Happy Sixth Birthday, Alden and Asa!

Happy sixth birthday, Alden and Asa.  This past year has been a great gift in my life as you continue to grow at exponential rates in all areas of personhood.  I am writing your annual open letter, an exercise that I still look forward to, albeit with some anxiety.  If anything, you can view these letters as a window into what is happening to a person 30 years your elder.

This year, I have a simple piece of advice for you: learn to play the piano.  Indeed, you will not have much of an option in our house.  Some parents want to make sure their child can do certain tasks, such as fire a gun or shoot a hoop.  Those are fine things, but our household is one of piano players. 

You may notice that all of our family members have pianos in their homes, and we often play and sing together at family events.  It's not like that at every home.  To this day, I still feel a little out of place in a home that does not have a piano in it.

The piano is an extraordinary machine.  It is universal and heard almost everywhere, but even this everyday sound can transport listeners.  I have never met a single person who regrets spending time learning to play, but I've met many who regret not doing so or giving up along the way.

Why is it so important?  I could point you to studies about the correlation between music making and other skills.  But I don't need to.  Over the past year, I've put together my own reason.  During that time, I have played at weddings, funerals, birthday parties, and hospice care.  And I can tell you that a simple melody and some accompanying chords mean the world to people and can help them move into and past some of the most important and memorable moments of their lives.  As tired or busy as I may be, being asked to play never gets old.  A piano player gets to be in paradigm-shifting moments for people, celebrating the joy of life and serving people in moments of great distress.

While you will learn to play the piano, I don't really care if that skill is what drives your passion and love for serving others.  What I mean to say is this: you must find the "piano" in your own life, something in you that will serve people's needs and that you are willing to give because of the simple fact that it will make a difference (even for a moment).

As always, your mother and I will guide you and help you discover what that is, bankrolling it along the way.  And while you may tire of piano lessons and practicing, in 30 years you will look back and be grateful that you could help a grieving widow remember "their song" and remember the first time she sang it to him (and he immediately fell in love with her).

Happy birthday, twins.

Happy Fourth Birthday, Arthur

To Arthur, on his fourth birthday:

My dear son, my baby boy, happy birthday.  At this moment, our family is in Savannah, Georgia.  I have a work conference that coincided with your birthday weekend, and we brought everyone along.  We've had fun, but I've been busy going back and forth.

For this year's letter, I want to share a "moment" with you.  I had one yesterday.  I was sitting in a conference room, and the room had a window open to the water.  An enormous freighter came across the window.  It moved the waters out of its way so easily, but without any violence.  It was a few minutes of single-minded devotion in my cluttered mind. 

I had another one last year.  The air was hot and sticky, and I had been outside.  When I got to the kitchen, I poured a glass of sweet tea over more ice than the cup could hold.  After giving it a minute to chill the liquid, I sipped.  At once, I was one with the universe.  The euphoria was brief, but tangible.

I also had another moment today, watching you.  We were walking back to the hotel along the riverfront.  You, Asa, and Alden took off running.  I watched as you all laughed together for a reason only you all know.  Your shorter legs fell a little behind, but you looked back at me.  With your cheeky, open-mouthed smile, you said: "You comin'?"  Again, time slowed down to a crawl.

I am going to make a better effort to write these things down.  They are the moments when life becomes both simple and singular.  They are noteworthy because the choppy sea gives way to temporary stillness.  A gift.  I hope you (and I) will learn to cherish the moment and learn to make more than either of us deserve.

I love you, and I'm comin'.  Happy birthday, son.

Happy Fifth Birthday, Alden and Asa!

Happy fifth birthday, Alden and Asa.  Over the past year, you have burst into personhood with burgeoning intellect, humor, and kindness.  You seem capable of anything at this point, and it is all very exciting.

I continue the tradition of writing you a letter every year.  As always, my first piece of advice is to adopt or ignore what I offer as you see fit.  These letters may just be the ramblings of a man pacing the cage.  But this is a meaningful exercise for me, so I’ve decided to continue this self-serving routine.

This year, I want to offer you some thoughts about disappointment.  As hard as you will fight to maintain perspective in situations, it is natural to feel let down when you fail or are failed.  Nobody knows this better than your father.  I have a strong memory of every time that I’ve failed myself and that I’ve failed others, to the extent I had the maturity to realize it. 

