Spoiled Brats at the 9/11 Memorial

After looking for about ten minutes, Laura whispers my name.

“Bert, over here.”

She is standing next to a bronze parapet that surrounds one of the 9/11 Memorial pools.  Her fingers are tracing the inscription of his name:  Paul W. Ambrose

We hadn’t known him personally, but Paul was a hometown kid, and in Huntington, WV, our social ties are rather enmeshed.  We’re all linked by only one or two degrees of separation, and we celebrate people like Paul (there aren’t many like him) because they make us proud.  From Marshall University to Dartmouth to Harvard, Paul had pole vaulted over the hillbilly stereotype.  Engaging, intelligent, and relentless, Paul planted himself among elite company as a congressional advisor, a champion for public health, and senior advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General.  Many expected him to become the nation’s youngest surgeon general.

American Airlines Flight 77 changed that.  In a cruel twist of irony, Paul’s D.C. to Los Angeles flight altered course over his hometown of Huntington, WV, before crashing into the Pentagon.

NTSB Flight 77

American Airlines Flight 77 – NTSB Report

Unable to speak, my fingers join Laura’s and, together, we touch the name carved into the cold, lifeless bronze plate.  A part of me feels guilty.  I shouldn’t be so affected by the death of a stranger.  What emotional right do I have?

Because he was one of our own.

I scan the thousands of names.

They all were.

IMG_4617Beyond the square ramparts (the footprints of the twin towers), water flows over the edges into a shallow pool before disappearing through a center shaft.  A river of endless sorrow bleeds into the unquenchable earth.  The morning sun rises in a light blue sky that feels gray in this place.  It is cool and quiet.  In a city of millions, this place is insulated from life’s busyness.  “Never forget” has become cliché, but in this ghastly, beautiful place, it’s true.  Here, we walk delicately, afraid that even a heavy footfall might wake the monsters below.  Again.  These grounds are sacred—I feel it with every breath—and I blink away tears as I step away from Paul’s name.

Bitter vines twist their way up from my gut, choking me as I consider the thousands of characters who have been edited out by inhumanity.

Inhumanity.

I watch an elderly woman as she caresses the memorial bronze.  Her long, delicate fingers confirm that, yes, this is real.  This actually happened in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  In her other hand she holds a solitary rose.  After a few minutes, she twists the stem into one of the carved letters and the red rose stands in defiance against death’s inscriptions.  She doesn’t shed a tear, but around her eyes and down her cheeks I see valleys cut by rivers that now run underground, into depths I can’t imagine.  Or don’t want to.

Who did she lose?  Her daughter?  Husband?

I feel my heart reaching out for this shattered soul when I hear the scream, loud and shrill like twisted steel cutting into stone.

I turn to find a little girl of about four-years-old racing toward me.  Her mop of hair bounces around her ruddy face like an alien creature chewing on her skull.  She squeals, her arms pumping as she darts through the crowd.  I then realize she is being chased by what must be her older brother.  He attempts to tag her—swipes and misses—as she darts away at the last possible second.  Brother makes a leaping grab and catches hold of her.  The two begin laughing, but then mop-top squirts away from her brother and the chase is on again.

Inhumanity.

It’s like someone turned circus animals loose at a funeral and I am incensed by the lack of reverence.  If I could find their parents, I’d—

The children run past the woman with the rose and I hold my breath.

Freaking little brats!  Have some respect!

I’m not prepared for what comes next.

The woman with the rose observes the children scurrying past her.  I wait for the scowl and the snide comment, but neither comes.  Instead, I see a grin—slight but unmistakable—crawl up her face and snuggle into her cheeks.

Inhumanity.

I feel sick, disgusted by something I can’t name.

Later, it comes to me, and I realize that playful children aren’t the culprits.  I’m sickened by my own bitter response to it.

Our emotional responses toward others always reveal more about us than them.  With every negative reaction I have toward someone else, I’m learning to pause and prayerfully ask, “What’s really going on with me here?”  What I find most often are damaged places in my own soul that have gone off track and are crying out for healing.

I wasn’t ticked off because children were laughing and playing at the 9/11 Memorial.  I was angry because I’d adopted our unspoken ethos of bitterness.  I just didn’t realize it at the time.  I’d become infected by an illness that is eating away at us, a walking-dead mentality that causes us to lash out and attack any sign of life.  It’s become our national policy to be angry about something—anything!—and find someone to blame for it.  We’ve become petty, morose people, and even when there’s not much to be angry about, we go looking for it.

