Category Archives: Inspiration

Grounded

Recently the World Health Organization declared Burnout a medical diagnosis. Burnout is a word we hear pretty regularly. We know people who are discouraged with work and going through the motions. We may even feel it ourselves–but most of us would never want to admit it. Burnout at work and depression are close cousins. For many years as a pastor and over the past fews years running our business, I have struggled with depression and even burnout here and there. A few years ago, my struggles brought me to a crisis point. For all appearance to the contrary, insecurities, depression, and belief that I was unlovable all resulted in a period where I was characterized by irritability, anger and sadness. In the midst of leading a rapidly growing business, raising our young family, and serving at my church, things finally came to a head: Lisa told me things had to change. She couldn’t go on the way things were going. I knew she was telling the truth. So I sought help.

            I went away to a week-long therapy retreat near Nashville I had read about in one of Donald Miller’s books. As a pastor I was skeptical about therapists, but I figured Donald Miller is a pretty smart guy and they seemed to help him; maybe they could help me. Truthfully, I didn’t really know who “Me” was. Early on, my therapist Angela told me to draw a picture of what I wanted. Are you kidding me lady?

            “I’m going to get something from my office while you draw. I’ll be back in a few minutes to see your picture.” She told me.

            This is stupid—I hate exercises like this. I’m not a five-year-old. I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper.

            “Oh no you don’t!” She called back to me. “No monochrome. You’re a colorful person. You have to use at least five colors in your picture.”

            “Are you serious?” I challenged.

            “Oh, I’m serious. I’ll be back in about ten minutes. I can’t wait to see what you draw.” And she walked out the door.

            I could not have been at more of a loss as to what to draw. Draw a picture of what I want? That’s why I flew all the way out here—to figure that out! Ugh this is painful!

            I knew she was coming back and I better have something to show. So I started to draw.

            “Ok, let’s see what you drew!” Angela said walking through the door. “Wow. Good job. That’s interesting. Do you see what you drew?”

            “Yeah I drew a picture of my family.”

            “Yes you did. You came here with big questions about who you are and about your purpose. You told me the first day you feared floating off into space like Sandra Bullock’s character in the movie Gravity. Remember? Do you see where did you drew yourself in this picture?”

            “Standing on the ground” I answered, seeing that part of my own drawing for the first time.

            “Yep, you’re standing on green grass. And see those smiles on all your faces? You even drew all of you holding hands! And under the warm sun!”

            “I don’t get it, what are you saying?” I asked, confused.

            “Stephen, what you want is to be grounded and connected with your family. You’re looking to give yourself permission to be you. It’s as profound and simple as that.”

Angela acted as a significant guide in the early stages, helping me begin to rediscover my own identity. My week away launched me on a journey of meeting with a regular therapist, reading the Bible, talking to spiritual mentors, and drawing on the tools I learned in my seminary and doctoral programs.  

I have been working hard to see and work through issues and false beliefs holding me back and causing my depression for a while now. Lisa and I have been in counseling for our marriage to rediscover ourselves and one another again. And, we are learning to play again as a family! We take adventures together, eat pancakes most mornings, and I picked up the guitar again to add music to our home. I love to look down and see my Collide with the Sky Ring, reminding me to to rise to the challenge as I pursue the life I was created to live. As a dad, I owe it to my family to look hard and long at those beliefs in my life that hold me back and create rifts in my relationships.

Collide with the Sky RIng

I share these things because I know many people struggle with burnout, depression, addiction and more. I am not fixed now, but I continue to grow in my ability to face my demons, not let them control me and most importantly to enter more fully into relationships. I paid attention to what I was feeling and others were telling me. I got help–I shared my struggles with some close friends and found a therapist. I followed through in the process no matter how silly or painful if felt along the way. If you’re feeling depleted, irritable, negativity and cynicism–if loved ones are concerned about you–I encourage you to take similar steps. They’re scary but worth it.

When I met Angela in Nashville, I thought I wanted to know which way I needed to go vocationally. Should I return to being a pastor? Should I keep going in business? Should do something else? I was surprised to find what I want is to be grounded, connected to my family, enjoying each other. Last summer our family was playing together in England and decided to take the photo at the top of this post–it just came together this way. It’s exactly the picture I drew years ago! What’s your picture?

