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The way July 4th used to be

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Yes, that’s me in the waist-high parachute shorts with a plastic ribbon clipped to my shirt, circa 1993. I must’ve thought I was a real winner.

As a kid, I spent several July 4ths with my grandparents. I remember getting ice cream at this little place near their house called Desta Cup, then driving to the Kmart parking lot to watch fireworks from their Buick.

My grandmother is in failing health now with her short-term memory getting shorter. She used to watch VHS documentaries about other places in the world, but now the spirit for travel has been reduced to the occasional trip out of the house. And that’s a hassle in itself.

She still carries on conversation and gets that twinkle in her eyes when she crinkles her nose in laughter, but I can feel the time with my grandparents slipping away. Mamaw will be 85 next week, although she doesn’t believe it. (According to her, she’s not even 80.)

And now there’s my grandfather.

This July 4 was met with a phone call from Mom telling me about Papaw’s recent trip to the doctor. He has nodules on his lungs and goes in tomorrow to see if they’re active. If so, the next step is a biopsy to see if they’re cancerous.

My hope and prayer is that nothing major is wrong, but even if it’s nothing, it’s a reminder that they’re grandparents, and our grandparents don’t usually outlive us.

That’s what I thought about for hours after Mom’s phone call.

Tuesday night, after getting together with friends, a few of us headed downtown to watch fireworks. I got a little choked up midway through as I stood there, looking up toward the skyscrapers to watch the explosion of color—one after another, boom, boom, boom. It was a beautiful night with great company, yet I would have given anything to be back in that maroon Buick, poking my head through the middle console as I finished off an ice cream cone and watched fireworks over Kmart.

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Conversations with Emily

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There are 16 years between me and my sister. I was a freshman in college when she turned 2.

With such a big age gap (my brother claiming the middle spot seven years behind me), Emily and I have a lot of interesting conversations. Two years ago, I posted this on Facebook:


If you haven’t talked to a 12-year-old girl on the phone lately, this is what it’s like, courtesy of my sister:

On math

Me: “Do you like math?”
Emily: “I have mixed feelings about it. I like it when I get the answers right.”

On revealed secrets

Emily: “I like unicorns.”
Me: “I used to have a diary with a unicorn on it.”
Emily: “I know.”
Me: “What? … What do you mean you know?”
Emily: “…”
Me: “Did you read my diary?”
Emily: “Yes! Hahahahahahahaha!”

On watching My Little Pony

Emily: “I’ve seen all the *psssshhhhhhhh* episodes on Netflix.”
Me: “You what?”
Emily: “I’ve seen *pssshhhh* My Little Pony *psssshhh*”
Me: “I can’t hear you; you’re muffled.”
Emily: “Oh wait, let me change my position. I’m upside down.”

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Just last week, I had another fun conversa … well, really I was listening in on a monologue. Emily is 14 now and a freshman in high school.

On boys

“I have boy problems. There’s this guy named Ben who messaged me on Instagram and asked if he could eat lunch with me. I didn’t even know who he was! … He doesn’t have any pictures of himself on Instagram, but he said he sits near me in lunch in the blue hoodie. And I was like, ‘Oh, Lord, he’s the one who’s hunched over.’ … I asked my friend to sit next to me at lunch so he couldn’t sit there.”

“Then my friend Dillon, he’s super muscular now. He was showing me his calf muscle and it looks really weird. It looks like a plateau! Uuuuggghhh!”

On gym class

“We have to run around and I always get sweaty. I don’t know what to wear!”

On school in general

“We have to make a PowerPoint about zombies for Career Exploration. It fits into the lesson somehow.”

“Mr. Ford is my history and geography teacher and he’s really cute. I think it’s because some of his family is French. He kinda looks like an elf. To me, elves are really cute.”

In response to my phone call to double check the above facts

“Are you blogging about my life?”

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Stealing my grandmother

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An Alaska cruise with Mamaw in 2009. She got up early during our vacation, saying she’d need more time to get ready in case her hair “doesn’t lay right” in the morning.

I’ve been in clean-out mode the past few weeks, rummaging through my closet, emptying out drawers and putting my life’s possessions in piles as I declutter. There’s the throwaway pile, the giveaway pile and the keep pile, and since I haven’t been feeling very sentimental lately, the last pile keeps getting smaller.

