How to Persevere Like a 4 Year Old

Total Read Time: 4 minutes

THE MONKEY BARS. The playground’s proving ground. The callouser of hands. The skinner of knees.

A horizontal symbol of strength, of perseverance. Conquered by only big kids.

On a sun-splashed day, my wife and I take our 3 kids to a local park.

When the kids find the playground, our youngest, Dylan rushes to the monkey bars.

He stands underneath, looking up (the littlest one is always looking up), sizing up the bars with his big blue eyes. His little head swirling with possibilities, willing to disregard his physical safety to answer his own little “What if’s…?”

Dylan shouts, “Hey mom, dad watch!”

Cindy and I plant ourselves, across the playground, on a stone bench anchored in some shade.

Like a little gymnast, Dylan stands on the platform and eyes up the bars.

A buzzer sounds in his head and with both hands Dylan grabs the first rung and pulls his feet from the platform. He dangles. And dangles.

And dangles.

Feeling the fullness of his own weight for the first time.

Valiantly, he tries to muscle his right arm forward but the distance between rungs is too great and he crashes to the ground.

Cindy and I let out that familiar parental gasp.  But before we could push ourselves from our seats Dylan unknots himself, springs to his feet,”I’m ok!” and dashes back on the platform. Unfazed. Determined.

Cindy and I sit down and find our breaths.

They don’t know it, but these children are fantastic teachers. Little daredevils who remind you about the power of perseverance.

And if you’re struggling, questioning your limits (and let’s be honest…who isn’t) observe children discover their abilities, their potential, their unflinching desire to persevere, to answer the “What if…?” and you’ll be humbled.

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Begin with the End in Mind

Dylan is standing on platform again, staring down the length of the monkey bars. It’s only 6 feet, but in his eyes it must look like crossing the Grand Canyon.

How quickly do we think about falling before our feet leave the platform? How quickly does doubt extinguish our fires of victory?

Skin Your Knees, Callous Your Hands

Dylan divorces the platform. Unafraid to skin his knees, to callous his hands.

He dangles with nothing but his soft, little kid arms holding his weight. His right hand moves forward. His left hand remains. In the space and time when he’s dandling by one hand, I’m sure he feels the strain, the familiar flash of human doubt, but his right hand finds the next rung, followed by his left.

Leaving doubt and fear behind on the previous rung.

How many times have we skirted a challenge for fear we might get hurt? For fear, that the risk wouldn’t be worth the reward?

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. –William Feather

Keep Your Enthusiasm

Rung by rung, Dylan moves forward. It’s hard and it hurts but he’s smiling. He feels his own momentum. He feels the tide of achievement. He understands he’s on the verge of doing something he’s never done.

He’s happy.

Why is enthusiasm so hard for adults to find? 

Crush Your Threshold

One rung remains.

He’s dangling by both arms. His body like a soft pendulum, swinging back and forth.  His arms are screaming. He’s at his limits. Then, somehow, his right arm pushes forward, and grabs the next rung.

Why is it that the older we get, the more unwilling we are to cross our thresholds? Why do we see thresholds as roadblocks instead of doorways into a new world?

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
— Confucius

Go the Distance

When Dylan’s feet hit the platform at the end of the monkey bars he smiles, throws his hands in the air and shouts’ “I did it!”

It’s the pure joy of accomplishment. He stands on the platform and looks back at the monkey bars he just crossed.

Cindy and I are clapping. We’re the only ones, in the whole playground, clapping.

And that’s all Dylan needs.

My 4 Year Old Teaches Me About Perseverance

A writer’s life is not for the faint of heart.

There have been plenty of moments, after I’ve poured my blood into a piece, convinced it was my finest work, sure to be liked and shared and explode across the internet only to have it published– not with a bang but a whimper. 

And if I’m still being honest, there have been many late nights sitting at my table, glassy-eyed, staring at the computer, dandling on the rung of doubt. Questioning myself. Why am I doing this? Is anyone really going to read this? Why aren’t I in bed already? What if I fail?

But on a perfect summer afternoon I witnessed my son, a 4 year old boy, strain under his own body weight.