Spend twenty minutes on social media.  We’re a bunch of snarky, malcontent jerks aching for a fight.  Consider the state of politics.  We’ll rail against things that are actually good for us if it’s proposed by someone we’ve been media-driven into hating.  The culture of callousness has polluted our souls so deeply that we’re not satisfied until we’ve poisoned others with our bile.

Inhumanity.

The sounds of children playing interrupted my bitter moment at the 9/11 memorial.

DSC00105My God!  Could there be a more beautiful memorial to the lives lost than the laughter of children?  A more fitting tribute to the world we want to build?  A greater battle cry than the echoes of children at play?

Paul Ambrose’s mother, Sharon, described her son as “a very happy child, always smiling with those blue eyes” (Huntington Quarterly).

Friends, joy was assaulted on 9/11, and in so many ways we continue the attacks on a daily basis, on the hunt for something to be ticked off about.  We’ve all become terrorists of the heart, and I’m tired of it.

Inhumanity.

But what if…

What if our only national policy became the laughter of children?  All children!

If that could be the litmus test for every decision and action, it might alter our flight path—as individuals and citizens of the world.

It might take us a bit closer to home … to our own humanity.

I pray we never forget what that is.

Hey, Church! You’re Losing the War!

David is dead.

If I could write that with more poetic flair, I would, but it would be no less piercing to his mother.

His obituary celebrates a theatrical whirling dervish who “loved all he met, cheered on the underdog,” and brightened the world with “an incredible smile, an infectious laugh,” and “the best bear hugs of anyone.”

On the scorecard, however, David is just another tally mark in the Overdose column.  We say that addiction killed him, but that’s not true.  The drugs, like most addictions, were just self-medication for deeper wounds.  They always are.  I heard someone say that we live in a world at war, and nobody gets out of here unscathed.

Anyway, David is dead.  As Dickens proclaims, that must be acknowledged should anything wonderful come of this tale.

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Commission on the Sale of an Ice Cream Whore

(Heads up, friends.  Though I’ve tried to be delicate, there’s some adult stuff in this one.  Like most of my work, it’s a true story, just a bit more literary in nature.  Tread lightly.  Sacred territory here.  Thanks for the nudge, Marie.)

IceCream_LI

From my second floor office window I see her waving to the ice cream truck as it rounds the corner.  It slows and pulls to the curb.  With an excited hop she breaks into a sprint, off to collect her special treat.

Like a comet’s tail, her flaming red hair trails behind, flowing in the wind.  Wide eyes.  Mouth agape.  Both betray a child’s joyous heart.  Alabaster skin covered in a constellation of freckles.  Tube socks worn from summertime adventures are bunched around her ankles, revealing bruised shins and scabby knees.  Telltale trophies of kickball, hopscotch, and double-dutch jump rope.

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Ignite your Relationship!

A buddy and I once had a regrettably awesome idea: “Let’s have the most unforgettable Fourth of July fireworks display EVER!”

We pooled our resources and headed across the river to smuggle boxes of explosives back into West Virginia.  Rockets.  Missiles.  Screamers.  Repeaters.  Roman Candles.  Dozens of exploding mortars (those are the big, professional ones, kids).

As family and friends filled our yard, we anxiously awaited the cover of darkness so we could light up the night sky.  It was going to be … glorious!

Unfortunately, communication along the front line suffered a setback, resulting in a “slight weapons malfunction.”  To cut to the chase, a random spark ignited some misplaced mortars and … well, to be honest, all hell broke loose.

caddyshack

That didn’t go as planned (photo from Caddyshack)

Within 60 seconds, nearly $500 worth of fireworks came roaring to life and attacked in all directions.  The rockets’ red glare.  The bombs burst in the air … and on my house … and next to screaming people running for cover.  At one point I saw my wife’s cousin, just home from Iraq and still in uniform, running through the yard, tossing children over his shoulder and extracting them from the battlefield.  People were diving in the pool as my wife screamed, “Get under the water!  Stay down!”

You know that final scene from Caddyshack when Carl blows up the entire golf course?  That was child’s play compared to our epic disaster.

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Soul Care 101: Stop Shadowboxing and Take Back Your Keys!

Open your contact lists on your phone and computer.  Count the entries.  Next add your social media friends and followers.  Now, estimate how many people you brush up against on any given day (in both the physical and media realms).

Let’s pretend you actually arrived at a final sum (we’ll call it “Z”).

Head out to your local hardware store.  Ask the kid behind the counter to make “Z” copies of your house key.  Finally, send one to every person included in “Z”.  (Make sure you have extra copies to hand out to random folks throughout the week.)

Sound crazy?

We wouldn’t give many of our family members that much open access to our homes, not to mention the countless others we encounter.  But this is exactly what we do—day in and day out—with our hearts.