Love Is Brave

“I don’t think I love you. I made a mistake. We shouldn’t have gotten married!” These were Lisa’s words to me, not after a big fight, or during the break down in our marriage a few years ago, but the morning of our first full day in Hawaii on our honeymoon. We were off to a strong start! For some reason, I wasn’t threatened or scared. I knew people freak out after getting married. My response? “Don’t worry Babe, everything will be fine. Let’s get breakfast and go snorkeling.” People don’t talk about their marriages much, but these are the real moments that happen between two people as they bring their lives together.

This summer Lisa and I will celebrate our 20-year wedding anniversary. When we got married twenty years ago, we were in love and couldn’t wait to start our lives together. We knew no one in the history of the world had ever been in love like us. We had intense feelings, deep faith in Jesus, and the community of the Church all in our favor. Our relationship would stand as an example of love and commitment to all around us.

Three years ago, all those hopes and dreams seemed to shatter when we sat in a therapists office and Lisa, struggling to even look at me, said four painful words, “I want to separate.” It was an intense time and my world was crumbling around me. I had no words of reassurance or confidence things would work out. I was scared.

This came in the midst of a long struggle with depression, an internal sense that nothing I do is good enough, and an all or nothing approach to many areas of my life driven by perfectionism. Lisa had told me a year earlier if something didn’t change, she didn’t know what would happen. In response I went on a week-long intensive therapy retreat in Nashville followed by a year of therapy—including a few months of couples counseling. Between therapy, my depression, and an intense period as CEO of our business Lisa Leonard Designs, I was in a dark place during these days. Even though we had had many hard conversations during this time, I was shocked and caught off guard by what Lisa was telling me.

 We decided together Lisa would get away to spend time with her sisters and get some time alone. She walked, I worked out at the gym. We both journaled about what we wanted. We were both scared and uncertain of where our relationship was headed. After those ten days, we spent a couple days together, even attended a Paul McCartney concert—nothing better than being on a date having Sir Paul serenade you with his silly love songs! Then we each went away to a week-long intensive therapy retreat. I went for my second experience, then Lisa went when I returned.

At this point I’ll reveal to you that I’m a sappy and sentimental person. I tend to keep little mementoes of special occasions—the wristband I wore for entry to a concert, a torn dollar bill signifying a close friendship, a sticky note where Lisa professed her love. I think Paul McCartney is my favorite Beatle because his love songs hold nothing back. I’m a romantic who loves the idea of love. As a pastor I loved standing with a couple performing their wedding, getting to see every tear, every longing look, every unspoken inside joke between the couple.

When I asked Lisa to marry me I bought new pants for the occasion (a tip off to her when I showed up at the door!) and drove 45 minutes to pick her up for the dinner that was close to my house. I told her it was a symbol that I would got any distance for her.

And, 20 years into marriage, I have come face to face with the reality that real love between two people is not a love song. Two people with hurts and insecurities come together seeking to give and receive love. Often, even unknowingly, we look to one another to heal our hurts and patch our broken parts. Romantic love is a beautiful thing, but no matter how much we may wish it would, it can’t save us.

I have discovered, through the breakdown of our marriage, each of us has to take responsibility for our own healing and wholeness. Most problems in our marriages are not with our partner, but with us (yes, there are exceptions). As a Christian, I believe Jesus healing work in the world is the healing of our hurts and carried shame. The good news talked in the Bible is about restoring ruptured relationships—with God, others and ourselves. We are made in God’s image and through healing, we learn to see that image in ourselves and others. This healing requires faith, hard work, and a deep desire to grow and change.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I celebrate the love Lisa and I have together. It is a love that has endured having a child with special needs, the pressures of pastoral ministry, running a business together, long-term depression and a break down. It is a love characterized by friendship and trust. A love where we tell each other the hard things and we prop each other when we’re down. It is a love forged, like fine metal, through the crucible of trials difficult times.

One way Lisa and I work on our relationship is to ask how we can be a better partner. We share and listen—even when it’s hard. As you celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, think about how you can be a better partner. Ask your partner to share with you a growth area. Share something vulnerable. Love requires sacrifice, courage, strength and willingness to change. May you and your beloved grow closer this year!

Give: Love

Thanksgiving and Christmas kind of run together for me. I know this is controversial to some, but the two holidays sort of bracket my favorite time of year (Followed by the most depressing holiday of the year—New Year’s Day. Why is a day with the word ‘new’ in its title such a downer? I’ll leave that for another time!) Many people see the Christmas Season as a time of consumerism, selfishness, and greed. But for me it’s the opposite.