I witnessed him persevere.

He taught me that the strain is our greatest teacher.

And I was humbled.

May you always stay committed to your goals. Because your commitment, your perseverance is another person’s motivation.

May you always have the strength to keep moving forward.

May you always persevere.

Be well,

Jay

8 Simple Ways To Be A More Interesting Teacher This School Year

As a teacher, I want to be interesting. I want my students to want to be in my class.

In fact, my philosophy of education has always been rooted in a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man:

Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see                         To forget about life for a while.

But a student’s perpetual compliant about school is that it’s “so boring.” (Heck, it was my complaint when I was slugging my way through high school 20 years ago.)

But now a teacher myself, I know the job of a teacher is never boring. Teachers are never just teachers. They are therapists, philosophers, referees, doctors, mechanics, meteorologists, secretaries and rodeo clowns.

Teaching requires you to switch professions on a dime. It also requires you to develop new skills, ask deep questions and be a curious and relentless learner.

In short, to be a successful teacher you need to be interesting.

When you’re interesting, students want to be in your class. And when you create such interest, students more willingly immerse themselves in the wonders of the learning process and “forget about life for awhile.”

1.Tell Stories

An administrator once told me that I had to stop telling stories in the classroom. I reacted to the edict by returning to my classroom, opening up my personal anthology and telling even more stories then ever before.

Stories are my bread and butter. If I can’t tell stories, I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.

Stories are how I communicate complex concepts and ideas to my students.

When used properly (not just to waste time or glorify how awesome you are) stories are a fantastic way to hook students into your classroom narrative. A narrative centered on your subject, communicated by you.

2.Teach Life Lessons

You’re older than your students. You’ve been around the block.

Your experience with things like failure and regret and joy and love harbor a wealth of teaching material. By tying your content into the human condition allows students to see how the content relates to things beyond the cinder blocks of school.

3.Inside Jokes

I wear khaki pants and canvas Adidas sneakers to school everyday. My             “uniform” serves as good fodder for classroom jokes. Jokes that weave into the fabric of the classroom.

Everyone, especially students, love to be a part of an inside joke. Inside jokes are shared experiences that create connections, deepen relationships and show your students that you have a sense of humor.

4.Listen more and ask more questions

Sometimes, you just need to step back and let your students have the floor.

You don’t need to be the center of attention to be an interesting teacher.  By really listening to your students and asking them questions about their interests and integrating their interests into your lessons you will establish yourself as a teacher (and an adult) who really listens.

5. Flaunt Your Funk

If you teach middle-school or high school, most of your students think your weird.

It’s hard for students to imagine their teacher having interests that reach beyond the subject matter they teach. But bringing your other interests, your funk into the classroom is a great way to tell more of your story.

Interesting teachers have the audacity to be themselves. They flaunt their funk. It’s what makes them interesting and inspires students to embrace and flaunt there own funkiness.

6. Listen to Podcasts

Listening to podcasts is a great way to be mentally productive outside of the classroom.

The right podcast ( I like TED Radio Hour and The Tim Ferriss Show) can teach you interesting facts and share compelling stories that you can relay to your students.

7. Connect Your Content to Current Events

Teachers often get so wrapped up in daily demands of teaching that we forget that there is a world outside our school walls.

A world that both you and your students are experiencing.

Connecting content to the current world offers students perspective on a current and common subject.  These connections help to captivate students while allowing them to see that school content is relatable to the happenings of the world.

8. Be Positive

By nature, adolescents are an angsty bunch. And looking past the negativity in their lives is difficult.

As a teacher, you have the power to establish the mood in your classroom. By being positive, by leaving your own baggage at home, you offer students a fresh perspective and attitude that they will gravitate toward because they want to be positive but when your 15, being miserable is the cool thing to do.

Being an interesting teacher goes a long way in your classroom and in the lives of your students.  You have the unique power to be a positive, interesting force in lives of your students that will shape important attitudes they have about school and learning.

It’s called “The Alchemist” and you should read it.