Part of my minimization efforts include tackling four shoeboxes full of cards—birthday cards, anniversary cards, thank you cards and so on. I’m a words person and love reading what people have written to me, but after years and years of collecting cards, I decided it’s time to pare it down, keeping only the really special ones.

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“I’m ready!” Headed to D.C. in 2011.

That’s how I came across a couple of letters from my grandmother, dating several years back.

As I read the first letter, I was caught off guard. I started crying just a few sentences in, and within a couple of minutes could hardly catch my breath, like someone punched me in the gut. It reminded me of what used to be and what never will be again.

I’m fortunate that both my grandparents on my mom’s side are still around and that I’ve always been close to them. But in the past several years, my grandmother’s mental health has declined.

At times I get angry—at this aging process, at the fact that she doesn’t try harder to take care of herself. Other times I’m amused—at her no-filter comments, at her quips about getting older. And sometimes I’m disheartened. It won’t get better. It won’t get easier. And it scares the bejesus out of me that I might find myself in the same boat someday.

Mamaw was valedictorian in high school. She was a math whiz and kept the books for my grandfather’s business for over 30 years. She taught Sunday school for what seems like forever and loved to write just like I do. She was a fantastic cook. I remember waking up to the smell of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy.

Now I have to mentally prepare for our conversations. During one of our recent ones, she told me it was raining four times during our 30-minute chat. She’ll talk about all the things she has to do even though she doesn’t. Or the contest she’s about to win although we all know it’s a scam.

She doesn’t cook anymore or teach Sunday school. I can’t remember the last time she wrote me a note.

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A safety run pre-departure on our cruise ship to Alaska.

I always looked forward to visiting my grandparents and still do. I want to sit in their living room with no particular topic of conversation as the grandfather clock ticks in the background.

But it’s hard.

Reading her letters brought back memories of the Alaska cruise we took in 2009—just the two of us. She called it “the trip of a lifetime.” She wrote about the Sunday school lesson she had to prepare and the beans Papaw brought in from the garden that she needed to cook.

In a letter she sent while I was studying in Australia in 2007, she shared how happy she was that I was traveling but asked me not to make a habit of skydiving. She told me about her new Kodak camera and how she was learning to zoom. “I’m still trying to learn all the ins and outs and what all the different buttons are for,” she wrote. She told me about the creative writing class she was taking, too: “I’ve been working on my first short story. … If I have to shorten it much more it will lose some of the interesting parts and I don’t want it to be dull.”

She wrote about things that I’m thankful for, but that I’m sad are in the past. Dementia is stealing my grandmother away from me.

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Taking a ferry in Charleston, S.C., in 2012.

Next week I’ll celebrate my birthday, which I’ve always loved. I know some people get depressed when they’re a year older, but so far, I’ve enjoyed it. What I don’t like about aging is that certain memories get farther and farther away.

Mamaw still knows who I am and is still happy when I call or visit. We carry on conversation and laugh. Over Thanksgiving, I showed her pictures from my trip to Ireland as she commented on how beautiful it was. She always wanted to travel more (Papaw is a homebody), so I’m beyond grateful for our trip to Alaska, as well as subsequent trips to D.C. and Charleston.

But it’s different.

And as much as I like to change things up, there are some things I wish could stay the same.

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“Sometimes yet, I am still awed at how everything just fell in place.”
—A Dec. 16, 2009, letter from Mamaw about our Alaska cruise.

New year, new word

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For the past three years, I’ve picked a one-word focus for the 12 months ahead of me, and at the end of that time, I evaluate how it went.

I started off with the word “humility” in 2014, followed by “simplify” in 2015 and “calm” in 2016.

Throughout 2016 (it’s weird to talk about it in past tense already), I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job of sticking to my word. I would forget about it many days, despite it being taped next to my bathroom mirror, and there were many times I didn’t feel very calm, either on the inside or outside.

But today as I thought more about it, I decided there have been some changes.

  • There were several times I wanted to get upset about something but remembered my resolve to stay calm and let the upsetting thing pass.
  • I altered my work schedule a bit so I don’t get so crazy in traffic, which has helped me stay calmer on my commute.
  • When a couple of unexpected things came up last year, I tried not to freak out about them (in either a bad or good way), but slowed myself down to process it all and give a more level-headed response.
  • When people annoyed me, I made a more conscious effort to be patient and not get snippy.

I don’t know if I’d call 2016 a success as far as my word goes since I think I could’ve done much better, but at least I saw a little improvement, which is better than nothing.