Thanksgiving is an opportunity to refocus on living with gratitude. We’ve been talking in our offices recently about the reality we all want to be seen and recognized for who we really are. Both men and women give of themselves day in and day out—feeding the kids, changing diapers, driving kids around, working, paying bills, etc.—doing the mundane things of life we are required to do maintain and grow our families physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The truth is, few of us are very good at seeing one another and truly offering appreciation and gratitude for the many things, small and big, we do for one another every day.

I tend to see and comment on the one missing link in an email rather than the amazing photos and graphics our team churns out day after day. I’m prone to question Lisa why we ran out of paper towels instead of appreciating and thanking her for the healthy and delicious dinners she prepares our family night after night.

One busy day of family activity doesn’t make up for an overall lack of gratitude. But, it’s a chance for a reset if we’re willing. It’s a reminder, built right into the annual calendar, to live with gratitude in our hearts toward one another and to God for the love, support and life we receive each day.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with Christmas parties at our kids’ schools, work, and church. It’s a time to celebrate. My only issue is how we neglect the importance of celebration other times of year. I’ve seen over the years how Christmas parties in the Christian community often solicits cynical remarks about materialism or unproductive busyness. Other times the word ‘celebration’ gets baptized and becomes synonymous with another church event on the calendar—usually an event with Christian music, red and green sweaters and mood lighting in the church sanctuary.

But we are designed to celebrate and enjoy life, one another, and all God provides. We seem to miss the numerous holidays in the Hebrew Scriptures (I can tell you my friends in Israel still celebrate these holidays today and there are a lot of them!) where God’s people are instructed to stop their work, feast, remember, and have fun. Why would we ever want to work toward less of this in our lives? This time of year is full of moments where we gather with people we know well. These events are often a chance to make new friends. We eat, laugh and share stories with those we love. Life is hard. I spend so much time and energy fretting over bills, budgets, David’s health, Matthias’ progress, what people think of me, how good I am at my job, whether I do anything that matters, and many other things. But during these week of December, I have moments where I let that all go and enjoy being present and having fun with important people in my life. I remember I have so much to celebrate—most of all the relationships with amazing people I am often too busy to truly enjoy.

Christmas comes around and it can be dominated by materialism and consumerism. On the one hand, some spend past their means and try to fill voids with things for themselves, their kids, or others with a display of money. On the other hand, some are dominated by materialism by withholding and refusing to give or receive gifts—usually to be more ‘spiritual.’ Like Oogway said in Kung Fu Panda, “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.” Christmas can be an excuse for indulging dark aspects of our society and human life.

But the truth is Christmas is a time when God was over-abundantly generous toward humanity giving us the gift of His Son. The Creator gave His best, sending His own Son into the world, to walk in the dirt with us as a tangible, human, material expression of His fatherly love for the world. I could cite many other biblical examples of God’s generosity toward humanity (the beauty of the creation made for our delight and sustenance, social systems which enable us to dwell together in society, music which quickens the heart and stimulates the mind, relationships within which we give and receive love—just to name a few), but this one seems fitting for this time of year. If God is willing to give His best out of His resources to those He loves, it is fitting we give our best out of our resources to those we love. And it should not be lost on us, God gave to those who love Him, but also to those who don’t. And He did it without expectation. God’s generosity knows no bounds. Once again, we are challenged to generosity to those who love us and to those who don’t.

Friends, it’s time we seek a new agenda for our lives. This year—the past couple of months—have been characterized by more deadly shootings, devastating fires, and deepening polarization at the polls. We can dig in and pull deeper into our tribes, pointing fingers at those of other tribes. We can heat up the rhetoric and oppose one another’s ideologies more fiercely. Or we can take a different path. We can look to God’s example, and gently enter one another’s worlds. We can give what is dear to build bridges. As we enter this Christmas Season, my goal is to Give Love. To show gratitude. To Celebrate. And to expand my generosity. Our world needs these gifts we each hold in our hands. Will you join me?

 

 

 

 

Risk

Does the word risk hold a positive or negative meaning for you?

I think there’s a tiny percent of the population who live risky in the negative sense—bungee jumping without the bungee cord, sky diving without a parachute, or heading to work without drinking a cup of coffee. For the rest of us, I think fear—of failure, of looking bad, of being rejected—prevents us from taking smart risks.