If I could have a conversation with my 30 year old self it would go like this:

“It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re 30.  Because you’re foolish. Because you’re playing it safe. Because you think time is your friend. You yearn for the wrong things. You make half-hearted choices. You feel obligated to adopt people’s opinions as your truth because you desperately fear rejection. You want to live the easy life and expect hard-won rewards. You take too much for granted. You’ve failed to understand that all choices, even the small ones, ripple with consequence and even choosing not to choose has consequences. You should read The Alchemist because you’re going to father two more children and you’re going to invest your money into grad school then you’re going to get sick, chronically sick, a sickness will break you physically, test you spiritually and on a cold December day you’ll wring your hands and look into the soft eyes of your children and shut your laptop and dropout of grad school and be more lost then you’ve ever been and it’s only then, as you wade through some of the most draining, exhausting, terrifying hours, days, weeks, months, years that you will learn that discomfort and pain are necessary for growth. That your scars, those jagged stories, knitted with conflict which tattoo your limbs and your internal organs are signs, are omens from a higher power that give your life meaning and purpose.”

My 30 year old self looks down, kicks dust for awhile and as if talking to his toes, “What’s the book again?”

“The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.”

The silence balloons into something big and palpable between us.

30 year old self turns up his eyes, offers that familiar, coy smile only found in photo albums now. He’s young and thin and clueless.

“So this Alchemist book…”, he crosses his arms and leans his shoulders back, “… can I get the Sparknotes.”

The Alchemist is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

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Written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the anniversary edition is prefaced with Coelho describing how The Alchemist sold only 1 copy in the first week, how it took 6 months for a second copy to sell (both copies were bought by the same person!) to selling more then 65 million copies and translated into 80 different languages, a Guinness Record for most translated book by a living author.

The premise of The Alchemist is simple: A poor sheep herder, Santiago, decides to sell his flock to go questing across the Arabic dessert for a treasure supposedly located near the pyramids of Egypt.

Of course, what he learns about himself, about life and happiness and love and truth on the journey are more valuable then any extravagant treasure he could find.

Why am I such a fan?

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Because Coelho implores a very simple, parabolic style to tell Santiago’s story, which is essentially the story of humankind.

It’s about decision making.

It’s about following your dreams.

It’s choosing to live a life that gives your heart and soul meaning and purpose.

It’s about finding your true self or as Coelho calls it “Personal Legend”

Making a decision, taking action is really hard.

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I always thought the older, more mature I got the easier decision making would be. Not true. In fact, I’m learning the older you get the more things         (money, children, health, job security) there are, the harder decisions become.

As adults, we so fear being wrong. We yearn for the right decision. We foolishly think the right decision will unlock this magical, unicorn life that we dream of.

The Alchemist argues that we can live a good life by avoiding decision making and risk taking.

We can earn money, own a house, raise a family, make friends and host parties. We can have all the magazine comforts of a “good life”. However, the “good life” will always fall short of the one we imagine for ourselves.

This “good life”, the cautious life will always prevent us from achieving our Personal Legend.

And this “good life” will gnaw us, dog us, press us and leave us with a hollow heart that beats and beats and beats as we stagger through a desert life, a life that mercifully ends with our inevitable death.

The Alchemist reminds us it’s the easy path, the lighted and well-worn path that has been traversed by so many souls is the far more dangerous path than the mysterious, unblazoned path.

5 More Takeaways

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  • Every human learns of their destiny as a child. As a child we play, we embrace our passions, however we age and the world’s opinions infiltrate our heart and we abandon our destiny and replace what we really want with what other people want or us.
  • We must be aware of signs/omens. They offer clarity and direction.
  • Our choices have consequences that stretch beyond our knowledge and our life time.
  • Our destiny, our ultimate goal requires endless suffering.
  • Suffering for our destiny is better/more heroic/more rewarding/more badass then living a safe life.

5 Favorite Quotes… (pictures from my book to prove I actually read it and didn’t opt for Sparknotes this time)

The Alchemist’s Call to Action

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Life is a noisy ride. Whether we’re ready for it or not, we will hear everyone’s opinions about ourselves.