By early fall, though, I’d already started thinking about my next word and was pretty positive what it should be. I actually thought about using the word last year, but I think 2017 will be a good time for it.

My new word is “balance.”

There are too many days that I feel like my free time just slips by. Too many times I feel like my priorities are out of whack or like I’m barely keeping afloat with all of life’s commitments. I did tackle a bit of this when I focused on simplifying a couple years ago, but now I need to round it out.

I again taped my word next to my mirror, and this time wrote out, in order, what my priorities should be to find that balance: God first, followed by marriage, then family and friends, then work and everything else.

Even though I work for a ministry that starts each day with devotions and prayer, it’s no substitute for my personal time with God—something I’ve gone back and forth with this past year. I’ll get into a routine of reading my Bible every day or praying regularly, then it tapers off, then I do it again, then it tapers off. There’s a huge difference between putting Him first in my life and not, so this year, I’m going to try my best to do it consistently.

Here’s an excerpt from a devotion I read just before Christmas:

The world has become too much a part of us, and we are afflicted with the idea that we are not accomplishing anything unless we are always busily running back and forth. … We believe in having “all our irons in the fire” and that all the time we spend away from the anvil or fire is wasted time. Yet our time is never more profitably spent than when we set aside time for quiet meditation, talking with God, and looking up to heaven. We can never have too many of these open spaces in life—hours set aside when our soul is completely open and accessible to any heavenly thought or influence that God may be pleased to send our way.

Someone once said, “Meditation is the Sunday of the mind.” In these hectic days, we should often give our mind a “Sunday,” a time in which it will do no work but instead will simply be still. …

Time spent in this way is not lost time. A fisherman does not say he is losing time when he is mending his nets, nor does a gardener feel he has wasted his time by taking a few minutes to sharpen the blades on his mower. …

—from Streams in the Desert

After God comes my marriage. I do devote a considerable amount of time to friends and work and other things here and there, but I need to be sure marriage comes before all that. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not, so again, I’m going for consistency here.

Here’s my game plan for achieving balance this year:

  • img_6679Pete and I are going to start reading YouVersion’s Verse of the Day as our devotional time together. We weren’t crazy about the devotional book we went through last year, and the verse will be good because we can access it on our phones no matter where we are.
  • I’m going to go through A Passion for Purpose, which gives you a one-page devotional each day. I started it once and really liked it, but never finished.
  • I want to create a Gratitude Jar. More on this later, but my hope is that it’ll keep me focused on all of life’s little blessings and remember what’s important.
  • I’d also like to finish reading Margin. Mom and Dad got me this book maybe two Christmases ago, and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t finished it. I think I have 4 unfinished books at the moment, but this one is all about balance and I’ve already underlined lots of stuff in the parts I’ve read.
  • img_6676I want to be more diligent about praying for my friends and family. I just got a new planner that came with a small dry erase board where you can write down your prayer focus for each day of the week. I already wrote down friends’ names in each space for the first week of January.
  • And finally, to build on my goal of simplifying from 2015, I want to give more thought to things I say yes to. I can’t do it all, and I don’t want to spread myself so thin that I do nothing well.

Although I think all of these are good goals, I’m not going to beat myself up if I miss a couple of days of devotional reading or forget to pray for so-and-so on Tuesday. I don’t want to be so lax that I’m not working toward balance, but I also know I’ll need grace now and then.

Let’s see how it goes!

Keith Scott: What do you do when a shooting hits home?

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Photo credit: NY Daily News

Just two months ago, I wrote a blog in response to a string of shootings across the country. I mentioned how these shootings are hitting closer to home.

But none have hit as close as Tuesday’s shooting in Charlotte, just half an hour away from me. It was a mile from UNC Charlotte where I went to college, half a mile from my old apartment and one neighborhood over from where I used to babysit. Close.

It’s the latest story adding fuel to the fire of deep-seated emotion, stemming from a history of racially charged clashes between police and civilians. Anger, grief, distress, a tiring fight for justice all come to a head, exploding in chaos.  

As I browsed through pictures of protesters and police officers who flooded a main road shortly after the afternoon shooting, I couldn’t help but think about all the times I drove down that exact road on my way home. Like thousands of others, I’ve also driven tons of times on the same section of I-85 that was filled with adrenaline as protesters and police with shielded helmets held up traffic for miles. I still have friends who live in that area.

