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The Faith of a Child (by Billy Coffey)

For those of you visiting here from What I Learned Today, welcome. I typically don’t introduce Billy’s guest posts because most of you already know Billy’s writing and it needs no introduction from the likes of me. Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile know that I have done a few posts about the prosperity gospel. It is one of the few things that makes my blood boil and puts me into full ranting mode pretty quickly. But I have yet to put it into perspective as well as Billy does here:

The television is largely ignored around our house for most of the day, but like all good rules it is relaxed after dinner. By then a day’s worth of school and play have left my children with as much energy as a bowl of Jell-O. Sitting on the couch and being entertained by Phineas and Ferb is all they can handle.

My daughter is generally Holder Of The Remote when I’m not around, and as my own energy level was Jell-O like yesterday evening, I wasn’t around. I had instead camped out in the rocking chair on the front porch, watching the mountains rather than the TV.

I rocked as the cool September breeze blew through the open living room window, letting in the fresh air and letting escape the sounds of my daughter’s channel changing.

News: “Unemployment continues to rise across the Commonwealth…”

A preacher on the Christian channel: “…faith can heal you of your greatest pains…”

ESPN: “…Red Sox continue their collapse…”

And finally Spongebob: “I’m so cold, I can use my nose drippings as chopsticks.”

Which is where I thought she would stay. My daughter loved Spongebob.

But then it was back to the preacher: “…God loves His children and wants to prosper them…”

I kept rocking, gazing out over the porch to the mountains beyond. A slight smile crossed my face, and why wouldn’t it? My daughter had just passed up Spongebob to learn something about God.

“…He doesn’t want anyone to be sick! Disease is Satan’s doing…!”

Still, it seemed a bit odd. A bit over the top. A bit…

“You’re not healed because you don’t believe!!”

“Dang it!” I said, jumping from the rocking chair and bursting through the door as calmly as possible but not quite. I sat beside her and palmed the remote, changing the channel back to Spongebob with as much nonchalance as I could.

“How ya doin’, sweets?” I asked.


“Wanna watch some Spongebob?”


“You okay?”


But she wasn’t. I knew that. And I also knew it was too late. The damage had been done.

At bedtime when I went to tuck my daughter in for the night, I could see her tears from the doorway.

“What’s faith?” she asked me.

“Faith,” I said, sitting down beside her, “is believing that God can do whatever He wants.”

“Do you have a lot of faith?”

I’d been father long enough to know that sometimes parents must lie to their children. But I never made it a practice to do so when it comes to matters of faith, so I said, “Sometimes I do. Other times I don’t.”

She looked at me, crying. “The preacher man said I have diabetes because I don’t have faith.”

“That’s not what he said,” I answered.

“He said if I had enough faith, God would take my sugar away.”

I didn’t answer that time. Because again, I couldn’t lie—that’s pretty much what the preacher man had said.

I sat by my daughter’s bed for a long while that night, holding her hand and stroking her hair until the tears left and sleep finally came.

As I gazed down to her I wasn’t thinking about how special she was or how she struggled with her disease. No, I was thinking about how much I would’ve liked that preacher to be there to hear my daughter doubt her faith. I wanted him to see the tears he caused her to shed. And then I would’ve taken him out back and shown him what happens to adults who hurt my little girl.

The whole prosperity gospel movement is still going strong, and there are no signs that it will slow anytime soon. Check the bestseller lists. Turn on your television. They’re everywhere, standing in front of thousands of people in their thousand-dollar suits and pretty smiles, prophesying that God is just chomping at the bit to make you as rich and successful and healthy as they are.

I don’t normally rant, and I never judge. But as I sat there looking down at my daughter, I knew without a doubt that there was a special place in hell reserved for people who manage to contort God’s word to equate faith with wellness and piety with affluence.

I can understand their appeal, I really can. A God who wanted nothing more than to heap material blessings on anyone who paid enough attention to Him makes religion seem a little more palatable. A little more…human. And their theology is mixed with just enough truth to make it seem right.

But if you think it is, if you think that’s how God operates, then I’ll invite you to spend a day with my daughter.

Maybe then you’ll see that God isn’t after our comfort or our health as much as our faith and our trust.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Beating a bad day in kindergarten (by Billy Coffey)

I remember two things about my first day of kindergarten.

One was that my teacher was Mrs. Frost and that her name fit perfectly with her personality. So much so that by snack time on that first day I was planning her downfall, by lunch I was imagining my own, and by recess I was praying for the rapture.

