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Happy Birthday Billy Coffey!


On March 24, 2009, I was reading my friend Jason’s blog when I noticed a comment from someone named Billy Coffey. I had seen his blog on Jason’s sidebar before, but never clicked over there. I have enough trouble keeping up the blogs on MY sidebar, let alone everyone else’s. But for whatever reason, I clicked over there. What I found was an incredible, wonderful story about a wise grandmother who taught a very profound truth to her grandson using a fruit salad as an object lesson. Like so many of you reading this, I was completely hooked. To show my appreciation for the writer’s talent, I left the following comment:

“Your grandmother was a very wise woman, indeed.
And you dropped the “f” bomb on her? Jerk!
Just kidding — that was a great post! Glad I found my way over here!”

And that, my friends was the start of a beautiful friendship. I’m still a little overwhelmed that Billy agreed to guest post for me not only once, but every single Monday. Someday soon when he’s a bonafide published author, he probably won’t have time to write for this silly little blog. But knowing him, I’ll have to refuse to post anything from him. Because he would rather wear himself ragged then let down a friend. As impressed as I am with his stories, I’m more impressed with the storyteller. And I’m proud to call him a friend.

Happy Birthday, Billy. May you get everything you wish for this year.

Breathing in, breathing out, and moving on

I took my first breath around 5:30 am thirty-seven years ago today.

Birthdays have a meaning that no other day can hold, even Christmas. Because it’s all about you. Sharing is neither required nor expected. It’s the one day when you can get away with most anything.

When you get older, though, birthdays develop a deeper meaning. Or even no meaning at all. I know a lot of people who refuse to celebrate their birthday, as if that is enough to halt the hands of time. I doubt I’ll ever reach that point, though. I don’t mind growing older. Just as long as I grow wiser, too.

If I’ve done my math right (and I never do), I figure I’ve taken approximately 194,471,999 breaths since that first one. That’s a lot of inhale/exhale. A lot of time. Age has never really mattered to me. I’ve known elderly people who were more alive than teens, and teens who were already half dead from the ravages of life. The important thing is that you spend your time wisely, that your heart grows along with your body. We each get the same amount of hours in our day. What separates the blessed from the cursed is what we do with them.

There are certain times of the year that lend themselves to reflection. Christmas has always been one of those times for me, though I’m not sure why. And New Years, of course. But even more so than those is my birthday. July 6 has always been a marker along the way for me, a chance to pull over and take a look not at the road ahead, but behind. If only to see how far you’ve really come.

How far I’ve come down that road isn’t really a matter of distance, of steps. It’s all about what you’ve learned along the way. Which is why every year on this day I’ll walk upstairs to my writing table, pick up a pen and a sheet of paper, and write down what I’ve learned thus far.

It changes, this manifesto of Billy Coffey. It evolves and contracts along with my level of experience in life. Some things I thought were true once turn out not to be true at all, and vice versa. Life is a process, not a set of steps with a definite beginning and end. You don’t often get from point A to point C via point B. Nothing’s that easy. Walking through this world is a little more roundabout than that. Sometimes you can get turned around and lost. And then, hopefully, found again.

I’ve done a lot of inhaling and exhaling over the past twelve months. This was a year of finding. The year I started blogging and easing out of my shell. The year I found myself again. And I pray the next year will bring much more of that.

So here it is, for better or worse, my latest manifesto. What I learned in the last year:

_____________
I learned there is a power in words that is overwhelming, one that is able to both lift up and knock down, inspire and doubt. I learned that strangers thousands of miles apart can form bonds of friendship that are both unbreakable and deep.

I learned that the darkness in your life is made bearable by finding the courage to share it with others, and that with much prayer comes much protection.

I learned that my children aren’t here for me to teach them how to live as much as they are here to teach me.

I learned that truth really is stranger than fiction, which is why life is so much worth the living.

I learned that love covers a multitude of sins.

I learned that a penthouse in a big city could never offer the peace of a front porch in a small town.

I learned that lofty dreams and great expectations are best achieved by the hands of God rather than my own.

And finally, I learned that hope is stronger than doubt, faith shines brighter than fear, and that sometimes our hearts must be broken just so they can be made bigger.

What will I learn over the next few months? Who knows. But katdish was kind enough to let me post one of my favorite songs below, and I know this. Regardless, I’m going to enjoy my trip around the sun.

Fighting the Old Man (by Billy Coffey)

To me, he is simply known as the Old Man. I don’t know his name, and I don’t think I care to. Old Man is enough.

I’ve known him for nineteen years now, and he knows me. Knows me well. When and where we meet always seems to be his prerogative. He is always dressed the same—dapper pinstriped suit with a red handkerchief, black bowler hat, immaculately shined shoes, and a cane. And I am always wearing the same expression: horror.