I think part of the challenge in dealing with disappointment is rooted in the concept of hope. I’ve come to think that hope and “hope talk” is empty and dump, for the most part. An exercise in giving a tired Vegas smile and dance when you should be shaking your fists.

Your youth, especially, may push you to a sense of unrealistic hope in the most improbable situations.  The sense of ambition that guides your drive for achievement and stable trajectories and to ignore the odds can put you out of touch with your humanity and the broken parts that need mending.  To be fair, that internal, guttural scream of the young for something/anything to just happen and continue happening tapers off over time.  And there will be moments that you miss that energy source in your life—that ability to feel that everything is capable of being fixed with enough effort.

What comes after that sound is just an echo?  I admit that this sounds like nonsense, but I have found that there are ways to give up on hope but not give up in despair.  That is, you can embrace, or at least side hug, the absence that accompanies any visit by disappointment.  You will become open to the alternatives that you would have never considered, including a growing sense of gratefulness that you are on this spinning, watered rock and that your trespass ledger is worth less than the paper it is written on. 

And then, over time, you will see that, where you wanted to see a perfect outcome, it is enough to see an imperfect circumstance perfectly.  You can find wonder and awe in the great unanswered questions.  You can see dignity in the horrible.  You can take up taxidermy without shame.

You don’t have to figure it all out.  And you certainly don’t need to figure it out before you are ready.  Until that time, when your head falls, your periwinkle blue eyes will see, when you have the strength to lift them, that your mother and father are watching over you with love, concern, humility, and grace.  We may even buy you ice cream, the greatest gift of all.

Happy birthday, twins.

Happy Third Birthday, Arthur!

To Arthur, on his third birthday:

My sweet and joyful baby boy, happy birthday.  In last year's letter, I set out three things that we had learned about you over the course of the then-previous year.  Those all remain true--particularly your physical presence (the red thread of your second year has been learning (and unlearning) "gentle hands").

This year we can add another item: you are a sensation.  Everyone you meet just loves you.  It is true.  Adults tell us all the time how much they are in love with you, and word on the preschool playground is that you are "in" with your peers and the "older kids."  Perhaps it is your low-slung cheeks that squeeze your mouth and eyes together when you grin.  Or maybe those Great Barrier Reef-blue puppy dog eyes.  That elderly statesman hair and swagger that you have going for you?  Whatever it is, people have an inclination to quickly fall in love with you.

I hope you continue to feel that but that you will respect your nature with a sense of humility and will use it for good.  There was a story over this last football season about a group of players who visited a middle school.  When they went to the cafeteria, one player spotted a redheaded autistic boy sitting by himself.  The player sat with the boy and talked with him.  A candid picture was taken of the interaction and sent to the child's mother, who posted the picture and this statement to the internet:

Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it’s nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He is a super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets. A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption “Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son” I replied “who is that?” He said “FSU football player”, then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my sons school today. I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes.

The best part about the story is that the interaction with the team continued for this boy, and the story did not end as a sentimental one-off.  It is, at its heart, a sign of respect for the dignity of another human being.

In today's ethos, there is a strange public battle across dozens of camps about who actually is the least these, who has been left out most.  Much of the discussion passes by faster than the Thousand Mile Tree.  But there are those who are truly left out on a daily basis for a thousand different non-reasons.  You will easily see them.  I did and do, and, all too often, I've done nothing or worse.

If you are so easily loved, I, your father, am charging you (and myself) with a sacred duty: to give back that which you did not earn.  I want to help you learn to do that.  It does not always come easily and often may seem to bear a cost. But you will find as you grow older that you will reap what you've sown, and I suspect you will then learn those intangible and mystical paradoxes of giving, yet receiving. Dying, yet living.  Meek, yet inheriting.  You will not just feel love, but you will inhabit love itself.  And that will be a sensation.

Happy birthday, son.

Happy Fourth Birthday, Alden and Asa

Today is your fourth birthday, and I continue the tradition of writing an open letter to you with some thoughts that you might consider when you are older.  I have written letters to Arthur as well, and you should feel free to consider (or ignore) them all.