Which brings me to the second memory, which is of me uttering that prayer from inside a partially buried tractor tire that was part of the playground equipment. I’d hidden there as the rest of the class lined up after recess, and I planned on staying put until either Jesus came or the school year was over.

Jesus didn’t come of course, but Mrs. Frost did. The subsequent chewing out she gave me remains fresh in my mind even after all these years. Mrs. Frost was not my favorite teacher, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that I was not her favorite pupil.

I was thinking about all of that two Sundays ago as I tucked my son into bed. It was an important moment, the magnitude of which was not lost on either of us. I may have been pulling the covers over a boy, but what would emerge from them the next day would be a young man. One who would trade worn pajamas and Spongebob for new jeans and a teacher.

Unlike me at his age, my son was looking forward to his first day of school. It was the promise of newness that enchanted him—new clothes, new notebooks and pencils, new people and places. That night would be to him a sort of baptism. He would go to sleep one person and awake another.

As I write this there are two pictures in front of me. One shows him on the front porch just before leaving for school, back straight and chin out, a smiling Alexander the Small out to defeat the world. Because new things are easy. New things are exciting. And our days were meant for conquering.

The second picture was taken just a few hours later. He is slumped in his chair at school, shoulders rounded and chin tucked. His smile is still there, though barely and forced. And his new Lightning McQueen book bag is shoved to the side and all but forgotten.

What happened? Simple. My son had discovered in the span of two hours one of life’s most difficult lessons to learn—not all of our days are meant for conquering. Sometimes the best we can do is survive them.

And he survived. He did not hide in playground equipment and did not get yelled at by his teacher. There was no plotting of anyone’s downfall. In fact, he came home smiling. All because he learned how to turn a bad day upside down.
For instance.

That second picture I was telling you about? The one with the slumped shoulders and the forced smile? That’s rule number one—smile anyway. It might be difficult and it might not look pretty, but sometimes thinking you’re happy will make you so. My experience anyway.

He made friends, too. Fellow castaways on the strange island of Education. Boys and girls who weren’t having such a great day themselves, but who banded together because of it. Which just goes to show that misery may indeed love company, but only so a little happiness can sprout.

And he played. He ran and jumped and colored and stood in the sun. He felt better after that, he told me. I could see why. Playing makes any day a good one, even if it’s really sort of bad.

But most of all? He prayed. Not aloud, and not so anyone would notice. Such things are frowned upon in public schools. Instead, he kept his eyes and ears open, trusting that God would do two things: get him through the day, and get him home.

I’ll always remember my first day of kindergarten, though maybe for the wrong reasons. I hope my son remembers his, too. I know I will. Because he taught me what we’re all supposed to do when our days start out heading north only to take a sudden turn southward.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Fixing what’s broken (by Billy Coffey)

“Dad, can you fix this?”

My son holds out his favorite toy, a super-duper Buzz Lightyear action figure complete with spring-loaded missile and nine (count them, nine) preprogrammed phrases. He strategically places himself between me and the baseball game on television, brazenly demanding immediate attention. I am normally left alone during Yankee games. Not because I require it—I do not—but because I tend to get a tad…involved.

“What’s wrong with it, bud?” I ask, keeping one eye on him and the other on the thing of beauty that is Robinson Cano’s swing.

“Dunno,” he answers. He turns his Buzz around, flips a switch and turns a knob, and shrugs.

Both eyes are on him now. My son is confused and dejected. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with his toy. All he knows is that it’s not what it’s supposed to be.

“Sure I can fix it,” I answer him. “No problem.”

And it isn’t a problem. I know what’s wrong with is toy. And I can make it what it’s supposed to be, too. All I need is a screwdriver, some batteries, and a little time.

He takes a seat beside me on the couch and fidgets. I think it’s because the Yankees have just stranded two runners on base, but I’m wrong. No, he just wants to play. Not iin a few minutes or a little while. Now.

“Hurry up, Daddy,” he says.

“Hang on,” I answer, prying the cover off the battery compartment.

More fidgeting. Then, “Daddy?”


“I don’t think you know what you’re doing.”

I raise my head and offer a look that is half question and half amusement.

“Why’s that?” I asked him.

“Because you’re taking too long. If you knew how to fix it, you’d hurry up.” He sighs and adds, “I’d be playing by now.”

“Just wait and see,” I tell him. “I’ll have it fixed in a minute.”

But my son can’t wait and so doesn’t see. “Never mind,” he says. “I’ll just go fix it myself.” He grabs the Buzz Lightyear from my hand and trudges off to his room carrying it upside down by the right foot.