The Old Man is my nightmare.

He arrived one night shortly after my near suicide, sitting on a park bench in my dream. He motioned me over to sit down, gently patting the section of wood beside him. I did. He offered me a deal: come with him, and all would be well. Don’t, and…well, he said, “The consequences will be unfortunate.”

I was convinced of that when he turned to face me and a worm fell out of his left eye. It wriggled onto my hand and then in, slowly crawling up my arm and into my chest, boring its way into my heart.

I woke up screaming.

He arrived again two weeks later wanting my answer: stay or go? I stayed. By the time he was finished with me, I wished I had chosen otherwise.

And that’s the way it’s been since. Not every night, sometimes not even every month. But for nineteen years now he has come for me at his whim in his pinstriped suit and bowler hat and cane, each time asking me different variations of the same theme:

Ready to go yet?

I thought at first he was the product of an overactive mind. Or too many Stephen King books. But when I wake up screaming and incoherent and then force myself to stay awake for days because I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep and never wake up, I’m not sure neither my imagination nor Stephen King’s is at fault. I’m not sure at all.

He’s tenacious, the Old Man. Smart. Knows just what to do to hurt me the most and has no qualms about doing it.

I suppose whether he’s a demon or a psychological manifestation of my vast emotional baggage depends upon whether you ascribe to God or Freud. I’ll leave that to you.

Me, I know this: there is an unseen war waged daily around us between light and dark, life and death. The world of the spirit may be hidden from human eyes, but we are all laid naked before it. I once gave this little thought. Denied it, even. But no more. Now I know better.

I’ve always suspected that the devil gets too much credit for the terrors of this world. It’s always easier to blame his wickedness than our own. Make no mistake, though—there is evil beyond this world. Darkness. I’ve seen it.

That’s why there will be nights of endless coffee. Why the upstairs light of my workout room will be on at three in the morning because I’m doing pull ups. Why I can quote movies like Grease 2, films so horrible they are banished to the wee hours.

Because I must stay awake. Because if I close my eyes he may be there. Waiting, smiling, asking if I’m ready to go yet.

My fear? That one day I’ll say yes. That soon I’ll tire of the fighting and the beating and the temptation, and I’ll walk away with him. You become willing to do most anything to find rest, even if it’s rest in shadows.

Ready to go yet?

That’s what he wants to know.

Ready to surrender? To lay down faith and hope? Are you ready to quit wanting to stand and fight, to rid yourself of the notion that you must keep going when you just don’t have to? Are you ready to stop seeking the light and instead enjoy the darkness?

Are you ready to go yet?

So far, that answer has been no. I’m not ready to go. There are people and things in my life worth the fight, worth the beatings.

I stand and fight and keep going not because I want to, but because I must. Because the darkness in my life makes the light in it shine brighter.

So today, I ask you this: Anchor your faith in the deep harbor. Set your eyes on truth. Seek God. Love. Laugh. Believe. And always, always hope.

Because in some ways, the Old Man is after us all.

“My true desire is to relieve others of their pain though I myself may fall into hell.”
–Bassui

The Bench, Part 2 of 2 (by Billy Coffey)

In case you missed Part One of this story, you can find it here: The Bench, Part 1 of 2.

And now for the eagerly awaited conclusion to the story:

I smiled, satisfied that I had answered her questions and fulfilled my duty. I could send her off to her father now and have my bench to myself.

But Jordan wasn’t finished.

“Where are your wings?” she asked.

“In my pocket,” I answered.

“Can I see them?”

“No.”

“Are Adam and Eve sorry?”

“Yes, and God forgave them.”

“Is Jonah afraid of fish?”

“Not anymore.”

“How old is God?”

“Really, really old.”

“Does He have dreams when He sleeps?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because God doesn’t sleep.”

“God doesn’t sleep?”

“No.”

“Not ever?”

“Not ever.”

“Why?”

“Because He’s busy watching over you.”

“Why does He watch over me?”

“Because God loves you and He wants to keep you safe.”

“Then why did He let my mommy die?”

My mouth, open and ready to fire off another automatic answer, suddenly became very dry.

“What?”

Jordan looked up to me then, her legs still. Tears began to pool in her little eyes. “I said if God loves me and wants to keep me safe, then why did He let my mommy die?”

She sniffled, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a tissue. She swiped at the tears trickling down her cheeks and waited for an answer. I had none. This was not a child’s question. This was an adult question. Serious stuff.

Why? It was a question I still asked myself, and often. A question I still often asked God, too.

Why does the world have to be so bad? Why do the innocent have to suffer? Why must good people have nothing and bad people have everything and why does it have to be that way? And now I could add another to the list: why would God take a mother away from her little girl?