As it stands right now, we are in the midst of a U.S. presidential election year.  Candidates have been throwing hats in the ring for some time, but the fields are beginning to narrow.  The narrative of this race involves the so-called “establishment”--the institution that maintains a status quo and tends to fatigue the populus with its stodgy, black-box, soul-grinding formalities and insider preferences.  Now, large groups of voters are looking to back so-called “outsider” candidates, who will go to Washington and shake up the establishment.  I am not sure if this electoral cycle is as special as the pundits claim, but I do know that this concept is not unique to politics.

Breaking with the establishment is a pervasive idea in almost every realm of modern life.  In business and technology, there are market “disruptors.”  These are companies that tend to ignore the longstanding formalities and the way things are so that they can build new systems that render the respective establishments as obsolete, antiquated, expensive, or a hassle.  In every aspect of life, you will find a “you’ve been doing it all wrong,” “there is a better way,” or “this and not that.”  And you will be able to replace everything in your life with something faster, less expensive, and more appealing to your lizard brain expectations.  But you must let go of the old to let in the new (whether you think you can hold onto everything or not), and questions should arise about what you are giving up in the process in light of what you gain.

Several years ago, I would have jumped on board with almost any campaign to knock off the establishment.  There is a sense of invigoration in flipping an old fuddy duddy’s table over and setting up your own based on your values and fresh ideas.  Let’s level the old section of town and build a mixed-use development!  Let’s rip out the church organ and put in a drum set!  Let’s set up a website to distribute content without any formal curation or restrictions!  You see?  There is an established way of life that can be uprooted with all sorts of decisions.  The possibilities are exciting and endless.

There is great value in asking yourself, “Why do we do things this way?”  The problem is that you have to actually work and search for the answer if the exercise is to have meaning.  I cannot tell you how many times I initially thought something was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” only to be convinced otherwise with good and truthful reasoning.  In societies and cultural institutions, there are many established ways of doing things that account for the rights and interests of various stakeholders and historical practices that give great meaning to people’s lives.  These limitations may seem ridiculous from any single person’s perspective, but they can be--and often are--carefully constructed ecosystems of compromise and vested dances of metaphors and meaning passed from one generation to the next.  

But you will also find that a lot of things people do are outright rubbish.  We are higher primates and can often continue practices out of fear and primitivity that, while were once useful for survival, actually prevent further growth and development as a person and as a species.  In entertaining new ideas and questioning the old ones--which I hope you will do--I do not want you to get so lost in the sea of information and positions that you become indecisive or inflexible.  So, I have some thoughts to help you work through what I feel are red flags for any upending (the “New”) of an establishment (the “Old”):

  1. Will the New hurt anyone unlike they have been hurt before?  Change is often necessary, but it can be very painful to those that do not expect it.  Many people rely on established institutions for paychecks and meaning in their lives.  Paradigm shifts without thought to these people’s interests can be devastating.  Even where you think that people can continue with the Old, the New often robs those relying on the Old of the critical mass needed to maintain the Old in any meaningful way.

  1. Is the New based in truth?  You should certainly ask for the data or mandate in substantiating any change.  New can often be flashy, which disguises its lack of substance or inability to become a longstanding viable option.

  1. Does the New divide you from others?  I have often found that the New robs me of diversity.  The New can become popular and appear to broaden your horizons, but you may also find that the New creates a more “vertical” social structure than the Old (which is a mangled set of compromises that accommodate and frustrate everyone).  “Vertical” in this sense means that you are creating a system where you spend more and more time with people more and more like you in more and more ways.  This diminishes the bandwidth of your perspectives.  Particularly, your mother and I are concerned that we (and you) will spend too little time with others outside of our generation.  We have precious relationships with mentors who are older--sometimes significantly older--than us.  The perspective of time is as important as any other for your understanding of yourself and your life.      
  1. Does the New elevate yourself or another person above others?  Of course, you can ask this question of the Old as well.  But you do need to think about whether the New creates a sense of humility and service or whether it is more about the royal you and how much more you can take from the system or others.  The best of the New is about a community and minimizes the trappings of the cults of personality.  We are far too quick to label a New as a “movement,” when the core of that New turns out not to be based in community and service to something more than our individual desires.  These types of New are easily cannibalized and will struggle to exist over time.