If we adopt what other’s think of us as our truths, we will come to hate ourselves. We will live, as the American quote machine Henry David Thoreau described, “a life of quiet desperation.”

The Alchemist’s simple narrative style amplifies the books simple message, no matter the noise, no matter the costs–follow your destiny.

It’s a simple message, one we once understood yet we aged, got comfortable, we vilified change and life’s simple message got twisted in something incredibly complicated.

Be well,

Jay

When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection

If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.

I last saw him 11 years ago.

Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”

I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”

A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.

They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.

He was 29.

In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together.  Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.

Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.

In 2006, we were all young.

Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.

I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.

Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.

They weren’t malicious.

Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.

It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.

But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.

Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.

And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.

But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.

It’s been 11 years but…

I remember…

…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.

I remember…

…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.

I remember…

…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.

I remember…

…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.

I remember…

…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.

I remember…

…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.

I remember…

…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.

I remember…

…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.

I remember…

…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”

Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.

Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.

It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.

Every student’s story, no matter of big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight.  A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.

And 11 years later, when your on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.

Waiting for life to begin.

Be well,

Jay

37 Thoughts I Had About Life This Past Year

 

I turn 37 this week.

To my surprise, I don’t mind getting older. Seriously.

I would much rather be 37 then 27. Sure 10 years ago I was a few pounds lighter and strapped with a few less responsibilities but at 37, I feel like I’m finally starting to really learn some things.

I finally have enough maturity to admit my weaknesses and I’m finally have the courage to ask myself difficult questions. Questions I refused to ask 10 years ago.

(*Please note– I’m 37 and carry a Spiderman lunchbox to work everyday, so please take all of this “maturity” stuff with a grain of salt).

But seriously, I’ve recently come to learn, that I have so much more to learn.

For the past calendar year,  I have explored a variety of subjects on this blog. My weekly writing practice has reinvigorated my love of learning, my desire to explore new ideas and thoughts and questions.

Below you will find a collection of 37 thoughts I had over the last year. Some thoughts materialized into a blog post. Others remain handwritten scribbles in my notebook while others simply linger on my Twitter feed waiting to be retweeted.

Either way, here are 37 thoughts I wouldn’t have had the insight or perspective to have 10 years ago.

1. The easiest way to ruin your life is to allow other people’s opinions of you become your reality. (The Easiest Way to Ruin Your Life)

2. Listening is the best way to honor any relationship. (5 Simple Things My Life has Taught Me)

3. The real key to parenting is knowing when to get the hell out of your child’s way. (The Awkward Dance of Parenting)

4. Soulless work will kill you. The trick is to find work you would happily do in the last hours of your life.

5. If you choose to evaluate yourself justly you’ll find flaws, but you’ll also find all the motivation you’ll ever need.

6. When mothers ask their sons to do something it’s a chore. When fathers ask their sons to do something it’s a challenge.

7. Life is a beautiful mess. If you spend your days trying to make sense of it you will miss an awful lot.

8. When your doubts become truths you’re destined for mediocrity.

9. Life is daring me not to write. That’s why I treat every writing session like a snarling act of defiance. (What I Learned from My Year of Writing)

10. I can only equate that living your ideal life in the privacy of your mind instead of living it out loud is equivalent to hell on earth.

11. Your character is either strengthened or weakened the moment your plan is compromised.

12. One of the most honest moments in a person’s life is when they realize their potential talent just became wasted talent.

13. If you find the courage to entertain uncertainty you will find the courage to change.

14. It’s not where you are but who you are that matters.

15. Hope without action is a meaningless exercise. (What I Learned from My Year of Writing)

16. True happiness only occurs when you have the courage to put others needs above your own.

17. We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design. (To Robbinsville, New Jersey)

18. It takes a daily courage to roll up your sleeves and work through the unhappiness of your life. (The Only Way to Happiness)

19. We often forget we’re just animals in fancy clothes and funny hats. When we sense fear, our primal instincts kick in and we run. But as the smartest animal in the schoolyard, we know that avoiding fear will only compound fear. And we also know that those who avoid risks will spend their entire lives just dangling from the monkey bars. ( What I Learned from My Stand-Up Comedy Career)

20. Life becomes a lot less stressful and a lot more fun when you realize that everyone, yourself included, is a walking contradiction.