Because bad things happened in this life, and to everyone. That was the easy answer. The world was a hard place. No one lived happily ever after. And no matter how wise we became, we would always leave with more questions than answers.

But how could I tell Jordan that?

My lips moved, but no words came. I knew this was one of those moments in Jordan’s life where she found herself at a fork in the road. One path led to healing. The other led to bitterness. And whatever I said next may well be the very words that pushed down either the one or the other.

I had gotten into this situation out of the goodness of my heart. I had no ill intentions, only concern. But this, this was too much for me. I couldn’t lie anymore. It was time to tell Jordan the truth. I owed her that much.

“Jordan?” I said.

She sniffled and wiped her nose. “What?”

“I’m not an angel.” I spat the words out as quickly as I could and readied myself for what would happen next. Tears, of course. Maybe a tantrum. Both of which would be completely justified.

But there was only silence. Finally, Jordan said, “I thought maybe you weren’t.”

“You did?” I asked.

She pointed to my hat. “Daddy says God hates the Yankees.”

I chuckled. She managed a weak grin, and then her steadfast countenance crumbled in a fit of tears. I wrapped my arms around her and she huddled into the crook of my shoulder and gently rocked her as she sobbed.

We sat for a long while on the bench, our bench, and looked out over the river. The ducks arrived, and we both took turns tossing bits of bread to them as they quacked and fought for each chunk.

I told Jordan that I didn’t know why God took her mother away, but that He must have had a very good reason, because He always does, and one day she would find out. “In the meantime,” I said, “your mom still loves you and she’s in a good place. The best place.”

When all the bread was gone and the ducks had waddled off, Jordan said it was time for her to be going. She thanked me, gave me another hug, and assured me that she felt better. I knew she didn’t. But I also knew that one day she would. I watched her walk toward the bridge that led across the river and to the soccer field and the houses beyond.

“See ya,” she said from the bridge.

“See ya.”

And she was gone.

I remained there for a long while, watching the river flow by. Jordan and I had a lot in common, I decided. Both of us were sitting in a big, dark room full of questions. Right in front of us was a window, and streaming through that window was the light of truth, all the answers to all the questions we could ever ask. But over that window was the shade of time, drawn tight.

As we both grew, learning and living more, that shade would ease up a little here and there and shed some light on the things that bother us so. We both want that shade out of the way. We want to see the whole view from that window, the whole truth. But, you see, if that shade were pulled up all at once, and all the truth shone through in an instant, we would be blinded by the light.

One day, I expect I will see Jordan again. Perhaps along some street paved in gold, beside a crystal sea. She will introduce me to her mother and I will thank her for bringing such a beautiful girl into the world.

And then Jordan and I will sit down on a bench and share all the answers we know, and we will laugh.

To read more from Billy Coffey, please visit him at What I Learned Today

The Bench, Part 1 of 2 (by Billy Coffey)

Billy Coffey submitted this story to me awhile back. While it is longer than a typical blog post, I honestly think it’s one of the best things I’ve read from him – and I’ve read quite a bit – an entire unpublished book, actually. (Jealous much?) Anyway, I decided this was too good to pass up, so I have decided to post the first half of the story today, and the conclusion next Monday.

It was not merely a bench, it was my bench, and someone else was sitting in it. Someone whom I was sure did not appreciate my bench as much as I did, and surely could not. The bench, my bench, was in the park in nearby Waynesboro. It was in a particularly peaceful spot along the banks of the South River, where the water became tired of flowing fast and shallow and decided it would be better to go along slow and deep.

The grove of pines that surrounded my bench offered little in the way of shade but plenty in the way of privacy. It was not a new bench, nor was it particularly well made. The seat held a perpetual dampness due to the rotting wood, and whenever I sat I had to be mindful of the rusty nails that jutted up from the surface. When the city decided to fix up the park a few years ago, my bench was overlooked. No fresh paint, no new nails, no sturdy seat. I supposed they simply forgot it was there. Which to me meant that the bench really was mine, as I was the only one who would have it.

I went to the park that morning a few weeks ago with no serious business to tend to other than to enjoy a respite from the demands of everyday life. I timed my arrival just after the morning joggers had left and just before the lunchtime picnickers arrived. I never liked going to my bench with people around. They might see me and wonder where I was going, and they might get nosy enough to follow. As planned, the parking lot was empty by ten o’clock. Satisfied that no one was about, I grabbed my hat and a loaf of bread for the ducks and started out.

As I neared the grove of pines that hid my bench, however, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t alone at all. Amid the idyllic sounds of crunches and quacks and chirps I heard someone humming from the far side of the trees. I stopped for a moment to listen, then crept forward and peeked through the limbs.That was when I saw that someone was sitting on the bench. My bench.A little girl, blonde haired and skinny. Her feet swung back and forth beneath the rotting wood of the seat in an awkward cadence as she continued to hum an indecipherable tune, pausing only to take a breath to blow bubbles with her gum. I eased away, wondering where her parents were. No one else was around.