These questions, I think, will help you evaluate both the value of the Old and the proposed promise of the New.  My hope is that they will also help you find more meaning and satisfaction in the status quo.  Frustration can feed your energies for only so long and will eat away at you over time.  If you are to give yourself over to it, it must be worth it.  Injustices must be made right, and changes often take far too long.  But give yourself a break from unending frustration because it will limit your ability to enjoy the amazing things in life.

Also, I invite you to sit and think about those who have gone before you.  They did not do everything right, and they may have missed the mark entirely.  But they asked many of the same questions and looked to find meaning in their lives and their communities.  In the establishment--imperfect as it is--you can sit where they sat and inform your journey and choices.  It can be a sacred moment in your life, and you should ask many questions before you destroy your capacity to enjoy it.

For now, your mother and I are committed to teaching you and helping you understand your place in this world as it exists.  It is a place bubbling with new and exciting ideas.  It is also full of old and essential principles.  Our love for you captures the whole range. It is forever settled and will never leave you.  You can bet on it.  And we also enjoy, celebrate, and encourage your ever-developing personalities and passions.

We love you.  Happy birthday, twins.

Arthur's Second Birthday!

To Arthur, on his second birthday:

You have the fortune of being born on Groundhog Day—a “holiday” that will always coincide with your birthday.  While men in stovepipe hats ritualistically gather to read the body language of a marmot and the portent of light running across its body, we will shower you with love, gifts, memories, and songs.  Of course, whether we admit it or not, we will be making predictions about the future.

Your second birthday is full of data that are hinting at who you will become in your growing journey.  You are now about half of the height you will grow to in adulthood.  You are starting to acquire language and other skills.  Indeed, there are several things we’ve learned about you:

1.  You have a strong physical presence.  While we are working to help you learn not to push your siblings and friends down to the ground, we are also cultivating your seemingly freakish strength.  You can pick up heavy items, climb on things, and wrestle us with a legitimate chance of winning.

2.  Whatever you do, you do it headlong.  As it currently stands, you show a raw commitment to your actions by attacking them without abandon.  You have certainly hurt yourself, but you are more often pleased with yourself as you fall to the floor, off of furniture, or down the stairs with an open-mouthed grin.

3.  You have early-onset curiosity.  You do not talk as much as your brother and sister did at your age.  You are an observer.  But, when you do speak, you use sentences.  And I find that you often ask me, “What is this?”  When I provide an answer, you repeat the answer with a raised pitch and cocked eyebrow to question my response.  “What is this?”/“This is a spatula.”/“A sp[at]ula?”  With a tone as if you are not sure of the answer and/or you have a bordering-on-the-unhealthy skepticism of your father’s ability to tell you the truth.  I love it.

But whether these qualities are any indication of your future persona, we would be guessing and would probably have better accuracy if we divined it from the marmots.  We are not hurrying the process, but you will continue to change.  I do not know if there is any truly universal principle that we could look to and say that you are guaranteed to turn out “okay.”  After all, this is a world of probabilities and actuaries.  How can we put you in the best place to find honest meaning and satisfaction in your life?  Your mother and I are already thinking about this and how our seemingly small decisions can have great consequences for you and your own future.  We want to be good stewards of the portion of your lifetime with which we are charged.

In the end, though, we want you—our little baby!—to leave our proverbial nest and spread those proverbial wings (while we shed those less-than-proverbial tears).  I have been thinking and imagining the day when we sit down with you and try to impart some sort of unified theory and shove you out the door to face the world head first.  I am working on such a theory of verything, but here is the best piece that I have synthesized to date.

When presented with more opportunities and relationships than you have time to meaningfully experience or develop, ask yourself these questions in this sequence:  (1) “Where am I going?”  (2)  “Who will go with me?”  The crucial part is that you order the questions correctly; if you reverse the questions, you are creating a situation that creates a higher likelihood of trouble and heartache.

You may find that this formula works in a variety of scenarios.  For example, when you are looking to develop strong friendships, you will be wise to visit your own dreams and ideas about your life.  If your friends do not support you or push you to become better, you should cultivate other friendships that do (which will necessarily be at the sake of your relationship with your old buddies).  Not because you are a jerk and view yourself as better than others but because you want to do something with your limited time in this life, where others will desire something else.