21.Children are champions of momentary living. I shudder to think of all the adult hours of happiness I’ve forfeited to the pills of anxiety, worry and regret. (Dad, What’s a Championship?)

22. The courage to question is often the only difference between good and great, between success and failure.

23. When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes. (Bowling with God)

24. Because most of my pain (and probably your’s) is caused when we try, with all our human strength, to control the uncontrollable.

25. It takes more courage and less energy to say, “I don’t know” than pretend you do.

26. The moment you start complaining is the moment people stop listening.

27. Maybe you become an adult when you truly understand that your choices have consequences. (So When Do We Become Adults…?)

28. If we condition children to think they are entitled to victory and trophies every time they compete for something they will become uncoachable players, grade-grubbing students and disillusioned adults. (Winning and Losing in our Instant Oatmeal World)

29. Despite what you may think, your private disaster is not your end–it’s your turning point.

30. To avoid the eternal hells of complacency you must be courageous enough, everyday, to stoke the fires of passion.

31. Hang around long enough and you’ll learn that living is tough business. It’s a punch-you-in-the-gut, kick-you-in-the-teeth, steal-your-lunch-money, insult-your-momma, spit-on-your-grave kind of business. Yet there is so much for to be grateful for. (Why I Decided to Start a Gratitude Jar)

32. As parents, our fundamental job is to care for others. And even though it’s necessary and healthy and humbling to put others needs first I’ve learned that devoting time to yourself gives you more energy to devote yourself to others. It’s a beautiful reciprocal.(How I Avoided Parental Burnout the Summer)

33. It’s only when you fully accept your tragic, inevitable death that you begin to understand the purpose of your life. (5 Simple Things My Life Has Taught Me)

34. For some, a diploma is earned, for others it’s a reward for loitering.

35. When we let fear dictate our decisions we fail to make progress. We move in every direction except forward. When we let intuition navigate, when we have the courage to trust ourselves–we are guaranteed to move forward. (Standing at the Intersection of Fear and Intuition)

36. I never knew kindness could be a painkiller. (The Healing Power of Donuts)

37. Sometimes the best cure, for any aliment, is a pint of beer and an old friend eager to listen.

Be well,

Jay

 

Bowling with God (or a curious conversation with my son about death)

When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes.

A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s tucked in the backseat and it’s raining.

Of course it’s raining.

Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.

With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.

thunder-953118_960_720

“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”

“Yes, bud I did know that.”

“How did you know that dad?”

“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”

Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.

The car eases to a traffic light and stops.  The rain falls hard and heavy.  The windshield fogs at its edges.

“Dad, do know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”

( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)

“The wrestler?”
“Yeah.”
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“I know.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”

“Hey buddy, how did you know that?”                                                                           “Youtube.”

The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.

I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.

The light turns green and we go.

The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey.  One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was a happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead.  I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school.  I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold?  Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?

The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.

I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.

“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“What?”

“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”

“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”

“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Kind of.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”

“No.”

“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”

“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”

“I hope so bud.”

“But if you’re in heaven than you can’t take me to my soccer games.”

We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”

Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.

Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”

I hope so.

Be well,

Jay

PS–If you enjoyed this story and think others might as well don’t’ be shy, click a button below and share!

Advice from the Dead

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.–Cicero

Recently, while cleaning out the garage, while rummaging through stacks of dusty boxes I came across a brown, unmarked envelope.

Intrigued, I quit rummaging, opened the envelope door and found my grandfather smiling on the other side.

Inside the envelope it’s 1954 and Pop was still years away from being Pop.

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Mike “Pop” is centered. His right hand holding a pilsner glass. To his right stands his Uncle Al.

Right now he’s Mike and he’s 25 years old and just bought at bar on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey.

He renamed the place “Mike and Ed’s” and he’s serving drinks to a row of rowdy Philadelphians who escaped the tightness of their row home lives for the weekend promise of some New Jersey shore magic.