I decided that patience would be the best way to handle the situation. I would bypass my bench temporarily, stroll down to the picnic pavilion, and wait for her to leave. No child can sit in one place for more than ten minutes unless it’s in front of a television. So I slung my loaf of bread over my shoulder, took two steps, and landed on a large and noisy twig.

She wheeled around in mid-bubble, her long hair following close behind. Her legs froze in a scissor, and she greeted me with a strange combination of shock and amazement.

Then she smiled. A big, toothy, Christmas morning smile. I smiled back. She raised the fingers of the hand the gripped the back of my bench and waved. I waved.

And then she screamed.“I knew you’d come!” she yelled, her voice cracking with excitement. “I knew it I KNEW it!”

“Pardon me?” I asked.

She turned fully around and raised up on the back of my bench. Her smile grew wider. My eyebrows furrowed more.

“I knew you’d come,” she whispered.

“How did you know I would come?” I asked.

Because,” she announced, as if that one word would make everything clear.

“Because why?” I persisted.

“Because that’s how it works,” she answered, raising the palms of her hands in a how-do-I-know gesture.

“Because that’s how what works?” I asked, thinking that this was beginning to sound a lot like an Abbot and Costello routine.

“Prayin’,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

She took a deep breath and exhaled like a frustrated parent trying to explain the plainly obvious to a child. “Last night I prayed that God would send an angel to me at the park, so I came here to wait.” She paused, then leaned farther over the back of my bench. “You are an angel, right?”

My first reaction was to laugh, and I almost did. But then I saw the expression on her face had turned from joy to disappointment. Something was obviously wrong with this child, and laughing at something she said wouldn’t be very appropriate. Or helpful.

“Does your daddy know you’re here?” I asked.

“No.”

“Don’t you think he’s worried about you?”

“I told him I was going to a friend’s house,” she answered, slowly chewing her bubblegum. Watermelon, by the smell of it.

“How long have you been sitting here?” I asked.

“All morning,” she said.

“How long were you going to wait?”

“Until you came.” Then, “You are an angel…right?”

I looked around again and still found no one in the park, not even a police officer I could pawn her off on. I gazed into her innocent eyes. They gazed back.

“Of course I’m an angel,” I said.

“I knew it!” she sighed. “I’m sorry I kinda doubted.”

“That’s okay,” I said, moving to my bench and sitting beside her, “I get it all the time. My name’s Billy.”

“I’m Jordan,” she smiled. “Guess you already knew that, huh?”

“Sure,” I answered, though I was beginning to feel as though I had just taken the first steps upon what was surely one of the straightest roads to hell.

“Want some gum?” she asked, holding out a half-chewed package.

“Sure. Thanks.”

“What’s that for?” she pointed.

I looked down to the loaf of bread on my lap. “God wanted me to feed the ducks while I was here,” I said, suddenly very uncomfortable at how well and how easily I could lie.

“Where’d you get it?” she asked.

“I brought it with me.”

“From heaven?”

“Yes.”“You mean,” she said, eyes bulging, “Jesus made that bread?”

I looked down at the bread again. Fittingly, the big red letters spelled out WONDER.

“Absolutely,” I answered.

Jordan began to swing her feet back and forth again, studying me. “Are you sure you’re an angel?”

“You don’t think I am?” I asked.

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I don’t know.”

We sat in awkward silence for a few moments and watched a family of ducks that waddled nearby. Finally, she asked, “Do you know why I prayed for God to send you down here?”

“Well,” I said, not sure what to say next, “God didn’t get real detailed. He just told me I needed to come see you.”

Jordan gave a satisfied nod, blew another bubble, then asked, “Are angels smart?”

“Sure they are,” I said. Then, catching myself, I added, “We, I mean. Sure we are.”

“So if I asked you some questions, you would know stuff?”

“Shoot,” I said.

Jordan looked down, as if embarrassed by what she was going to say. “Well, I guess I just want to know what heaven’s like.”

The question took me by surprise. Heaven? All I could think of was the streets-of-gold, mansion-in-the-sky description. That may not appeal to a person of her age. But what else could I say? That heaven is where God lives? True, but not very descriptive. That heaven is paradise? That sounded a little better, but what is paradise to a kid?

“It’s sorta like every day is Saturday,” I said.

Jordan offered a small giggle and nodded. “Good,” she answered.

(to be continued next Monday)

Visit Billy at What I Learned Today.