I shake my head in a fatherly way. Kids are so impatient nowadays, I think to myself. I know what he’ll do. He’ll go back to his room and play with his Buzz Lightyear for a while, substituting the real sounds of laser blasts and Tim Allen’s voice with his own paltry imitations. He’ll flip switches and turn knobs and pretend everything’s working just fine, but it won’t last long. He won’t have the patience for that, either.

I know this because as my son, he carries around inside of himself bits and pieces of me. He has my smile, my eyes, my skin. And there are the deeper things too, like a common desire to put people at ease and a constant craving for ice cream.

And also to be impatient. With everything.

“Father,” I often say to God, “can you fix this? Fix this problem or this situation. Fix this life. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, I just know it’s broken.”

“Sure I can fix it,” God answers. “No problem.”

And it isn’t a problem. God knows what’s wrong. And more, He can fix it. All he needs is a little grace, a little mercy, and a little time.

So I’ll sit beside Him for a while and watch. But then I start to fidget.

“Hurry,” I say.

“Hang on,” He answers.

I fidget more. Time passes, and I begin to wonder if He really knows what He’s doing. If He did, I’d be better by now. I tell him so.

“Wait and see,” He says.

But I can’t wait. And because I can’t wait, I don’t see.

“I’ll just fix it myself,” I finally say. I take my problem back and trudge off, pretending that everything is just fine.

That’s how it is with my son and me. And with me and God, too. But I know this: my son will be back. Imagination can carry one only so far. Pretending is great, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. He’ll realize that fixing what’s broken is worth the wait. Especially when he knows he can’t fix it on his own.

And it’s for those very reasons that God knows I’ll be back, too.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Also, for you writerly types in search of an agent, check out this article by Billy on Guide to Literary Agents: How I got my agent.

Hearing God (by Billy Coffey)

My children have recently decided to forgo their usual extended Sunday School for the “big people preachin’.” Which was a surprise to me, since both of them have always seemed to enjoy a Sunday morning service that consisted of a Bible story outside, some coloring, and then hitting the playground. I know I would.

But my daughter is not the sweet little girl anymore as much as she is the sweet young lady. Crayons and swing sets just weren’t cutting it when it came to spending the Sabbath with the Almighty. So yesterday when we pulled into the parking lot, she looked at me and said, “I want to sit with you and Mommy today.”

To which my son replied, “Me, too!”

Well. Alrighty then.

We took a quick survey of Big Church decorum (“Be still, be nice, and be quiet,” I said) and strolled into the sanctuary as a family for the first time.

Our church had become newfangled in our worship. In place of actual hymnals with actual pages, two giant screens on either side of the sanctuary flashed the lyrics to our worship songs. Fine for tall people. Not for munchkins. My daughter couldn’t see the ginormous screen because of the ginormous football-playing teenager in front of her.

“Let’s move closer,” she said.

I offered to let her run point, and she proceeded to lead us all the way to the front. Reading the screen would now be akin to sitting in the front row of a movie theater, but this is what you do for your children.

That particular spot also happened to be directly behind the three rows reserved for our congregation’s deaf members. I wasn’t sure who had thought of the idea of providing someone to translate the preacher’s spoken words into sign language, but he or she deserved a lot of praise. All three rows were full, and full every Sunday.

The praise team began their first song. My daughter stood on the chair beside mine, holding onto my arm for dear life and belting out lyrics for all to hear. But me, I didn’t do much singing. Or listening. No, my attention had been placed squarely upon the three rows of churchgoers in front of us.

They were wonderful, those people. Happy and smiling. Far from being outcasts in the service, they were active participants. They still received the pastor’s wisdom. They still sang, only with hands instead of words.

They still praised God.

But they couldn’t hear our praise team. They couldn’t grasp the rhythms of the guitars and keyboard and drums. They couldn’t hear the emotional crack in our pastor’s voice has he recalled a monumental battle of faith he once endured.

They understood, those three rows of people. They knew the facts of the songs and the sermon. But I couldn’t help but think they were missing out on the feeling.

Because that, by and large, is what sound does. It brings feeling.

Like the feeling of peace when the rain taps your roof. Or the feeling of bliss at your children’s laughter. It’s the wonder that comes from hearing a summer thunderstorm or the joy of sleigh bells at Christmas. Those are the little moments of life, the seeds of lasting memory. Ones made neither by sight nor touch, but by sound.

Yet just as I began to mourn for them, I realized other sounds they would never have to hear.

Like the sound of tears being wept. Hate being spewed. Anger being vented.

They may have missed some of the best things in life, but they also missed some of the worst.

Like me.

Because we were not so different in our limitations. I could hear, but that didn’t mean I always listened. Just like I could look but not always see and touch but not always feel. In the end, we are all handicapped in some way. That’s what being human meant.

