Thank you for “Lib Strong”

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and at least one mother spent the day preparing a memorial service for her daughter. A full of life 3-year old who had battled cancer for over a year left this world last week. But let me be clear, Libby Jones left this world having made a genuine difference. Paraphrasing something I said in the homily for my infant son 23 years ago, Libby did more good in her too short life, than most of us do in many decades on earth.

In a sad, but triumphant service yesterday, the tributes to Libby painted a picture of a little girl filled with joy and talent. She was a mischievous sweetheart with an infectious personality that drew people irresistibly into her circle of love. The City of Charlotte has “Lib Strong” signs, shirts and bumper stickers everywhere. Thousands followed Libby’s story on the Caring Bridge website.

During the service one family friend described how Libby used to deal with life’s little challenges using the phrase: “That’s why God made _______.” Spill some milk? “That’s why God made paper towels.” A toy needs to be fixed? “That’s why God made Daddies.” There is a stain on your shirt? “That is why God made washing machines.”

What struck me profoundly, however, and will stay with me forever, was hearing all of the reasons why God made Libby. I do not have a transcript of the remarks from the service, and the words were so beautiful that I don’t want to try to recreate them from memory. But the essence of the message is something for all of us to contemplate.

Many of the things I have written over the years have been focused on finding ones life’s purpose and fulfilling our intended role on this planet. The Universe works. As imperfect as it may be, the earth moves around the sun like clockwork. The air provides oxygen that allows us to breathe. A complex mass of cells form to create bodies and brains….people are born and people die.

I believe that this Universe has a spiritual thread running through it that ties us all together. No, we are not here by accident. We all have a purpose. As an observer of people, it seems clear to me that the purpose for most, perhaps, all of us, is to care for those who need care, to educate and inspire those who wish to learn and grow, to create jobs, to create art. To generally lift people up, however they may need it at a particular moment, may be our greatest purpose.

As I listened to the many beautiful reasons why God made Libby, I couldn’t help thinking about why God made me…..Stephen Covey says we should begin with the end in mind. And while I pray that my work isn’t done yet, someday it will be. I can only hope that when that time comes someone will be able to find examples of where I cared for those who needed care, educated and inspired those who wished to learn and grow, created jobs, created art and generally lifted people up.

Libby’s father, Josh, reminded us that our priorities should be family, friends and faith. That is a beautiful perspective that I will always carry with me. Thanks to Libby, I am forever changed and will always be grateful for the reboot that she inspired in my life. I guess that is just one more reason why God made Libby.

’tis the season

I wrote another Holiday Letter this year. For the past two years my son and daughter composed the missive. Ever since I put a collection of Holiday Letters in my book, My Father’s Writings, I felt less compelled to write a new one. But this year was different. I had written down a couple of quotes that I ran across during the year, with the idea of writing a Holiday Letter around them. Then I realized that what I have always done at Christmas time, and what I was setting out to do again this year, was really to write a blog, not a Holiday Letter. In looking back over almost 20 years of letters, it is clear now that I was essentially writing an annual print blog before the word “blog” was a part of our vocabulary.

Writing holiday commentary around Karlfried Graf Durckheim’s words isn’t too much of a stretch for a Holiday Letter: “Thus, the first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of.” Indeed, one could argue that Gift of the Magi, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, the candles of Chanukah and the magic of Santa Claus all fit within the context of this quote. But rather than expand on that theme for a Holiday Letter, I went with a brief family update, and one simple message for this season. I hope you find some meaning in it.
SONY DSC
Holiday Letter ‘13

This year we have learned that life is what happens while we make other plans. Just a year ago it was all so different; Craig was broadcasting baseball in Mobile, Alabama, Paige was enjoying the creativity and love of The Cambridge School of Weston, and I was commuting to Richmond, Virginia every week. Now, Craig is broadcasting and writing for mlb.com in Melbourne, Australia, Paige is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and I have started a new job at a great firm with a Boston office.