In Praise of the Inbred Hick (by Billy Coffey)

There are better things to be called than “an inbred hick,” and I had been called worse by many, but I had to admire the originality. And I wasn’t mad. The phrase was uttered with a sense of good-natured mockery common among friends in general and mine specifically. Especially the one who was not only a liberal, but also a Red Sox fan. I never said my friends were perfect.

This friend’s name? Dan. A truly brilliant man despite the fact I would never admit it to his face. Chair of the Asian Studies department at the college. Prolific author and lecturer. World traveler. Highbrow. All of which paints a pretty stark contrast to me. My only chair is the one in the living room, I am prolific only at spitting and shooting a bow, most of my travels are on dirt roads, and I am the very definition of lowbrow.

We have our differences, to be sure. And whenever we happen to bump into each other, we spend most of our time arguing over whose differences are right.

Like yesterday, for instance.

Dan brought me a souvenir from his latest trip to Japan—a fan with “Hanshin Tigers” printed on the front, along with a pretty ferocious looking cat.

“You should go with me one time,” he said after recapping his adventures. “Japanese baseball is great, and the Tigers have a good team this year. You need to see the world. You’re stuck here in this valley missing everything.”

“You’re only stuck if you can’t move,” I said, “I just don’t want to. And I’m not missing much. The world’s a crazy place. At least around here the crazy’s familiar.”

“There’s nothing here,” he said. “It’s all out there. The world’s passing you by. Your family’s been here how long?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we came with the Valley.”

“Exactly. Generations. As long as people can remember.”

“And that’s bad how?”

“You’re the product of centuries of people who refused to better themselves. Your life is no different than your great-grandfather’s and his great-grandfather’s.”

“So?” I asked.

“So you’re just an inbred hick. You could make yourself into a lot better person.”

The thought of making myself into a better person had never really crossed my mind, mostly because I’d always been pretty content with who I was. Then again, I’d never considered myself an inbred hick.

But my family has occupied this valley and the mountains surrounding it for centuries. Staying put in one place for so long tends to give you a sense of belonging. Of home. And though I would trade my mountains for the ocean any day, this place would always be home. There are a lot of my kin buried here in the Blue Ridge. I could wander away from those bones, but not for very long and not for very far.

So the inbred thing? True.

As for the “hick” part of that little insult, I’d have to say that was something Dan and his fellow urbanites just couldn’t understand. They’d never lived in the sticks, never spent much time with country folk, and so allowed their stereotypes to rule them.

Then again, all stereotypes are grounded in some semblance of truth.

It’s true, for instance, that one of my best Christmas presents last year was a bag of deer jerky and a jar of peach moonshine. And yes, some country folk live in trailers. By and large, “dressing up” means trading our faded jeans for dark ones. We are not generally well-educated. We do hunt and fish and ride four-wheelers. We live vicariously through Ric Flair and consider “Freebird” the real national anthem.

True. All true.

But there is more beneath the surface to life in the country. A lot.

Because to us, a trailer full of love is better than a castle full of discord.

And we’re not nearly as impressed with the clothes a person wears as we are with the person wearing the clothes.

We might not be able to split the atom, but we know what means much in life and what doesn’t.

We hunt and fish and grow our own groceries because food straight out of the dirt and the woods, sweetened with sweat and labor, tastes a lot better than what you can get at the store.

Our churches aren’t big, but they’re full. Our words are few, but they’re meaningful. We don’t want more of this world. We want less.

We are plain and simple people. People who will go hungry before letting our neighbors starve, drop whatever we’re doing to help a friend, and roam among the wild places to get a better glimpse of God.

The best people. My people.

Inbred hicks? Absolutely. Who could possibly want to be more?

How to Take a Punch (by Billy Coffey)

Four years ago…

It started the way most good stories do, over lunch with a friend. This particular friend was named Charlie, an iron-fisted brawler disguised as a nerdy engineer who worked in the building next to mine.

“You should stop by tonight,” he said. “Great workout. It’ll make a man out of you.”

“I’m already a man,” I answered.

Charlie nodded and said, “Maybe. You ever been punched?”

“No.”

He put his fork down, looked me in the eye, and said, “A man never knows what he’s made of until he gets punched.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded philosophical enough to get my attention. “I’ll be there,” I told him.

All true boxing gyms are located in much the same place—the nearest poor neighborhood of the nearest city (you’ve seen Rocky III, right?). Which made getting there from the quiet confines of the country an adventure in itself. Charlie had warned me that the gym was much more old school than new, and he was right. There was no heat, no air, and no bathroom. There was merely a ring, several punching bags, dirty mirrors for shadowboxing, and a bucket to throw up in when the trainers pushed you that far. Written in bright red letters above the ring were the words JESUS SAVES.

It was, in a word, perfect.

I met with Charlie, the fighters who were warming up, and the trainers. “Gotta hand it to you,” the head trainer said. “Takes stones to show up the first time on sparring night.”