With the help of an interpreter, I spoke with one of them after the service. Michael, he signed. An amazing guy with an amazing heart for God. Also someone who was, unlike me, quite content with his limitations.

Hearing could wait, he said. And I was wrong, Michael could feel plenty. He could feel the love of God, the closeness of the congregation, and the faith he knew to be true. Hearing, he said, could wait. And I don’t blame him. Because the first thing he will ever hear will be his Father saying, “Welcome home.”

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

And in case you missed it, Kat Smith over at Heart to Heart posted an interview with Billy yesterday. You can check it out here.

The Things we carry (by Billy Coffey)

Though never a boy scout (both literally and figuratively, I suppose), their motto is one I have come to adopt as my own.

“Be prepared,” it says.

Sage advice, if you ask me. We may not be able to render ourselves immune from life’s calamities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lessen their sting. What better way to do that than equipping yourself with all the necessary tools to head off any potential messiness?

Which is why I tend to carry a lot of things around with me every day.

One of the few advantages women have over men is the accepted policy of carrying a purse. A woman’s pocketbook is almost an extension of her being, and endless chasm of makeup and receipts, Band-Aids and stashes of candy. Or so I assume. Men are not allowed a look into women’s purses. It’s forbidden.

Men are not afforded such luxuries. Oh, I’ve seen the Man Bag in the fancy magazines and catalogs. But no one could get away with that around here. Around here, men who carried Man Bags would go by a different name—women.

It’s pockets for us males, and my pockets are generally full. Wallet, Blackberry, personal keys, work keys, knife, notebook, pen, and usually some sort of small book (currently, a shrunken-down edition of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet). That’s a lot of baggage, I know. I figure I add at least five pounds of pocket stuff every day.

But it’s not just Stuff. Not really. The contents of my pockets are the necessities for daily survival. I’ve tried thinning them out. Tried going without even one item in my pocket inventory. Every attempt has been met with absolute failure.

I need my wallet for obvious reasons. It holds my money, my debit card, my insurance card, and my driver’s license. It’s the only thing in a man’s possession that approaches a woman’s purse, and its contents reveal more about his personality than most anything else.

My Blackberry is my link to the outside world. Part cell phone and part secretary, going without it would be pure hell. And yes, being a redneck who’s so attached to technology is ironic. But that’s okay. I’m an ironic sort of guy.

I need personal keys to get me where I need to go and work keys to get me through the day.

I need a good book to satisfy my lonely moments and provide me with some much-needed inspiration. “A room with no books is like a body without a soul,” said Cicero. That goes for a person, too.

Pen and notebook? If I’m going to remember anything, I need those. I have the memory of a fruit fly.

And a knife? What self-respecting man can walk around without a knife?

See what I mean? Subtract one, and I’m in trouble.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday evening when I came home from work and emptied all of those things onto the dresser. That seemed like a lot of things to have to haul around to survive a normal day. But then I started thinking about all the other things I carry around to do just that. Things besides what was in my pockets.

I carried my faith, for one. Faith that it all means something, that all is not meaningless, and that even if I’m not where I should be, I’ll get there someday.

I carry my head to deal with myself, and my heart to deal with others.

I carry hope so I can hold my head high, and humility so I can bow it without reservations.

I carry understanding so I can know that every person I meet is fighting their own battles and waging their own wars.

I carry curiosity and wonder so I can see the beauty that I would otherwise miss.

And I carry memories of my past, both the good and the bad, so I can be reminded that the quality of tomorrow depends upon the decisions I make today.

Things that don’t fit into my pockets, but in me. I make sure I have all of them before I leave each morning. The necessities. Because just like the things in my pockets, if I subtract just one of them, I’m in trouble.

Aging Gracefully, Plumbers Crack & Encouragement for Writers

Well, it’s Saturday, and on this particular Saturday, this means five things:

1) This is a repost
2) I am linking a really good interview from earlier in the week.
3) There you go…
4) I like even numbered points.
5) But five is good, too.

So, I recently lost some weight. Not a lot, but enough weight that I can no longer wear any of my pants without them falling down. For a while I could simply belt them to keep them up. But now when I try to wear a belt all the fabric gets bunched up and I kinda look like some backwoods hillbilly holding up their jeans with a rope. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’m just saying. No offense, West Virginia.)
I bought some smaller jeans at Sam’s Club the other day. Which, BTW is where all the trendsetters buy their clothes while shopping for toilet paper and paper towels in bulk. I got these jeans pretty cheap (the best kind) and they were Levis bootcut, so I knew there was a possibility they might fit me — a rare quality in a pair of jeans. The problem with buying clothing at Sam’s is, there are no dressing rooms, so you can’t try anything on. (Actually, you can, but I’ve found that they tend to frown upon this practice.)

