Don’t Try to Be More Extraordinary (Just Try to Be More Human)

mindfulness

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We’re riding our bikes through the dead.

Our new town is a lot hillier than I remember it, and the cemetery is the flattest ground we can find for a family bike ride. The day is sunny and just the right amount of warm, as we wind our way on the one-lane asphalt road, through the fields of tombstones. My kids don’t even seem to notice, but I can’t take my eyes off the names and the dates on the weathered graves. Some have been there for more than a century, names I don’t know and names that, perhaps, no one can remember.

Some are more recent.

Less than two years ago, the judge who I trembled in front of during elementary school mock trials stepped off this mortal coil and into the mystery of what comes next. It seems like yesterday he sat above us—youthful, healthy, powerful. Time undoes all of these things. We’re riding through the dead and the awareness of it does to me what it always does:

It makes me want to seize the day.

I think of that scene in Dead Poet’s Society—the young boys looking at the pictures of young men long since passed, Robin Williams leaning in amongst them, in a ghostlike whisper exhorting them, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The urge to do so seizes me. Like it does every time I’m faced with my mortality.

But then I’m faced with my reality.

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3 Words to Keep You Sane During Back-to-School Month (Or Any Month)

The school year is a sleeping giant and it’s about to awaken from its slumber. Three words are going to keep me sane in the midst of the onslaught of activities. Maybe they’ll keep you sane, too…

back to school

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I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

It was the first annual community picnic for my wife’s upstart pediatric development center. Employees and families were invited, and six families who had already been served by the project were planning to attend. There was a hayride scheduled. And a cookout. And volleyball. And an array of other outdoor events. But right when it was scheduled to begin, the skies opened and flooded the land.

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Then, ninety-minutes later, as the rain continued to fall, we got a text saying the people had gathered anyway. Surprised, we piled into the car and, as we fishtailed down a muddy hill into the campground, we saw a small band of employees and families gathered beneath a pavilion. I did’t see a hayride, the volleyball court was a mud pit, and it looked like the festivities had failed.

I met the director of the center and told her I was sorry her first picnic got cancelled. She looked at me and smiled pleasantly and said, “Oh, it wasn’t really cancelled. Four families showed up and during a break in the rain, we went for a walk in the woods, down to the river.”

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Because I’ve been seduced by programming.

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Reflections on Beauty (From Main Street U.S.A.)

Beauty. There’s an entire industry dedicated to it. But what if beauty isn’t something you can buy or paint on or put on? What if beauty isn’t even something you can create? What if beauty is a reality we cultivate and something in which we participate?

beauty

Dixon, IL (July 15, 2015)

I’m walking down main street in the small, rural town that was once my hometown and is, as of two weeks ago, my hometown once again. It’s my first official day as a writer in our new home. I’ve just dropped the kids off at camp, and there’s a conflict playing out within me.

I’m feeling pressure to race home and write something beautiful.

But up the block, there’s a coffee shop where people are gathered and laughing, and I haven’t had my morning dose yet. And one block further down the street is my wife’s new pediatric development center, Florissa, which I haven’t yet visited. And lining the sidewalks, from here to there, are hanging baskets, with thick cascades of pink and purple petunias.

Bountiful.

Beautiful.

It’s a July day that has dawned like the best kind of September day. Baby blue sky, mashed potato clouds, sunlight that kisses your face instead of slapping it. It’s the kind of day on which you don’t really need a breeze, but it feels just right anyway. I’d been planning to rush home to capture some beauty in words, but here, ambushed by beauty, I’m reminded:

You don’t capture beauty. It’s too big to be caught and too wild to be grasped. You don’t even discover beauty; you slow down, take a breath, and you let it find you. You make yourself available to it. You bear witness to it.

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Where to Find Peace When Peace is Elusive

Progress is a good thing, but not the best of things. The best things are timeless things, because though they may not bring us change, they bring us peace…

mindfulness

Rehoboth Beach, June 16, 2015, 5:41am

A month before we move, I give in to the sentimental thing at the center of me, and I spend a day touring our old haunts in the suburbs—the claustrophobic apartment in which we spent our first lean and tumultuous year in Chicago, the town surrounding it where we lived and loved and laughed and fought, the little townhouse we bought a couple of towns over, a sequence of daycares and restaurants and parks and the nooks and crannies of several different suburbs. I’m planning to see these old familiar places and then let go of them with a tear or two.

But it doesn’t happen.

Instead, I’m confronted again and again with how much changes in a decade. Buildings have been torn down, trees cut down, and businesses shut down. Very little remains the same. In a way, the trip serves its purpose: it helps me let go by reminding me the things to which I’m attached are already mostly gone. Yet, it gives me something new to grieve.

I grieve the death of timeless things.

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How to Look Fear in the Face and Say, “I Just Don’t Care”

“The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.”

–Henri Nouwen

gratitude

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On the morning we boarded a plane for the TODAY Show, I woke up in a panic. The house was February cold and the morning was February dark. I sat alone in my office and shivered.