Little wonder we feel plundered at the end of most days.  Life has a way of breaking-and-entering on its own.  We don’t help ourselves by handing out keys like Pez dispensers.

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X-Plan: Giving your kids a way out (#xplan)

(As seen on The Today Show, Good Housekeeping, HerViewFromHome, ScaryMommy, The Huffington Post, Mamamia, MomsEveryday, and numerous social and news media outlets. UPDATED – 3/3/2017)

Friends, as most of you know, I get to spend an hour each week with a group of young people going through addiction recovery.  Yes.  Young people.  I’m talking teenagers who are locked away for at least six months as they learn to overcome their addictions.  I’m always humbled and honored to get this time with these beautiful young souls that have been so incredibly assaulted by a world they have yet to understand.  This also comes with the bittersweet knowledge that these kids still have a fighting chance while several of my friends have already had to bury their own children.

Recently I asked these kids a simple question:  “How many of you have found yourself in situations where things started happening that you weren’t comfortable with, but you stuck around, mainly because you felt like you didn’t have a way out?”

They all raised their hands.

Every single one of them. Continue reading

Why You (don’t) Suck

We know that art imitates life.  Life also imitates art.  And somewhere in between, we explore nature’s blueprint as we each try to figure out who—and what—we really are.

Sitting here in my writing sanctuary, I’ve become distracted by movement in the woods just beyond my window.  A woodpecker is making his way up a long, slender birch tree, stopping ever so often for some investigative pecks.  He visits our woods regularly.  I frequently hear his rhythmic knocking, and when I do, I always stop to look for the handsome fellow.  He’s a delight to behold.  Slender, coal-black body.  Fiery red head.  Power and grace that would shame most ballerinas.  I’m mesmerized by his existence.  And I wonder how a bird that can be so beautiful and naturally gifted at locating insects in a tree still can’t retrieve tennis balls like Cleveland and Bruce, our golden retrievers.

Our woodpecker is the worst retriever I’ve ever seen.  In fact (pardon the phrase, but there’s no better way to say it), he flat-out sucks. Continue reading

Make America Grateful Again

I want to share a painting that hangs on the wall where I do most of my work.  When I look up from my desk, this is what I see:

shipwreck

Study the picture for a few minutes.  (Okay, give it ten seconds.  I know—you’re busy.  We all are.)

Now tell me, what happened here?  What’s the story?

Whatever yarn you spin will reveal nothing about the painting, but it will suggest a lot about your life, your place in the world, and the impact you’ll have on others.

Friends, is yours a story of destruction and despair, or one of beauty and adventure?

More importantly, how thankful are you for the story you’re living? Continue reading

Election Hangover? Give Unto Caesar.

*Author’s note:  I almost didn’t post this today as I feared it might not be appropriate on Veterans’ Day.  However, after attending our town’s parade and ceremony this morning, hearing the bands play our patriotic songs, seeing representatives from every military branch, and paying our respects to the courageous men and women who have served our country with dignity and honor, I realized it was more than appropriate.  Thanks to the sacrifices of these men and women, we live in the greatest country in the world, where we continue to be free to disagree and wrestle our way through some hard discussions.

God Bless America!

parade

 


About a quarter-century ago, I was preparing my first student teaching lesson for a West Virginia history class.  I remember it well.

Often theatrical, I was rehearsing quotes from John Brown, the crazy-eyed, self-proclaimed instrument-of-God abolitionist whose band of ruffians stormed the armory at Harpers Ferry.  Though really not that big of a deal in and of itself, the raid was a spark that helped ignite the powder keg of division that became the American Civil War.

“I am now quite certain,” I quoted Brown in my best gruff, indignant, mountain man voice, “that the crimes of this evil land will never be purged away … [lengthy pause for dramatic effect] … but … with … BLOOOOOOD!”  I poured that final word all over the students who were half-amused, half-terrified. Continue reading

Do You See What I See? Episode 4: Proximity

I’ve lived most of my life with a longing gaze toward a distant horizon, believing in a mystical something-better out there.

joey-cliffThe constant challenge for most folks who grow up around here has always been geography.  In West Virginia, the same hills that protect you from the outside world also tend to cripple your chances of seeing beyond the ridge in front of you.  Most West Virginians remain semi-affectionately imprisoned in their own little hollers from cradle to grave (save the occasional big trip to Myrtle Beach, laughingly referred to as the Redneck Riviera).  A few—our best and brightest—get out as soon as they can, and why wouldn’t they?  If your ticket out of West Virginia gets punched, why would you spend one more second in a state that is ranked among the poorest, most depressed, least educated, most drug-addicted, least healthy, and most miserable places in the entire nation? Continue reading