It’s early evening and the bar, like the decade itself is based with thick,  masculine laughter which overpowers the bouncy doo-wop rhythm of  “Life Could Be a Dream” frisking out the jukebox.

It smells of a different time. Of Old Spice and cigarettes.

I move across the checkered floor to an open seat at the end of the bar and watch Pop make small talk with a few sunburned necks. He laughs and it’s hearty and deep just like I remember.

Pop looks up and nods as if he’s been expecting me.

He turns to the tap, pours a beer in a short pilsner glass and brings it my way. His skinniness surprises me. But the eyes, the smile, the roundness of his shoulders are all there, like they’ve always been.

Pop puts the glass down in front of me. His blue eyes meet my blue eyes and he lays his hand on top of my hand and tells me how he appreciated the funeral, how he appreciated the eulogy I delivered even though it was a bit brief. An entire life in 1,337 words? He thought I should’ve stretched it to at least 1,700.

He winks.

Then his face gets serious.  He tells me he’s disappointed we paid full price for the luncheon after the funeral. He tells me knows an Italian who rents a little room behind the scrap yard along the Delaware River. He tells me the Italian would’ve catered the whole thing, funeral and luncheon, for half the cost.

He tells me he doesn’t have long because other people need him.

He tells me that death is a lot like life in that sense. Someone always needs you.  Someone is always failing to listen. But death, he says, brings infinite patience. Sadly, life does not.

A drunk wearing a tilted fedora calls out, “Mike, Mikey boy bring me over another one. I told the old lady I’d be home by 7 and it’s quarter of!”

Pop shoots the old man a “wait your damn turn old man” look. A look he perfects when, in a few years he becomes a police officer and spends late hours working the fanged streets of southwest Philadelphia.

He returns to me, “See what I mean, no patience.”

Then he gets serious again. Hard lines form around his eyes.

“You know what the living say about the dead? About how, at least, the dead are in a better place.”

I nod.

“Wrong. What the living fail realize is that even though your setting changes, you do not. When you die you take yourself, for better or worse, with you to the other side.  Look around. All these men came here thinking things would somehow be better. But they’re miserable laying bricks in Philly and they’re miserable drinking beer in Jersey. Fools. They thought by crossing the river, by shifting states their life would magically improve. Life, death they don’t work that way.”

He tightens his grip on my hand and says, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are that matters. The same holds true for the afterlife. And you’re going to mess a lot of things up. But if can let love lead your way you might do just enough to get it right. And if you can understand this while you’re alive, I promise when your time comes, you’ll cross that bridge a happy man.”

He loosens his grip and the other hand drums its fingers on the bar and he looks out the window. His brow bent like mine when I’m contemplating something big.

I study his profile the way I did when I was a kid tucked in the front seat of his white pickup truck.

I remember how he would be driving and singing with Frank Sinatra and his profile would be glowing against the shifting sunlight and when the chorus hit he flashed a hard earned smile, a smile of a man who made peace with his life, with the world. A smile I can’t quite forget.

When his eyes return to mine he tells me the beer was on the house. But that was it. No more freebies. This isn’t a soup kitchen. And if I wanted another I would have to pay for it or wash dishes.

Pop takes his hand from mine. He steps back, smiles like someone about to board a plane and somehow, defying the laws earthly physics I still feel the pressure of his hand resting on mine as he drifts away, down the length of the bar, tending to the others who need him.

A bead of sweat rolls down the glass.

A heavy, hollow laughter steamrolls across the bar.

Something sits in my throat.

I want to call him back.

I want to breathe with him again.

I want to tell him I write stories about him so he doesn’t seem so dead.

I want to tell him how I missed him just a little more around Christmas. How I wish he could hold my children. How I wish they could experience his smile and hear his advice and feel the gentle pressure of his hand against theirs.

But I don’t.

Because you can’t.

Because you can’t tell the dead what they already know.

Because when you open an envelope and you’re greeted by the dead and they squint and smile and speak, all you can do is listen, consider your mortal ways and do your best to heed their eternal advice.

Be well,

Jay