exploration and learning. Being that a hallmark of early childhood education is the importance of play, she always made sure students had opportunities for joy while they learned their foundational skills. These games and activities were based in a pedagogy, but the kids didn’t know any of that – all they did was be themselves, silly, energetic and full of excitement. Each child was known, valued and included. If there was ever a time this wasn’t the case, she would go out of her way to make sure to invite them back in to reunite with their friends. 

The last stop of our tour was the playground. Tucked away in a city alley, was yet another slice of heaven, an oasis, a respite – a place where shouts of joy didn’t need to be hushed, a place where kids played tag, climbed, jumped and learned. Accompanying them were their teachers and parent & guardian volunteers. There were a lot of smiles as we all witnessed our future, hanging out with their friends. 

Reflecting on this time, I found myself seeing the news through a different lens. It’s one thing for me to read about what is happening and think about how I’m affected by racism, war, famine, drought, and depression and decide whether to pay attention to these issues or block them out, but what about the kids? They don’t get a choice to contribute or opt out. All they’re doing is trying their best to pay attention, follow directions and be kind to their friends. 

I think this is a great way to approach world affairs, whether it’s a political power struggle or policy decision – anything that impacts our societal structure. I might be able to stomach these things or explain away why they can be justified, but I’m an adult and my time on this earth is much less than our youth. They have to live with these choices for much longer. They should be the ones who influence and inform my way of proceeding. This realization has certainly challenged me to examine my own behaviors. I can make excuses and justify why I might want to hang on to my time, money or energy and turn my back on our youth by not addressing some of our most threatening issues. I can tell myself a million reasons to justify focusing on just me. One thing I can’t do is explain some of these selfish decisions to our youth. 

So I won’t. 

The only choice is to do my part to ensure a brighter future for our kids. There is so much more in store for them and much of their story is yet to be written. In a world where racism, war, famine, drought, and depression dominate our front pages, it’s important to remember the classrooms full of learners, adventurers, and explorers, playing with blocks, shouting out answers. 

There was a moment on the playground when I found myself thinking about the challenges and evil in our world that the news tells us about, seemingly all the time, painting a world doomed for destruction. My pessimism was then interrupted by a joyful yell – a student recognizing one of their friends. I then thought to myself,

Someone forgot to tell the kids. 

Open Doors Open Arms

I wouldn’t be here without the care, love and concern showed by the LGBTQ+ community.

One fact I omitted from a previous blog about my recovery was that the first AA meeting I went to was specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I had no idea.

All I knew was that I made the decision to get sober and wanted to attend a meeting that evening.

Apprehensive about embarking on a life without alcohol, and not sure if it was even possible, I walked in the room and took a seat in the back.

Immediately, I was greeted by an understanding smile. My uneasiness must have been visible because the leader of the meeting approached me to check-in.

He gave me a copy of The Big Book, even after I told him I didn’t have any money.

He knew I needed it and was there for me.

No judgement.

All understanding.

Soon after, I found my home at a morning meeting close to my apartment, but it was because of the initial open door and open arms and the acceptance of the group that allowed me to begin my recovery.

Through this experience, I was reminded of what it really means to love and respect one another.

The leader of that meeting was there for me simply because it was the right thing to do.

If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? – Luke 6:33

I was truly being treated as the people in the group want to be treated.

No judgement.

All understanding.

I learned that often times when I’m in need, and I am honest and open to receiving help, it’s there, like God, waiting for me.