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, I remember now. I get home, put away all my bulk items and tried on my new jeans. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they actually fit very well. The only problem is that they are the low rise variety. Which is fine. But these are the really low rise variety. I modeled them for my hubby and he thought they looked good. My daughter saw them and asked that I wear them to school when I came to read to her class. She likes to pick out my clothes so that I can look “fancy”.

Now, I’m at a point in my life where I think twice about what I’m wearing. As much as I try not to, I do care what other people’s impressions are of my outward appearance. Did I look like a middle-aged housewife trying to look hip? I’ve been told by friends that they don’t think of me as being 43, but I’ve always chalked that up to the fact that I’m extremely immature, not from any youthful appearance. I don’t want to become a parody like Sally O’Malley going around screaming, “I’m 50!” It bugs me that so many women (and men nowadays) are so afraid to age gracefully. I say this somewhat hypocritically because I color my hair every month to cover up the grey. So I ask you — how old is too old to wear low rise jeans?

I decided to go ahead and wear my new, hip jeans. They were a bit on the long side so I wore some high heeled boots. (Not real boots, but those slip on ones that look like boots. I have huge calves that make wearing most boots impossible — but that’s another story.) I gotta admit that I was feeling pretty sassy when I went up to my daughter’s class. My daughter gave me a big hug and told me I looked “fancy”. That’s pretty high praise from her. As I do each Friday, I read to her class then went to the cafeteria to have lunch with her. The lunch tables are basically large, picnic tables — no chairs only benches. When I sat down, I was not feeling sassy. I was feeling a draft. I was feeling grateful that grapes were not on the menu because kids from neighboring tables could have enjoyed a rousing game of butt-crack basketball. Awkward…

So, enough about me, how was your Friday?

Update: Speaking of weight loss (or not), have you tried the new deep fried macaroni and cheese bites from Jack in the Box? They’re delightful!

And now a partial repost from Wednesday’s post:

If you’re not a regular visitor here (I forgive you) or if you don’t have a firm grasp of the obvious, one of the goals of this blog is to help promote and encourage other writers. That wasn’t my original intent when I started blogging, but after some reflection and much prayer, I truly believe that this is the path God is leading me down. As if to confirm this conviction, about a week after I made that decision I came across a little blog called What I Learned Today. In just a few short months, a whole bunch of really cool things have happened with Billy’s writing career, and it’s been a pleasure to witness some minor and major victories along the way.

As if to confirm this conviction, about a week after I made that decision I came across a little blog called What I Learned Today. In just a few short months, a whole bunch of really cool things have happened with Billy’s writing career, and it’s been a pleasure to witness some minor and major victories along the way.

For those of you who think you are skilled and masochistic enough to pursue writing as a full time career, I’d like to invite you over to Sara Tribble’s blog, I Am Write to read a really fantastic interview with Billy Coffey. It’s good, y’all…

The Shine (by Billy Coffey)

I am sitting on the hood of my truck atop Afton mountain on a warm July night, taking the opportunity to do something I once did often but now not nearly enough.


I was six when my parents bought me my first telescope, a twenty-dollar special from K Mart. It was made of cheap plastic and the lens wasn’t very powerful, but to me it was magic. I spent countless nights in the backyard squinting through that telescope, peering into lunar seas and gazing at Saturn’s rings. I was spellbound.

As I grew older, the stars began to serve another purpose. They were my refuge, a physical manifestation of an inner longing to break free from both earth and life and fly away. The night sky was my perspective. Looking around always made everything seem so enormous and consequential. Looking up always reminded me of how truly small everything was.

Now? I suppose now those two sentiments mingle, swirled together in my heart as a patina that washes me in both awe and longing. I gaze up to gaze within and know my truest self – that both darkness and light can blend to form a scene of beauty and wonder. That despite whatever misgivings I may have, I can shine.

I lean back against the windshield, place my hat on a raised knee, and stare. Above me is what a friend refers to as “a Charlie Brown sky.” Pinpricks of light are cast in a sort of perfect randomness, as if God has sneezed a miracle.

I am not alone here. There are about twenty other people scattered along this overlook, fellow viewers of nature’s television. An awed silence envelopes most. All but one little girl sitting with her father in the bed of the truck next to me.

“Daddy?” she says. “Do we shine?”

A thoughtful question deserving of a thoughtful response.

