Putting the ‘unity’ in ‘community’ | Opinion | heraldcourier.com

I’ve spent most of my adult life working with nonprofits, and there is a rule of thumb that often proves true: the 80-20 rule. Basically, 80 percent of the work

Source: Putting the ‘unity’ in ‘community’ | Opinion | heraldcourier.com


Helping with Handouts Can Hurt

3081a82a-fdea-11e6-a6d1-53d92cd7be4fRecently, I’ve had the chance to be a contributor to our local paper, the Bristol Herald Courier. It is a lot of fun to write for them and I am learning how to write for a newspaper. So far, I’ve written two pieces for them. The first contribution, Fatherhood: A Challenge and Reward, is a reworking of something I wrote earlier. The second contribution,  Helping With Handouts Can Hurt, is my latest contribution. It may prove to be a bit controversial; it deals with an issue that a lot of towns are facing: how to help those in need.

Bristol is a great community. It is where my wife and I both grew up and where we felt compelled to return to when we left St. Louis. It is beautiful here. The mountains speak deeply to my soul and the people are warm and caring. Like a lot of small towns, Bristol has suffered its share of economic downturns. However, in the last few years, our downtown (State Street – because it is where the border of TN and VA meet) has seen a revival. It is fantastic.

With that revival, however, has come a rise in people asking for money on the street. I wrote an article for the paper speaking to that issue (Helping With Handouts Can Hurt). If you have time, read it over and give me your thoughts.


A Poet? Can I Call Myself a Poet Now?

Last month I had one of those great moments that come along infrequently for guys like me. Frankly, I was not sure what to do with it but it’s something that blew me away. I’ve waited a while to share it here – largely because I wanted to give the people who gave me this award time to change their minds. They haven’t so I feel it is okay to go ahead and let others know.

From time to time I write poems. Some of them I have posted on here. I do not normally submit them for publication but last fall I did. I’ve been working on a Master of Arts in English at ETSU (its a long story but it is a great experience). I submitted two of my poems to the Mockingbird. It was a blind submission (which means no names) and Joseph Campana (a poet, critic, and scholar of Renaissance literate at Rice) selected my poem (“River of Salvation”) as the winner of the 2017 Mockingbird Prize for poetry. Another poem (“Midlife”) was also selected for publication.

What most people do not know about me is that I have been writing poetry for years. I’ve never called myself a poet because, well, I’d never published any. Now, I have and I am blown away. Just thought I’d share that here.

Mockingbird Poems

The Haggard Parent

I have a reasonable obsession with coffee. I don’t dream about it but I mark parts of my life by conversations I’ve had over coffee. There was the time at Shaw’s Coffee in St. Louis where I sat with a good friend who helped me understand a particularly difficult season in life. At Shenandoah Joe’s in Charlottesville, VA, I spent hours talking to a friend who was trying to figure out if he should stay or should he go. Another time there, I listened to a mom and dad pour our their heart about the struggles they were having with their teenage daughter. And then there was the time a man looked across the table at a coffee shop that’s no longer in business and said, “If you do these things you’ll have perfect kids. Guaranteed.”results-guaranteed_01

At the time of his biblical prescription two of my kids were just beginning elementary school and my youngest was toddling around. It was tempting to believe him. Who doesn’t want a formula for raising kids that are guaranteed to be perfect? However, I knew enough from years of working with students and their families, and from simply being around humans, to know that there are no perfect kids or parenting formulas. Nevertheless, when parenting has been tough my mind has often drifted back to that conversation.

I think all parents go through tough times with their children, or at least I only want to associate with those who are honest enough to admit it. Being with parents who can’t or will not admit to having moments (or years) when the relationship with their haggardchildren was challenging creates a sense of wonder in me. I wonder how they can keep up the facade; I wonder how honest they are or how aware they are; I wonder if they really want me to believe they have always had “amazing relationships with their kids, simply by following a few biblical steps.” However, I don’t have a poker face; the haggard look I’ve acquired from trying to figure out why my teenagers make the sort of decisions that they do gives me away. It is a blend of confusion, rage, and shock.

Looking at myself in the mirror one morning I began to understand why my mother once pointed to a gray hair the way an artist points at a painting. She said, “I call this one Mark at 2 a.m.” I was not a perfect son and I’m confident my parents did not expect that I would be, after all, I’m the youngest of six – they had plenty of experience by the time I came along. At the same token, as much as I love my parents (they’ve been deceased for a number of years) they were not perfect.

However, expectations have shifted during the last forty years and there seems to be mounting pressure on moms and dads (or moms and moms, dads and dads, step-dads, step-moms, grandparents, etc.). Both parents and kids must get everything right the first time through; every moment must be Facebooked (or is it Snapchat now?), and it must look perfect. Not only that, there is the pressure of never admitting that some days are a struggle; even if someone does admit it,  the struggle has to be manageable enough to post on FB so as not to bum people out.

I feel that pressure more so now because like I said, I’ve got that haggard look of a parent who is wondering if perhaps I should have listened to the guy selling parenting perfection in three biblical steps. When parenting gets tough, it is tempting to get historical and look perfect-parent-in-trainingback on Facebook posts and wonder what happened to that lovable little guy – and wonder what I did to mess him up. Pictures on the iPhone bring a string of memories of missed opportunities, stern words, rash punishments, frustrations expressed unkindly, and more. It is tempting to blame others, too: schools, culture, parents, spouses, DNA, technology. The real challenge, however, is to remain hopeful for the present and the future; and that’s the damnable misery of it.