Many of you have children off on their own unexpected adventures, so you know that we can only prepare them, we can’t control them! Just heard last night that Craig is trying his hand at broadcasting for the Melbourne Ice of the Australian Woman’s Ice Hockey League. Paige is playing Ultimate Frisbee, and had tournaments this fall in Virginia and Georgia. Reid, well he is just being Reid, now a 23-year old young man who still exhibits the innocence of a child. Karen has made it her newest project to find a great group home for him that will allow him to live as independently as possible in future years. One of this year’s highlights was celebrating my Dad’s 80th birthday with family and friends – it’s wonderful to see him so happy and healthy.

One of my favorite times each week is when a young man arrives at the Sunday morning church service pushing an older man in a wheelchair. The connection between the two is palpable; one is the caretaker, the other, the-cared-for. The man in the wheelchair has special needs – not unlike Reid, so I am sure we have a soft spot for the situation. I was scribbling some notes for this letter in church last Sunday when they arrived. Moments later the caretaker ascended the steps to the pulpit and, for the first time in my experience, did a reading. As someone who believes that there is no such thing as coincidence, it did not surprise me that the subject of his reading was just what I needed for inspiration.

He read a passage in which John told a crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” and the people asked him “what then should we do?” In reply John said: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” That really makes it all sound so simple. And it is.

I can think of just three times in my life when I actually felt the physical experience of being weightless – like I was actually floating a bit. One was when I handed out $50 bills at a store a few days before Christmas, another was when Craig and I delivered Christmas presents to children whose parents were incarcerated, and the third was when Karen and I joined a group from our church to serve dinner to 75 homeless men at a shelter in Boston. In each case my heart was racing, my smile was uncontrollable and I found myself a little short of breath. The exhilaration was scary good…..all of these experiences had one thing in common – giving without any expectation of return.

We have all heard the phrase “higher than a kite,” which is typically used to describe someone who has taken drugs or had too much to drink. Yet, I cannot imagine anything approaching the ‘high’ that comes from selfless acts of giving. Let us all be lifted above soaring kites this holiday season, and fill the coming year with random acts of kindness and exhibitions of unconditional love.

Thank Heaven For Little Girls

My daughter came home from college this past Sunday. No, not a college she is attending, but a college she visited for a couple of days to hang around with one of her friends. This is the third time she has spent a weekend at the school, and I am convinced that it is Nature’s way of preparing me for the inevitable – for the reality – that my little girl will actually be going to college this year. Of course, she is not my “little girl” any more, but the dads out there who have teenage daughters know exactly what I mean.

Having grown up in a family with all brothers, I could only imagine what it might be like to have a sister. And after being the father of only boys for many years, I didn’t think I would ever get to know the joy (or challenges) of having a daughter. But, as is always the case, a higher power moved the pieces around the game board, and I found myself holding a precious baby girl in my arms about 17 years ago.

090The most unexpected part of the having-a-daughter experience is witnessing the amazing bond between a mother and a daughter. Frankly, as a father you feel pretty much superfluous from the time your daughter is 13 until she is 17. But it is probably worth it just to see how connected and supportive a mother and daughter are to each other. While my mere existence seemed annoying to my suddenly-not-so little girl, she and her mom really seemed to understand each other during those formative years. This worked in part, I am sure, because my wife is a terrific mom. Partly, though, I also want to attribute their great connection to genes, and natural selection, and other things outside of my control – that way I am less inclined to feel like a failure as a father…..

But as my daughter really grows up, it warms my heart to think of all of the joy she has brought to my life; and it makes me wonder if I have told her that enough. Maybe there should be guidelines for dads who raise girls. Truisms like this come to mind:

• You can’t tell your daughter enough how proud you are to be her father

• You can’t thank her enough for the compassion she shows for the people around her

• You can’t thank her enough for appreciating her mother

• You can’t thank her enough for letting you hang around with her now and then

• You can’t thank your daughter enough for being born in to your world

A few weeks ago I mentioned that if we do the same things that lawyers should do to have better relationships with their clients, we will have better relationships, generally. Similarly, we can apply many of these same expressions of gratitude to other people in our lives — not just our daughters. (Thanks for the reminder, Brad.)

We were thrilled this week to learn that our daughter got admitted to her college of first choice. It is not nearby, and there aren’t even direct flights to the city in which it is located; but it is a great school and I think it is a great fit for her. I guess it is starting to hit me. When we leave her at school for the first time the outpouring of emotion will be overwhelming. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done when I left my oldest son at college. This next one is unfathomable to me!