After more protests last night, I thought about the many times I’ve walked the same sidewalks in uptown overflowing with shouts, busted windows and tear gas, and the time my dad stayed in the same hotel caught in the thick of violence. The protests had been so peaceful hours earlier.

The danger of watching events like this unravel on TV, the radio or online is the distance. All these shootings may start to blend together and seem to follow the same script: man dies, people outraged, tension between police and civilians.

What makes the Keith Scott shooting different for me is the proximity. For months, I’ve watched similar scenes unfold in other cities, but now it’s in my own community. I knew we weren’t immune, but it’s still surreal.

It’s strange seeing pictures of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police cars with smashed bumpers and broken windshields as protesters stand on top of them. It’s crazy seeing video of our officers in riot gear, holding back what could be their own neighbors in a time of emotional turmoil.

It’s not that I didn’t care about the number of shootings before this one, or that I didn’t comb the news for more details when this happened before, but now I care even more. Now it’s not fading into the background as quickly as it would if it happened elsewhere. Now I feel more sad about a community being divided. Now I feel more aware and more responsible for what’s going on around me.

So what happens when something you’ve experienced only from a distance actually hits home?

Personally, I wonder what I can do to help alleviate the tension, to understand the two (or three or four) sides better, to be part of a solution. But what exactly does that look like?

For me, it’s trying to show compassion when discussing anything regarding race or policing. It’s listening to people who see things differently, and letting it sink in. It’s fighting the temptation to draw my own conclusions to a story five minutes after it happens. It’s owning the issue and realizing that even if I’m not directly involved, things like this still affect me and where I live.

Most of all, it’s remembering we’re all God-designed with inherent worth and loved beyond measure, no matter what our race, occupation or background may be. That alone is a good place to start, and a good thing to share with others who may not know it.

What about you? How can you help prevent this kind of tension where you live? What can you do to unify your community now—before another victim’s face, another officer’s name, becomes the new story?

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Photo credit: WSOC

After a week of shootings, finding a place for compassion

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Dallas Police Chief David Brown pauses at a prayer vigil following the deaths of five police officers. Source: NPR.org

I remember as a kid seeing my parents walk away from the TV, shaking their heads in disgust as the news droned on in the background. Now I find myself in their shoes, fed up with one tragedy after another, wanting to change the radio station or stop scrolling my news feed but unable to escape the constant feeling that we’re all waiting for the next kill.

Here’s my reaction to the past week, plus a challenge to us all.

Heartbreak

It started Tuesday morning, July 5, in Louisiana. Alton Sterling.

It continued Wednesday night in Minnesota. Philando Castile.

The next night, five Dallas police officers and a Bristol, Tennessee, mail carrier.

With one shooting after another—plus recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and France just today—my heart literally hurts.

Another vigil. More tears. Another protest. More outcry. Another picture of the deceased on a happier day. … When does the madness end?

I know the Bible verses. I know Jesus has overcome the world. I know one day every knee will bow. I know He’s for us so who can be against us? I know He wins and good triumphs in the end.

But until then, I struggle with my own emotions over it all. I’m angry. And heartbroken. And about 10% afraid I’ll go to the grocery store one day and never come back.

It’s also getting closer and closer to home. The Minnesota shooting wasn’t far from my in-laws. The one in Tennessee is near my family. I’m beginning to feel like no one is safe, no matter how you live your life.

And that’s where I think there’s something deeper to learn here.

Compassion

I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man pulled over for a traffic stop. I don’t know what it’s like to be targeted for the uniform I wear. I don’t know what it’s like to have a gun in my face because someone feels threatened.

So how can I say what I would or wouldn’t do in those situations?

I learned years ago in journalism class that we all have our biases. Our race, gender, how and where we grew up all shape our thoughts and actions.

Even so, one thing we can all do is show compassion.

I know it’s hard to sort through the noise as the media pieces together this seemingly endless, jumbled chaos, but at the most basic level, people lost their lives. Today, dozens around the country are coping with the loss of a husband or wife, son or daughter, parent or friend.

It could have been your spouse or your child or your friend.

And while it’s tempting, I don’t think this is the time to shake your head and walk away. Talking about it with people who don’t look or think like you can get you out of your own bubble and help you see more than one side. (I’ve actually done that and it’s been enlightening.)

It may be touchy at first, but if we’re too afraid to talk about these things, we certainly can’t expect them to get better.