Another example, and the most important, is how you choose a life partner.  Any pre-marital counseling or similar relationship discussion will inventory your personal desires for what you want out of your life and how you would like to share it.  It is a strange experience to discuss the big-ticket questions for the first time in a pre-marital survey when the ring is on both the finger and the credit card.  You want to have those discussions earlier in your relationship.  It is part of governing your trajectory.  Where are you going?  Is this the person who should go with you?  This is the evergreen romance; two people outloving one another towards their individual but shared dreams.

But, as the saying goes, you cannot pick your family (or your friends’ noses).  For a while, you are just along for the ride with us, but we want our family to be a launching point, where you will find and begin to tread the unique journey of your life.  If you will have us, we will go with you.

Happy birthday, son.

Happy 3rd Birthday, Alden and Asa

To my dear Alden and Asa:

Today is your third birthday.  For your previous birthdays, I’ve written you open letters (open to the extent that anyone else actually reads our family blog).  Last year, I took a multimedia approach in celebration of your life, and the letter I wrote on your first birthday still rings true to me as it churns in the desperation of the fleeting time.

As the clocks tick, Alden and Asa, you continue to grow into distinct persons with different interests, gifts, and limitations.  While I write to you together again this year, I recognize that next year’s letters must be to you individually.  For now, I want to share something that I think will be applicable to both of you as you continue to grow.

Our family has a principle that you will learn over time--that you can take back words.  That is, if you overstate your case, blubber over-generalizations, shout something ridiculous, or say something hurtful, you have the opportunity in this family to take it back.  And, no matter what was said, it is as if it was never said at all.  At least in theory.  We have this rule because of my big mouth and my never-ending ability to bombast without regard to others’ feelings or, sometimes, the facts.  Without a doubt, it is a discipline to grant such sweeping forgiveness and forgetfulness; but we have chosen to err on the side of open communication, often at the cost of our egos and the sting that our ungraceful utterances and clumsy phonations can cause.

Outside of our family proper, however, you should watch your mouth more carefully.  I hope you will be bold but responsible communicators, never forgetting that there are some things worth saying without regard to the opinions or feelings of others.  There is, however, a much larger category of words and actions that can just cut people to shreds without any meaningful benefit or purpose, and you will have done evil and harm to others in a world already saturated with this type of darkness.  But all is not lost.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have caused hurt, your first inclination may be to do “damage control” to limit your own exposure.  If you want to move from birth to death without any meaningful principles or commitment to your community, then this will be fine.  But if you want to truly learn from your mistake and experience deep growth--even a proverbial re-birth--as a person, your only “damage control” should relate to the damage you have already done.  And this is the threshold step, to get over yourself and embrace a position of humility.

It is unrealistic and unfair to expect others to forget you ever did them wrong, and there may be very real consequences as misplaced words can easily destroy the closest of relationships. But, if you are want to demonstrate love and maturity, you need to embrace the seemingly antiquated practice of confession.  It is a cord of three strands: (1) admitting to yourself that you have done wrong; (2) telling the person you have injured that you feel true sorrow that you have taken any part in such an action; and (3) asking that same person to forgive you in such a way that you can still bind yourselves to one another for the rest of brief time that you still have to share on this planet.

You may not be forgiven, and there is nothing you can do in that situation but to cling to the sorrow for your actions and the fractures that they brought to a relationship.  But you may be lucky enough to come out in an even stronger communion with others because you have exposed your own real brokenness and vulnerability.  And that payoff is worth the cost of your exposure in a position of weakness.

My birthday present to you in this letter is my commitment to raise you in an environment where we allow you to practice confession and repentance knowing that you will experience forgiveness and reconciliation.  That our bond and experiences together will not be easily torn by words that we never really meant outside of a brief moment of frustration. That is the heart of the "take it back" principle. And my hope is that your mother and I will model this for you in a way that you can see the resiliency of the human spirit and that its capacity for forgiveness is a light in the darkness that could so easily overcome us.

Happy birthday, twins.  We love you, and, as long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it.