In the Homily at my other son’s memorial service I talked about how risky it is to love children so much because of the potential to be hurt. I wondered aloud whether the unbelievable joy that children brought to us was worth the potential pain that we could suffer as parents.
I was thinking of how devastated I would be if one of my children so much as broke a toe; I was thinking of friends who had experienced the loss of a child or faced some frightening childhood ailments – and, of course, I was thinking that my new twin boys, at the time, were not completely out of danger.

When I expressed those concerns to my wife she looked at me in her ever-perfect way and said: “The only way to avoid the pain you fear is to never really love anyone absolutely and unconditionally.” Then it all seemed so simple to me. The greater our love for someone, the greater the pain we feel when we miss them or if something unfortunate happens. But pain born of Great Love is not the kind of pain we should seek to avoid. ‘Having a girl’ has been a universally more amazing and loving experience than I ever could have imagined, and I need to welcome the pain of watching her grow up.

My little girl came home from college this past Sunday, but the real journey is just beginning.

I Find Pennies

I suppose I had heard the phrase “pennies from Heaven” from time-to-time, but I never really thought much about. Then, about 20 years ago, I was participating in a support group for parents of children who had died. One of the parents, whose teenage son had died unexpectedly, shared a story that has forever changed my life. She said that despite having cleaned her son’s room carefully, she kept finding pennies months after he had died. She talked fondly about how he liked to “flip” pennies, and it made all of us smile.

A week later, on what would have been my son Corey’s 10th birthday, I was in my office in NY when I received an email from a college friend whose young son had beat the odds and recovered miraculously from a near drowning. After sharing my support and loving thoughts in an exchange of emails, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but think that Corey didn’t even make it to his 3-month birthday.

pennyI was getting upset in my office, so I decided to take a walk outside to get my composure. Now you must understand that I was working in a part of New York that looked like the opening credits of the TV show NYPD Blue. It was not the glamorous midtown location people often identify with New York. So I went out the back door of the building into the somewhat desolate streets, where I knew I would not see anyone I knew. I could just be with my sadness. I was missing Corey, feeling his loss and experiencing emotions I had not felt in years. As I walked and cried I found myself next to a construction site. There were no workers around, and no one else in sight. Alone in this alley of debris, I saw a penny lying on the ground in the loose dirt. I literally began to laugh out loud. I smiled like I had not smiled in a long time. I knew right then and there that this was a message; I believed that Corey was just fine. “… though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me….” It was so real and so powerful. I was renewed. “He restoreth my soul.”

I have found hundreds of pennies in the strangest places in the decade since that first penny appeared in my life. They have appeared in seriously improbably places. I always pick them up and put them in a container. My friend Meg said her father called found coins “specials.” These pennies are indeed my specials.

This past year I reconnected with one of my most enlightened friends, and what do I find on her blog? The words: “I find pennies.” (annegallagher8.wordpress.com) She went on to say, “I’ve been reluctant to share this because it seems sometimes pedantic, and I haven’t quite figured out why I find them.” She talked to a friend about it who said, “I never find pennies except when I am with you. You find them all the time. I never do.” Soon after raising the issue, Anne and her friend were walking out of Anne’s office and there was a penny. “Where did that come from?” her friend asked. “I just walked through here and there was no penny.” Anne just picked it up and smiled. In her blog Anne said, “I’m not quite sure what they mean, but I think they are a sign of some sort. I interpret them to be signs, telling me to continue on with things I am not always comfortable with. I find pennies and they encourage me though I’m not sure why.” Without ever having discussed it with Anne, the message in finding pennies is pretty much the same for me. When I see them – in the aisles of airplanes, on beaches, or under railings on porches, balconies and docks….I always smile. To me, it means I am right where I am supposed to be. It’s just a reminder that everything is alright, no matter how challenging life feels at the time. I will ask you what Anne asked her readers: Do you find pennies? Do you find anything? What do they mean to you?

Common Sense Isn’t Always Common

I wrote a book for lawyers several years ago called The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering. The point of the book is that clients do not judge lawyers based on how smart they are, but on how the lawyers treat them. Is the lawyer a good listener who tries to understand what keeps the client awake at night? Does the lawyer solve problems and care as much about the client’s success as her own?  Does the lawyer have empathy and compassion for the client?  These sound a lot like attitudes we should be bringing to all of our relationships—with our family members, business colleagues and friends.  I have been told that my book is really just a book of common sense; but so much of what matters in the world probably falls into the category of common sense. As my friend Peter likes to say, “it may be common sense, but it’s not common.”