“I think so,” he answers.

“It’s good to shine,” she says.

“Most times. I guess it depends on where the shine comes from.”

My head turns from the stars to them.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well, you see that star over there?” He points to a bright speck above us. “That star gives its own shine. It doesn’t depend on anything else but itself to give it light. It’s on its own.”

“That’s a bright one,” she whispers.

“Yep. But one day, all that light will be gone. That star will run out of shine. But you see that over there?” he asks, pointing this time to a big, round ball.

“That’s the moon,” says the daughter. “I know all about the moon.”

“That so? Tell me.”

“Well, Mrs. Walker says the moon is dark and cold and dead. And it isn’t made of cheese, like Tommy Franklin said.”

“You have a smart teacher,” her father answers.

“I don’t want to be cold and dark and dead like the moon. I’d rather be a star.”

“But the moon shines, too. And it’s a better shine.”


“Because the shine isn’t the moon’s, it’s the sun’s. Light come from the sun, bounces off the moon, and lights the dark.”

“So moonlight is really sunlight?” she asks with a tone of both wonder and doubt. Mrs. Walker hasn’t gone over this yet.

“Yes. And because the moon is just reflecting the sun’s shine, it won’t get tired and start to fade.”

“So as long as the sun shines, the moon will, too?”

“You got it.”

The two sit in silence again, and my eyes move from them back to the sky.

A lot of us choose to stand in our own light. We want to be known for the things we do more than the people we are. “Look at me,” we say. “I’m special. Better.”

But we’re not. The more we try to shine our own light, the darker we’ll likely become. And sooner or later, we’ll fade. We don’t need to be stars in this life and be a light unto ourselves. It’s better to be a moon. Better to know that we can reflect the shine of someone greater and be a light to the world.

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

The Fruit Salad (by Billy Coffey)

Those of you who have been reading this blog and/or What I Learned Today for awhile may have already read this post. Even if you have, it’s certainly worth another look. This story is a special one because it introduced me to Billy’s writing and, as it turns out a very dear friend. (Even if he did drop the F-bomb on his sweet grandmother.):

There were prunes in the fruit salad.

I peered down into the large bowl of Jell-O and fruit, unsure of what to do. I’d never been faced with this sort of situation before.

At six, I felt I was though I was well on my way to adulthood. I could tie my shoes, count to ten, and say most of my ABCs. I no longer slept with the night light on, and I no longer harbored any fanciful misgivings of monsters in my closet.

But more than that, more than all of that, I had been recently indoctrinated into a language used by adults only, the sort of words that were only bandied about far from innocent ears.

I’d learned to cuss. And very well, I might add.

I knew them all courtesy of my next door neighbor, a ten-year-old boy who as far as I can imagine is now either incarcerated or worse. But he was cool back then, cooler than anyone I knew, and I wanted to be just like him. Told him so, too. Cussing was part of my education, and it was powerful stuff.

I kept my secret knowledge safely tucked in the back of my brain until one of the words escaped my lips in the worst place possible: my grandparents’ house. There are a lot of things you don’t do when you’re in the company of your grandmother, and there are a lot more you don’t do when your grandmother happens to also be Amish. Cussing, I found, ranked just above killing kittens and just below denying the reality of an Almighty God.

The exact situation escapes me, though I remember it was an argument in which she told me to do something, I said I didn’t want to, she said she would tell my mother, and I said, to quote, “I don’t give a $@!#.”

To make matters worse, the word I had chosen to employ was the mother of all curse words, the one my next door neighbor had dubbed “the Big One.” Guaranteed to provoke a reaction.

And there was a reaction.

Grandma stood dumbstruck for three full seconds, upon which she bent down, grabbed my ear, and drug me across the kitchen floor and into the corner, where I remained for most of the day.

I dared not turn around, either. Not when the pots and pans were crashing, not when she began pleading for my eternal soul. Only when lunch was ready hours later did she tell me to sit.

“Enjoy your food,” she said, and nothing more.

Jell-O salad. Yes! My favorite. As smooth as glass on the top and bottom, with fruit defying gravity in the middle, suspended in an ocean of transparent red. Maybe she wasn’t so mad after all. Maybe she would let bygones be bygones and we could put the whole thing behind us.

But no.

Because there amidst the bananas and pears and pineapples, there were prunes. And everyone knew I hated prunes.

“Grandma?” I said.

“Why did you put prunes in there?”

“Oh my,” she said, feigning shock. “You don’t like prunes?”

“I don’t like prunes, Granmda.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll tell you what. You can still eat it. Just take the prunes out.”