“Sparring night?” I asked. I looked at Charlie, who had looked away. I could see the smile on his face, though.

“You’re getting’ in the ring, right?” the trainer asked me.

Gettin’ in the ring? No, I was not gettin’ in the ring. I was not stupid.

“Yeah, I’m gettin’ in,” I said. Because macho manliness trumps stupidity every day of the week and twice on Thursday.

“Good,” the trainer said. “You can get in with me, then.”

Charlie looked at me with a look that was part humor and part Oh, boy.

“What?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”

I stared at him.

“He won Tough Man last year,” he confessed. “But don’t worry.”

Don’t worry. Famous last words of rednecks everywhere. On par with Hey ya’ll, watch this!

So. Into the ring.

Charlie adjusted my headgear and said, “Move. Don’t forget that.”

I nodded.

“And keep your hands up. Block and punch. Make your defense offense.”

I nodded again.

He checked my gloves and wiped them against his T shirt. “And for the love of God Almighty, keep your chin down. You expose that chin, and you’re a goner.”

“I ain’t goin’ down,” I said, and smiled to prove it. “So what is this, sparring or more?”

Charlie looked across the ring, paused, and said, “He’ll let you know. And wipe that smirk off your face. This will not be fun for you.”

“What makes you think—”

And that’s all I managed to say. I was silenced by Charlie shoving my mouthpiece in and yelling “Time!”

We met in the center of the ring (“Hands up,” Charlie shouted. “Move…move!”), touched gloves, and nodded to one another.

I’d taken plenty of martial arts, and sparring in a dojo was very controlled and normally done at half-speed. But this wasn’t a dojo, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

“So,” I said to the trainer, circling him, “what am I—”

SMACK!!

He threw a jab that managed to sneak between my headgear and connect with my nose. And it was not at half-speed. It was so fast I didn’t see his hand until he was pulling it away from my face.

“Move!” Charlie shouted.

SMACK-SMACK-SMACK!

Jab-jab-cross.

“Don’t stand there, do something!”

Boxing is controlled violence. It is technique. It is the mastery of punches and angles that are honed to precision by countless hours of training. Anger won’t get you through ten rounds in the ring.

It will, however, get you through one. Because when that right cross snuck through my headgear and cut my eye, I got mad. Very.

He threw another jab, but I slipped it to the left and threw a hook into his side and another to the side of his head. His eyes widened a bit, and Charlie yelled, “Yes! Stick and move! Thirty seconds!”

I learned that night that thirty seconds in a boxing ring is a lot longer than thirty seconds outside of one. Because it felt like we stood in the middle of that ring pounding on each other for an eternity.

“Time!” Charlie shouted. Finally.

We stood there in the middle of the ring, smiling. “Awesome,” the trainer said.

Awesome indeed.

That gym was my home away from home for a while, but in the end family and a lack of time forced me to quit. But there’s still a heavy bag in our exercise room, and I still go a few rounds on it every night.

Because Charlie was right. You don’t know what you’re made of until you get punched. And whether that punch comes by standing in the middle of a boxing ring or the middle of a life, you survive the same way. You keep your chin down, you keep moving, and you never stop swinging.

We’re all going to get hit sooner or later. It’s a given in this world. But I know this. I can take a punch. I’ve taken many. But I can give one, too.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today

On War and Fishing (by Billy Coffey)

We stood far enough away from one another to not to tangle our lines but still be within speaking distance. Because when two men go fishing, conversation is just as essential as a pole and some water.

The last time Kirk and I had gone fishing, he had cussed the water and the fish and the pole he was using, drank a six-pack of beer, and spoke of his latest conquest—the cashier down at the Dairy Queen. Typical, I suppose, of a nineteen-year-old male. I listened patiently, waiting for a sufficient break in his bragging to suggest he grow up and get on in his life. In the three hours we fished, I barely said a word.

Four years and a few months later, we stood on that same riverbank with those two same fishing poles, and Kirk still talked. But as he spoke and I listened, I knew things were different now. Kirk had changed.

Time does that to a person. So does war.

When he told me three years ago he was joining the army, I told him it was the best thing he could do. He needed the discipline, I said. Besides, the only jobs around here were either on farms or in factories, and Kirk was cut out for neither.

We both knew what joining the army meant. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, and every headline of every newspaper was filled with the latest casualties. But neither of us mentioned the fact that Kirk would be heading off to war. It was simply a given.

A few weeks after boot camp, Kirk got his orders. He was going to Iraq.

His mother tied a yellow ribbon on the big oak tree in their front yard, and Kirk was put on the prayer lists of just about every church within ten miles. Every once in a while I would hear bits and pieces about where he was and how he was doing, and we would exchange emails when we could, but for the most part he was there and I was here and time moved on.