To regularly be reminded of these priorities, I fill my iPod with lots of stuff that makes my wife and children roll their eyes…Martina McBride (“In My Daughter’s Eyes”); Elton John (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”); Barbara Streisand (“At the Same Time”); John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”); and even The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (“I’m Not Afraid”). There are some breathing exercises mixed in with the songs on playlists, and even some poetry by David Whyte,  which always seems to speak to me. It all just works together to remind me of what is important. But in the end I am moved most by a wonderful old hymn that says: “Let There Be Peace On Earth and Let it Begin with Me.”

JIM profile picI am reminded of a passage from a life-changing book that many of you may have read, Embraced By the Light.  Upon returning from a near-death experience, the author’s message from the other side of life was that unequivocal love brings incredible peace and happiness.

“I saw a loving Being …[who] has invested us with God-like qualities, such as the power of imagination and creation, free will, intelligence, and most of all, the power to love.  I understood that he actually wants us to draw on the powers of heaven, and that by believing that we are capable of doing so, we can.”  Regardless of your religious views, it’s hard not to say “amen” right there.

Gratitude is . . .

In a response to my post last week, Julie Fleming, whose writing I truly enjoy, told me she found great satisfaction – even a little magic – writing hand-written “thank you” notes. She, like I, was inspired by John Kralik’s book: A Simple Act of Gratitude. (You can read Julie’s blog at http://www.lexinnovablog.com)

Gratitude seems like such a simple concept.

    1. grat·i·tude

/ˈgratəˌt(y)o͞od/

Noun

The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Much is written about ways in which we should practice gratitude. For some reason, though, I have resisted practicing gratitude formally by following the recommended rituals. That may seem a little odd in the face of overwhelming evidence that keeping a so-called ‘Gratitude Journal’ makes us happier. Yet, I have not been able to discipline myself to do that, or to do anything else that is recommended by those who have studied the phenomenon.

One writer suggested that we should cultivate gratitude by taking a moment during each meal to tell those gathered what we are thankful for – not just during the Thanksgiving meal, but always. (It could lead to surprises, though, as I remember one Thanksgiving dinner at which our special son, Reid, said he was most thankful for Oprah and Wheel of Fortune.)

snowman12No doubt we can think of gratitude for things in general like health, jobs, hopes and dreams. And to your daughter you might say something like “because of you, I had a blast building the first snowman of the season.” To your wife you might say “because of you, I return home with joy from every business trip.” To your child you might say “because of you, I continually experience the joy of youth and seeking.” To your friends you might say “because of you, I never feel alone.”

Gratitude should be a big part of the season that features a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. What might people in your life say to you? It is important to look at how the world would be different if you had not been here. In a holiday letter many years ago I wrote that we might explore gratitude by using the phase “because of you.”  With this in mind you might hear from those around you: Because of you, I felt love in one of my darkest moments. Because of you, we raised important funds for our charity. Because of you, my child learned to play sports with values and perspective. Because of you, I got to attend the greatest sporting event ever. Because of you I learned how to …….  If we think about all of the people we have supported, and all whom we have coached, and all whom we have led to new ideas, then we should be able to show some real gratitude to ourselves. Let’s remember to be kind and loving to the one person that can do the most for others in this New Year.

In Samuel Johnson’s novel, Rasselas, the main character lives in a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of—food, music and entertainment are bountiful…everything is perfect, except that he can never leave. Believing there has to be more, Rasselas, finds a way to escape into the real world on an adventure that he dreamed about his whole life — a search for true happiness. What he finds is that people are always looking for happiness outside of themselves, when it is, in fact. always found on the inside. I saw a poster on the StoryPeople website in which a character is carrying a box “filled with things everyone else thinks you should have done.” The caption says: “This box only weighs a lot if you have forgotten to do the stuff you wanted to do all along.” I hope we can all do the stuff we REALLY want to do in 2013, and I hope it includes staying connected to those we love—because we need each other now, more than ever.