“It won’t do any good,” I answered, sniffing the bowl. “The whole bowl smells like prunes. Even if I took them all out, it would still stink.”

“Hmm. “You’re right. What a shame. I know how you like your Jell-O salad.”

We sat there, silent. Then she said, “Where did you learn that word?”

“From a friend.”

“Friends don’t teach you things like that,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know what you said was wrong?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know why?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just a word. What can be so bad about just a word?”

She tapped the bowl in front of us. “Because you’re like this Jell-O salad.”


“Whatever goes into your heart goes in there and settles. It stays. You can take good things into your heart, like the bananas and pears and pineapples. Or you can take bad things into it, like the prunes. The problem is, the good can’t make the bad better, but the bad can spoil the good. You can scoop out all the prunes, but the rest would still be messy.”

“And it would smell bad, too,” I said.


“Don’t forget it,” she said.

I did though, for a while. I said and did plenty of things I had no business in saying and doing. But I know better now. Grandma was right. Once you let something into your heart, it’s there for good. Whether that thing is destined to be a joyful remembrance or an unbearable regret, we commit our very souls to the choices we make every day. And there they will remain, for good or ill, as a record of the worthiness of our lives.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today, and be sure to catch Part Two of his interview with Lynn Rush tomorrow about the call that every writer dreams about.

The Walk (by Billy Coffey)

(This post was first published as a column by the Staunton News Leader.)

“I like walking with you, Daddy,” my daughter said.

Her tiny hand slipped into mine and stayed there. Our joined arms moved back and forth in a soft cadence that echoed our footfalls.

“Me, too,” I said.

“Let’s play I Spy,” she offered.

“Okay. You go first.”

Our game began with the obvious—black for the truck in the driveway we were passing, red for the mailbox on the other side. Yellow for the sun. Gray for the dog that just bounded out from the field.

But then things began to get a little more difficult. On my part, anyway. I missed the orange on the robin that was pecking its dinner from the grass. And the brown on the rabbit that sat nearly invisible on the side of the road.

Missed the yellow hair bow on the little girl who was playing with a balloon in her backyard.

Missed the white on the rocks that scrunched under our feet.

Even missed the black on the very shirt I was wearing.

No father wants to be beaten in a game of I Spy by his seven-year-old daughter. Especially when that father happens to take a lot of pride in noticing things that others maybe wouldn’t. But as we walked and talked and swung our arms, I had to admit the obvious.

I was losing it. Slipping in my noticing.

It had been imperceptible rather than sudden, this change in me. That’s the worst kind. Change that comes sudden is painful, but at least you don’t go around wondering what happened and where you went wrong and how it got to be this way.

My thoughts were broken by the approach of a married couple taking that strange gait that is more than walk but not quite jog, puffing and sweating against the summer sun.

My daughter waved with her free hand, and I offered a “How ya’ll doin’?” in their direction. The man managed to nod weakly and gasp a “heeep,” which I took as hello. The woman was oblivious to us, transfixed on her goal of putting one foot in front of the other.

I looked down to see her gazing up to me, wrinkling her nose. I shrugged—beats me. We walked on.

A few more losing rounds of I Spy later, and we were greeted with another pedestrian. Younger woman, very fit. Decked out in Spandex and and armed with an iPod and a watch that looked as though it could not only count calories and measure distance, but split the atom as well.

She zoomed past our wave and “How are ya?” as if we were just more gravel and blades of grass. Just two more obstacles to avoid in the pursuit of a flatter stomach and firmer butt.

My daughter and I walked in silence a for a few steps, our game suspended. Then, “Daddy?”


“How come people walk so fast?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Most people around here use walking as exercising. But it’s only exercising if you go fast.”

She looked down to the road and kicked a pebble with her flip flop, thinking.

“Exercising’s good,” she offered.

“Very,” I said.

“And walking’s good, too.”


“But,” she said, “walking shouldn’t be exercising.”

“It shouldn’t? Why?”

She threw her arms up (and one of mine in the process) and said, “Look! Everything’s so pretty! These people are missing it all because they’re going too fast!”

I looked down at her and she up to me. She said, “Those people would be really bad at I Spy, Dad. They would lose every time because they can’t see anything.”

They’d lose every time. Because they’re going too fast.

We continued on then and resumed our game. The result was both inevitable and expected. She won without much of a contest.
But in a way, I won too. I learned something that evening with my daughter. Something important.

In the end, life should be a walk and not a run. We fool ourselves into thinking that the point is to get somewhere as fast as we can. It isn’t. It’s to have somewhere to go and then enjoy the trip to it.