Then, out of the blue, he called me on Saturday. “I’m back,” he said. “How ‘bout some fishin’?”

I never asked him what it was like. Never asked him what he felt or what he did or what he saw. I just said that I was glad he was back safe and sound. But as the afternoon wore on and the fish refused to bite, he began to share some of the things that weighed on his heart.

The things you see in the movies about war? About brave men withstanding a hail of gunfire and coming out without a scratch? That doesn’t happen. In real life those bullets are real and they don’t care whose flesh they puncture, whether it’s a soldier or a terrorist or a five-year-old girl.

And the love of country? That’s there. Always and without a doubt. But Kirk didn’t see himself as someone laying down his life for his country, he saw himself as someone willing to die for his friends. For his brothers. Because God gives you one family, and war gives you another.

Don’t read the papers, he said. Because the papers only print what they want to print, and not the truth. The truth? The truth is that you would be amazed at what’s happening in Iraq. There are schools and hospitals. There are smiles. There is freedom. If there was one thing that Kirk hated, it was the fact that the war had become less about the men and women fighting it and more about the politicians using it for their own gains.

But most of all, Kirk learned this:

We cheapen life. We no longer hold it as special. As sacred. And because we don’t, war will always be a part of this world. People can work for peace as much as they want, and they should, but in the end we are all dark inside. There will forever be the need for men and women to stand guard for the rest of us. They will sacrifice their peace so we may be able to enjoy ours.

Four years and a few months ago, I stood by that river and fished with a boy. Saturday, I stood there and fished with a man.

There are plenty of people who think of this day as the beginning of summer. A day off. A chance to barbeque and relax. But from now on, I will be thinking of Kirk. Not because of how far he’s come.

Because of what he had to endure to get there.

To read more of Billy’s writing, visit him at What I Learned Today.

The Skating Party

I wrote this post last Saturday. I don’t know what came over me. I was sitting there watching my daughter skate, when I had an overwhelming desire to write about it. I wasn’t going to post it here. Mostly because it is such an obvious rip-off of Billy Coffey’s writing style, and it’s not like I even come close to being that kind of writer. So I sent it to Billy for grins. He asked me to post it. Actually, he TOLD me to post it. And you know me. I always do what I’m told. So, here’s my story, subtitled “Billy Coffey couldn’t come up with a title”.

I’m sitting on the top row of bleachers at an arena with a skating rink right smack in the middle. I was smart enough to wear jeans, not smart enough to wear sleeves. I am freezing. I hate being cold and I am very uncomfortable. Still, I find myself smiling.

I am watching my daughter attend her first ice skating party.

After 30 minute of professional instruction on how best not to crack your tailbone, the pack of ten 7 and 8 year old girls are released onto the open ice. They are cautious at first, clinging to the edge of the rink, gradually increasing in speed and confidence. Eventually, my daughter makes her way to the center of the ice – a proud moment for her and for her mama. She is surrounded by her little friends, some cling to her and cause her to fall down, other more experienced skaters help her up and encourage her to keep going. Ten little girls with varying degrees of skill and natural abilities. Yet, there they are, skating together and having fun.

My journey of faith has been much like this little skating party. Still is.

When I first gave my life to Christ, I greatly benefited from the guidance of mature Christians. They lead me to which scriptures I should study first and were great examples of how to live. I was excited to join the party, but still clung cautiously to the safety and comfort of my old self. I suppose I still do that to a certain extent.

I was sort of like those little girls grabbing on for support. The problem with that is, if you grab onto someone who is only slightly more steady than you are, often you cause them to slip and fall as well. It is best to reach out to someone with a more mature, stable faith.

As I became more familiar with His Word and more involved in church, I became more confident. I was no longer clinging to others. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I became one of the ones who helped people up. Not because I am even close to what most would consider a model Christian, but because I began to understand the depth of His grace. Having lived a life far apart from God, I hope this level of understanding gives me compassion for those who are struggling to understand it. That’s what I pray for, anyway.

I am venturing out to the middle of the rink, knowing that my friends will be there to help me up when I fall. Knowing that ultimately, God is in control. I’m proceeding with cautious optimism, with faith and hope in Him.

I will probably never be a great skater with impressive spins and jumps. The times in my life when I have allowed myself to believe that? That’s usually about the time I get plowed down by the Zamboni machine…

The Fellowship of the Believers
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:42-47)

Living in Awe (by Billy Coffey)

“THERE! THERE IT IS! I SEE IT I SEE IT!”

My daughter points to the night sky from the back deck of our house, leaping from the not-so-sturdy chair and knocking it over.

Then, a few moments later, my son jumps and claps: “I SEE IT ISEEIT!”