Most struggling parents that I know love their children. Love is not the issue. The struggle is to have hope that one day it will clear up and we will like one another again. The last thing parents need is someone telling them (or a voice in their head reminding them) if they had just done A+B+C they would not be in the boat they are in. But there is no hope in what might have been nor is there any hope in linear parenting.

For one thing, linear thinking isn’t relational thinking and A+B+C doesn’t even spell a word (at least 1+2+3 gives you 6). In other words, even if it were possible for a parent to do all the right things (whatever those things might be) there is no way to guarantee that their child would respond to them perfectly. Secondly, that ship has sailed and sunk off the coast of Neverland. There is no such thing as A+B+C parenting – even for Tiger Moms. Relationships are not formulaic.

For instance, I’ve known some pretty great parents in my day. They loved their children and provided for them. They spent quality time as a family. They took trips together. They prayed together. They went to church. They ate dinner together. They played together. They sent their children to private schools, or home-schooled, or good public schools. They took them to music lessons, sports camps, science fairs, and art institutes. They never raised their voice. They did not spoil their children. They did all the right things (whatever they are) and their children turned out solid citizens, with good jobs, and a lousy relationship with their parents. A+B+C simply doesn’t consider that people are people and sometimes being in a relationship with the people you love the most is just tough. And very often, in the most difficult season, it is tough to muster up hope for the present or the future – especially when lots of other folks just simply can’t be honest enough about how real life works.

What parents need is the freedom to come clean about their struggles without judgment. They need safe places where they can be honest with trusted friends. They need friendships with folks who not only sympathize and empathize, but know when to buy them a beer and talk about the weather. They need people who will pray for them and with them, even without being asked. They need to know they are not the only imperfect parents with imperfect kids. And, they need hopeful stories from parents who have been through it, recovered, and only have a few of the lines left over from the haggard parent face. And they probably need a good cup of coffee, too.


The Beauty of Waiting in Line


I generally run right on time, which leaves little to no room for error and no time for slow drivers or waiting in line. What it does leave time for are life lessons – whether I want them or not.

For instance, a few days ago I was in a hurry to get from one thing to the next – which included a stop at the grocery store. I loathe shopping of any sort – except for books – and grocery shopping is the worst. I wanted and needed to get in and out of the store quickly. I zipped my buggy through the produce department – aptly grabbing the bit of fruit and veg we needed to at least appear health conscious. I took the turn down the cereal aisle, deftly avoiding a dreaded delay created by two weary moms who stopped to chat – mid aisle. My buggy driving ability was nothing short of inspiring – almost NASCAR worthy.

Within thirty minutes, I managed to get everything we needed to survive (including a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup). Then, I made my way to the front of the store. I made a quick study of the lines, found the shortest one, and began my wait – and wait I did.

I started to get impatient (yet another character flaw). Lines I had passed over moved, while mine crawled. Even one of the moms from the cereal aisle checked out faster than me (I swear I think she sneered at me). I strained to look down the line to see what the delay was. I started to gruffly move to another line. Then I discovered the reason; a forty-ish woman with special needs stood to the left of the cashier and bagged groceries.

My need for speed shifted into shame and gratitude. The grocery store where we often shop employs a number of people with special needs. I had forgotten that. I felt like a real jerk. I decided to stay in my line.grocery store

I was forced to slow down – to wait –as this woman meticulously bagged groceries – just as she had been trained. She did a great job. Eventually, after she carefully bagged my groceries, she thanked me for shopping and wished me a good day.

My grocer is doing something profoundly beautiful and redemptive by offering real work – important work – to a number of people in my community who have tremendous gifts to offer. I don’t know their motives (I’m sure there is an economic reason). What I do know is that I got to witness someone putting their best effort in simply putting my groceries in a bag.

Now, if I can just get these folks around here to drive a bit faster…

Dance, Dance Fever!

perfect-parentThis morning, like most mornings, I found myself in the drop-off line at my son’s elementary school. Normally, he and I share light conversation, that’s the best I can muster until the life-giving nectar of coffee permeates my brain. As we wait our turn in line, I do what most drivers do, check my rear view mirrors. Most of the time I catch a glimpse of every other bleary eyed parent, but not today. Today I was treated to a site that made me smile.

In the mini-van behind me a mom transformed her kids mundane, Monday morning routine into Dance, Dance-Fever! Though I could not hear the music I caught the rhythm as she danced behind the steering wheel, which was both a drum and a micro-phone. She was all into the music and so were her kids. Seated in the van’s midsection her daughter followed her mother’s uninhibited motions, beaming her nearly toothless, first-grader smile. Even the shot-gun riding, stoic son, let his head sway.

I have no idea if that’s a daily routine. Chances are good their mornings are like most families: sleepy kids who can’t find a shoe, pets that needed to go out – but not any longer, breakfast and lunch prepared at the same time (why’d I put eggs in a Ziploc bag?). But for a few minutes, before school started, a mom in a mini-van created a little laughter and a lot of fun.


She looked crazy. She did not look like she had it all together. No one in that mini-van was concerned about what the folks in the other cars were thinking (and they were looking). Her kids were loving it and so was she!

Most parents that I know put a lot of pressure on themselves. We want to love our kids well and by that I mean we want to be the perfect parent. We want to be the parent that is never frustrated, always on top of every detail, able to dispense wisdom and cash.What’s more, we want others to think of us as the perfect parent.

But maybe parental perfection looks more like a crazy mom dancing in a van with the kids. Maybe the perfect parent is one that is a little more human, true to themselves, less concerned with others, and way more into having some fun. Sometimes we need a little Dance, Dance Fever! in the drop-off line. Sometimes we need to surprise our kids and ourselves, create moments of laughter and fun, in the most mundane places. Way to go mom!!