There will always be a gap between where we are and where we want to be. In our deepest hearts we are all wanderers in search of something. That’s okay. Even wonderful. Just as long as we wander in wonder and hold the hand of someone we love.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today, and be sure to catch Part One of his interview with Lynn Rush tomorrow about the call that every writer dreams about.

Catching Happiness (by Billy Coffey)

Around here the fun doesn’t start until after the sun gives way to other, more exotic forms of light. Evening, some call it. Other words also apply: sunset, dusk, nightfall. I’ve never cared for any of those words. To me, they fall short of their intended mark.

Despite the reference to shiny vampires, I’ve always preferred the term “twilight.” That seems to effectively sum up that middle part of the day when night advances and daylight retreats. It’s an almost magical word, twilight. And as that struggle between night and day is both brief and seamless, magic seems a perfect definition.

Here in the Virginia foothills, twilight magic can be found in the nearest field just after the deer have left and just before the whippoorwills begin to sing. There is a serene stillness that eases itself over the landscape, quieting the air. And then, flittering among the tips of the grass, will come a dash of light as fleeting as twilight itself.

Then another.

And then another.

Lampyridea to the smart people. Fireflies to the normal ones. Summer’s version of winter’s Christmas.

My wife and I sat on the back deck this past Fourth of July and watched as fireworks boomed over our neighborhood in starbursts and whorls. A wonderful sight. Also one largely ignored by our children, who were instead chasing fireflies around the backyard.

It seemed to me both fairly ridiculous and utterly right. Ridiculous that the red, white, and blue explosions overhead were no match for the tiny yellow flickers right in front of us. Utterly right because we could only ooh and aah at the painted sky, but we could catch the fireflies.

My kids think the purpose of the firefly’s twinkle is so they may be caught by seeking hands. It’s a bioluminescent dare, a challenge to come out and play. And it works. For all of us. Any adult worth his salt, no matter how jaded, will lurch for a firefly when it shimmers near.

What sparks this reaction has always eluded me. But when my son managed to snag a firefly just before it flew out of his tiny reach, he offered me an answer.

“I caught the happy, Daddy!” he yelled over the neighbor’s latest volley.

“You did what?” I asked.

“I caught the happy,” he repeated. “Don’t the lightning bugs make you happy?”

“They do.”

He stared at the bug and smiled. “Can I keep it in a jar, Daddy?” he asked.

“Better not. It needs to fly around. If you put it in a jar, it’ll die.”

He sighed in surrender and opened his cupped hand. Fingers wide, he then released it back into the night.

Scientifically speaking, the firefly’s glow is the result of the luciferase enzyme acting on luciferin, ATP (adenosene triphosphate), and oxygen. The reason for this miniature fireworks show is much simpler than coaxing children to play a game, though. It’s to find a mate. To search through the darkness for something that makes the darkness worthwhile. Metaphorically speaking, the firefly is after what my children were that night. What we are all after every day.


That’s a tough thing to find in this world. Like the sputter of a firefly’s abdomen, happiness is a fleeting thing, too. And often elusive. It shimmers and sparkles in the darkness of our lives, coaxing us to reach out and grasp.

My eyes wandered from the fireworks on the ground to those in the air. Rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air is enough to make a guy like me think. We light the darkness every Fourth of July in celebration of more than a country, but an idea. One that says all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The right of love, for instance. And liberty.

And the pursuit of happiness.

That last one was what caught my attention that night. It was a powerful suggestion, one worth going to war. To our forefathers, God had given us the right to pursue our happiness. He had built the desire for happiness into the human heart. Placed it there on purpose. And He expected us to go looking for it. But that was where it ended. We had the right to pursue our happiness, but not to find it.

Those were wise men. They knew the true state of humanity.

Because we all are running around in the darkness chasing those fleeting shimmers. We’re all grasping for our happiness. Many times we’re a little too late or a little too off, and all we take hold of is more darkness.

And sometimes that magic sneaks in and we take hold of that brilliance, cradling it in our hands and marveling at the sight.

But like the firefly my son held, we need to know that the happiness we catch in life isn’t ours to keep. Do that, and it’ll die. No, better is to do what he did.

To open both hand and heart. To give back what we’ve been given.


This is a perfect time for you to do just that. To give back.

Chris Sullivan is a friend of my tiny blogging world, and he’s about to go on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. He’s a fantastic guy with a fantastic heart for God, and I’d like nothing better if you could pop OVER HERE and offer anything you can. Maybe a few dollars, maybe a little time, and surely many, many prayers. You’ll like him. I promise. Any guy who has sponsoring baseball players as part of his mission trip is tops in my book.

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