Both stand in front of my wife and me, eyes wide and jaws slack. Though the heavens above us are awash in sparkling dots and faint wisps of the Milky Way, I’m not paying much attention to stars. But I am paying attention to the two small people in front of me. I’ve seen my share of falling stars in my life, seen enough that I thought I didn’t need to watch any more. What was more beautiful, more compelling, was watching my children watch them.

They’ve heard of falling stars, of course. They are plentiful in their bedtime stories. They’ve shown up in most of their Disney movies. They’ve even drawn them with red and purple crayons on construction paper.

But they’ve never seen one. Not until tonight. Not until just now.

My children evoke in me the sort of emotions that one would normally expect from a parent. Love, of course. And joy. Pride and confidence and loyalty, too. But as I stare at them and bathe in their sense of awe, I find another emotion welling up inside of me:

Regret.

I am rarely awed. Seldom wide-eyed and slack-jawed. And that is a shame because it is a blessing to be as such, and as often as possible. My kids are experts at awe. I am no longer.

It is life’s greatest irony that the young only desire to grow old, while the old only desire to grow young again. We’re never satisfied, us humans. We’re always either looking for what we think we don’t have or what we once had but never appreciated. My kids are adamant that they be treated as adults, believing that distinction renders them a certain freedom. Not true. They don’t know it, but right now they are as free as they will ever be.

Which is why I want to capture this moment, to bottle it in my mind and cork it tight so the memory doesn’t leak out. I want to sit on the back porch years from now and watch their children do this, and I want to tell them the story of when their mother or father saw their first falling star.

Because I suspect that by then my children’s awe will likely have faded just as mine has. They will have seen too much by then. Too much evil and hurt and violence. Too much bad. This world will jade them as it jades us all and make the edges of their hearts rough. The bright tints of magic and wonder in their eyes will be replaced by the grays and browns of knowledge. Time will force them to bite the proverbial apple, and they will be introduced to the true nature of life; far from the beautiful garden they see existence as now, it will undoubtedly turn into a valley of doubt and danger.

This is the price of living. One that demands the penance of our wonder.

There is no going back for them. For us all. “The first time’s a one time feeling,” says the song, and there is much truth in that. My children have just seen their first falling star, and that euphoric feeling that is rushing through them now won’t be there when they see the next.

But must it be this way? Must my children suffer through such an awakening? Must they grow into this world and sacrifice their wonder and awe to join the ranks of the rest of humanity?

For that matter, must I?

“Truly I say to you,” Jesus said, “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

A powerful warning. Yet while there is no doubt that I long to have the heart and eyes of my children, to experience the world as if I am seeing it for the first time, I can’t.

I’ve seen too much already.

But maybe that’s not the point. Christ doesn’t seem like the sort of God Who tells us to turn around and go back. No, He’s the sort of God Who turns us around and says, “No, it’s that way. You live forward, not back.”

I cannot see like my children. I cannot live like them. But I can become like them.

I can have their awe.

Not by seeing and living this day as if it were my first, but by seeing and living it as if it were my last.

To read more of Billy’s work, check out his blog, What I Learned Today.

Okay, so here’s the deal…


I’ve been praying for God to give my life more balance, that I use my gifts for good, not for evil…

But God, in His infinite Wisdom, does not dole out answers to prayers like some kind of holy gumball machine. Pray for patience, He will put situations in your life to teach you patience. Pray for integrity, He will put you in a position where the right choice isn’t necessarily the first choice. He’s pretty all powerful and omnipotent like that.

So, when I prayed for balance, He opened the floodgates. I haven’t had a paying painting gig in 2 months. In the past 2 weeks, I’ve had 5 calls from old clients and a call from a decorator that wants to keep me working for the rest of my natural born life. God said, “Go find your balance.”

I enjoy blogging more than I ever thought I would. I have met some of the most amazing, hilarious, inspiring, talented, God honoring people: pastors, writers, stay at home moms and daughters, college students, working men and women. It takes up time from my day, but time that, while can be a distraction, can also be an incredible blessing. All things in moderation.

Because I will be away from my computer quite a bit for the foreseeable future, I have asked Billy Coffey to be a regular guest blogger on HLAC. A request that he has graciously accepted. (Excuse me while I do a back flip – um…ouch!) I have also asked some of my blogger buddies to fill in on a rotating basis. If you enjoy this blog, I promise you, you will enjoy reading their work as well.

Beginning next week, Monday’s posts will be written by Billy Coffey. In addition, on Wednesdays, I will introduce some of you to some of my favorite bloggers who will fill that spot for me. I will continue to be annoying and ridiculous the remaining days, save Sunday, where I will hopefully post something that honors God and refocuses this blogger on why I am here in the first place.

Thank you for your faithfulness to this blog. I think this is going to be awesomatasic!

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