Whatever other emotions are coursing through our veins right now, now isn’t the time to set compassion aside.

The Kid Question

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I’m 30 years old, married and don’t have kids. Shocked? You’re not alone.

Pete and I have been married 6 years now, and for the past 5 years I’ve been asked a quarter of a million times about having kids.

“Do you have kids? … Do you want kids? … Do you plan to have kids anytime soon? … When do you think you’ll have kids? … So, any plans to start a family?”

(Technically, Pete is family so I’ve already started that process. Next question.)

I expect close friends to ask about these things, and that’s perfectly fine, but often the curious party is made up of complete strangers, or at least people I don’t know well enough to discuss reproduction.

Case in point: Pete and I were at a party one time, sitting across from another couple about to welcome their first child into the world. I wasn’t even done with my tiny plate of chips before they asked The Kid Question: “Have you discussed having children?” the husband asked.

I just met you 5 minutes ago, I thought.

Plus, what if we haven’t discussed it; you’ve just put us on the spot. Or maybe we have talked about it and it’s become a point of contention. Either way, it’s an awkward position from where we’re sitting.

Once people find out we don’t have children, I can almost guarantee the next question: “How long have you been married?” Because apparently there’s an acceptable number of married years before you’re expected to procreate.

Or, if they don’t ask that, another option is the halfway sympathetic, “Oh not yet?” As if it’s a sure thing.

Occasionally, I’ll run into gutsy people who pry even further when they realize there are no children in the mix.

“Why not?” some have dared to ask bluntly.

“How long are you going to wait?” a few have wondered out loud.

Oh, you know, 10-12 years should be good. … I mean, really, what am I supposed to say here?

On the flip side, I once had someone completely drop the conversation and start talking to someone else after finding out I don’t have kids at home, even though there’s a plethora of other things we could have talked about. Sorry I couldn’t discuss breastfeeding and daycare and whether they’re sleeping through the night, I thought. Maybe I should have a kid so I’ll be fit for public chit chat.

With each passing year of marriage, the comments have gotten less lenient. At first, people were reassuring: “Well, you’ve got time. Don’t rush.”

Now people aren’t afraid to let us know that time’s a wastin’.

Just last fall, I had a friend point out that my 20s were almost over with 30 fast approaching. There’s that clock thing you know.

Really? I thought for sure I was getting younger …

A couple years ago, I actually had someone tell me I “better get on it,” and from a man no less, which pretty well ticked me off.

Are you going to birth this child and raise him and pay for him and spend time with him and rearrange your work schedule for him? I thought. No? Then kindly take your comments elsewhere.

What’s really fun is when someone skips the questions altogether and makes a straight up declaration about my future child.

“You’re next!” I’ve had women tell me at a baby shower.

Am I? That’s news to me. 

Then there are the ones who imagine me with child and tell me about it.

“Your kids will be so cute!” Or, “When you’re pregnant …”

I get that women traditionally love babies—especially when all they have to do is coo over them—but unless you have some word from God, please withhold all prophecies.

Now don’t get me wrong here; I like children. I grew up with two younger siblings and know how much fun they can be. I spent years babysitting, and I’ve volunteered to spend time with them during vacation Bible school and neighborhood events. I look forward to visits with our nephews five states away. I have lots of friends with kids and I love seeing pictures of them, hearing stories about them, holding them and playing with them. I’ve offered to watch their kids if they ever need someone.

I know they’re a blessing, I know they change you for the better, I know it’s hard but worth it. I’m not anti-kid here.

What I don’t like is the constant quizzing about our childlessness. I know people mean no harm, but frankly, it’s none of their business.

Not only that, but you never know what a couple is going through. Maybe they’ve had a hard time getting pregnant or experienced a miscarriage. Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t want kids for one reason or another. We’ve known plenty of couples in each of those situations.

I’m immensely grateful that neither set of parents has pressed the issue with us, and I’m thankful for our friends who ask us about travel, hobbies, work, church, house projects, our families, TV shows and so on.

And yes, if you really want to know, we have discussed the kid thing many times and do have an idea about the future. But that’s between me and Pete.

So, if you find yourself bursting to ask The Kid Question anytime soon, here’s another question to consider: Is it really necessary?

I’ve wondered myself about couples’ plans for kids, but I’ve also come to find that if they want you to know, they’ll tell you. And that’s a much safer place to be than drumming up any potential frustration, tears or blog posts.