I wasn’t shivering because of the cold.

I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I might turn back time and not agree to go on national television. I meditated. I prayed. I couldn’t find peace. But then my prayers were answered by a still, small voice inside saying the strangest of things:

Glitter in the air.

I reached for my phone, played the song of that title, and the lyrics I’d forgotten were a blessed reassurance: 

Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?

Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don’t care”?

It’s only half past the point of no return,

The tip of the iceberg,

The sun before the burn,

The thunder before the lightning,

And the breath before the phrase.

Have you ever felt this way?

For the rest of that surreal weekend in New York and at 30 Rock, as the fear would creep back in, I’d imagine our family with fistfuls of glitter thrown into the air and floating down around us. Crazy. Messy. A little bit out of control. But beautiful. Alive. Awake.

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Why It Takes Courage to Look Inside (And Why It’s Totally Worth It)

Life is a lost-and-found, and we’re all rummaging around for the thing that’s gone missing. But what is it and where is it? The good news is, you don’t have to look far. You only have to look deep

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“Are your new shoes in your closet?”

My wife is trying to make my youngest son look presentable for a Christmas concert. He usually refuses to wear anything except athletic pants but she has somehow, miraculously, talked him into a pair of corduroys. The finishing touch will be a pair of shoes that don’t look like they have been through a semester of playground wars.

He looks up from the book he’s reading. His face is deadly serious as he responds, “Yeah, but I’m not going to look for them. It’s a jungle in there.”

It’s a jungle inside my son’s closet.

And it’s a jungle inside our hearts.

Which is why we don’t go looking for the one thing we all need to find.

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Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)

parenting

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Dear Dad,

You’re doing it all wrong.

Eleven years ago, the doctors handed you a little, pink bundle of vulnerability. You were twenty-six years old, and you walked out of the hospital entirely responsible for a brand new human being. A whole person. As if that were a totally sane thing to let you do. It scared you. They eventually handed you two more little people. It was supposed to get a little easier each time.

It didn’t.

You never got less afraid. You never got more certain about how to be a dad. So you decided to make it up along the way. You can stop feeling bad about that—it’s what everybody else is doing, too. The problem is, you improvised by listening to the voices in the world around you, instead of listening to the voice coming from the world within you. You can forgive yourself for that, too. The voices around you are loud and persuasive.

They told you achievement matters most. So you stressed about school districts and kindergarten homework and guitar recitals. You secretly kept score in your head at first grade soccer games. You thought scoring goals was the goal of life.

But can you remember?

Can you remember what it was like to be just a few years out of diapers and to score a goal on the soccer field? You didn’t care about the score and you didn’t start planning for your future soccer scholarship. No, you whipped your head around to be sure they were looking. The real goal was to be seen. The real goal was to have someone to celebrate with.

Dad, you can stop spending all your time trying to get them into school, and you can start taking the time to walk them to school.

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The 5-Minute New Year’s Resolution That Will Make All Things New

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot

mindfulness

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We’re going to take down the Christmas tree.

Again.

Last year, it was depressing.

Not because the holiday season was over, but because we’d done it before. Many times. It felt like, somehow, after a year of striving and scrambling and doing and accomplishing, we were right back where we started. Square one. We hadn’t progressed; we’d returned.

Life isn’t a straight line. It’s a circle. If you can’t accept that, it can be pretty depressing.

That’s what the African immigrant told me. Right before he fired me.

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Why the Stillest Silence Always Comes Before the Greatest Gifts

Whether you observe Christmas or not, the order of the celebration has something to teach us about being human: the stillest silence always precedes the greatest gifts…

true self

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The red light always flashed reliably in the dark distant sky.

When I was young, every Christmas Eve, my family traveled to a nearby town to visit relatives, and then drove home through miles of cornfield. For most of the drive, in the distance, there was a tower with a red light blinking on top of it. For years, I wondered if it was Rudolph’s nose. As I grew older, the mystery of it wore off, but I still watched that red light blink rhythmically in the black night sky. It’s difficult to remember a single childhood Christmas gift, but I remember that red light. It was steady and still.

It was the icon of a silent night.

Now, many years later, as I talk with people about this holiday we are about to observe, most of them tell me they prefer the silent night over the celebratory day that follows. Our hearts, it seems, gravitate toward stillness. Why? Because our hearts know silence always precedes the one gift all of us are truly searching for:

Our true selves.

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How Losing Your Senses Could Make Sense of Everything Else

If you only had one day to hear, what would you listen to?

mindfulness

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About four months ago, I began to lose my hearing.

Every few days, for about thirty seconds, I would lose my hearing completely in my right ear. The doctors couldn’t find an explanation. But then a chiropractic adjustment seemed to resolve it. For about six weeks. Then it happened again, in the other ear. And then it happened again and again and again. As I waited a day to see the chiropractor, my anxiety swelled. I thought of the music I love and the sound of wind in autumn trees and way you can hear my wife’s contagious laugh from two houses away.

And I started to panic.

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