In her latest book on leadership, sociologist Brene Brown notes, “Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet the changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation,” is a core issue identified by corporate leaders as what is getting in the way of organizations around the world.

You may or may not be a corporate leader, but the need today for smart risks and bold ideas is massive. In a world of rapid change, polarization, impulsive leaders and threats the world has never known before, the idea that we can ‘play it safe’ is an illusion.

Fear is one of the leading threats of our time and one of the most destructive forces in history. A year ago I launched the Stephen David Leonard brand, representing for me a risk to show up give voice to another approach to life. Whatever success I have experienced in the past, I have succeeded by carefully hiding my true self—I failed to truly show up and be who I am designed to be. I know I’m not alone. Many people, many men, fear to risk showing their true selves.

The Stephen David Leonard product, brand, my family and my life are reflections of a larger hope. Each of us is designed to experience life to its intended fullness in a ruptured world as agents of a better one.

I pray as I take the risk to show up in my life, you may be inspired to take the risk to show up in yours. Lisa and I have created product for a decade that are tangible reminders of hope for women. I have seen the ways women are inspired to take risks. But women aren’t the only ones who need to be inspired.

As a father, husband and man living today, I see how we live in a world characterized by ruptured relationship. Most responses today are born out of fear. Instead, I call us men to risk being the people we are designed to be. Rather than agents of fear, retaliation, power, and selfishness, risk being ambassadors of love, justice, mercy and faithfulness out of a hope this is not the way it’s meant to be.

The SDL products are tangible reminders of that hope and the strength of character it takes to risk showing up. I designed the product to reflect you—the people you love, the character to which you aspire, the authentic life for which you were designed. This coming year, I am committed to risk showing up more. I invite you to join me.

Thank you to all of you who have support the Stephen David Leonard brand this year. The brand exists for you. You are the ones bringing a scary dream into reality.

Climbing Mountains

Since November of last year I have been training and preparing to engage a life-long goal of riding my bike on the famous climbs used in the Tour de France. Wearing glasses since I was five, hand-eye coordination sports never came easy to me. In elementary school I was a small kid who got teased a lot. In 6th grade I visited my grandparents in England, where their next door neighbor, David, introduced me to cycling.

I was enthralled watching Greg LeMond, the only American, fight it out in the Tour de France with Bernard Hinault. The next year he won the first of his three victories, becoming the only American to ever win the Tour de France. He was my hero. I convinced my mom to take me to the bike shop where I got my first ten speed ever—A Univega, complete with handlebar shifters, extra brakes levers and 40 pounds of mean cycling machine.

I rode all over Fresno. I had a new found freedom and loved turning the toe-clipped pedals. I was so skinny my mom had to take in my cycling shorts. We found the smallest ones around, but even taken in, they hung a little loose on me. Riding around Woodward Park, I imagined myself as Greg LeMond, climbing the Col de Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez. It was the perfect sport for me heading into Junior High. Having spent so many young years feeling rejected by other kids, feeling shame about who I was, on the bike I found a place I could be me.

As time went on I moved up bikes, first to a low end Bianchi (my first real racing bike!) and after saving up a lot of money from my paper route, I bought a Battaglin frame (the same as used by Stephen Roche to win the 1987 Tour de France!) complete with Campagnolo parts. This was a top end bike I rode and raced with pride. Cycling gave me a way to find myself, to grow up and become independent. I made a whole new circle of friends, who didn’t know me from elementary school. They only knew me as one of them.

All the while I dreamed of riding the Tour de France one day. Every mountain I climbed, every hill I went up, became those giants in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I pictured myself there, riding these giants and living the dream.

Now I have teenage boys and it’s been a long time since I was one myself. My boys are the ages I was when I fell in love with cycling and finding myself. I see them on their journeys to become the men God made them to be. I think often how some of my life long passions started when I was their age.

In October I joined some friends and signed up to travel to France and ride these mountains I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. We began preparing in November, riding week in, week out. Every Saturday spending hours on the bike to be ready for days of 5,000-15,000 feet of climbing in France. At this stage of life, I have to navigate work and family time. Each workout had to count over the past months, whether on or off the bike. We aren’t in the Tour de France (other than in our minds!), but we are on an adventure that will finally take us to meet and ride these celebrity mountains.

Each of us has mountains to climb in our lives. Sometimes they are goals we hope to achieve. Sometimes they are obstacles we have to overcome. Sometimes it’s facing fears, taking risks, or engaging in personal growth. And sometimes they are literal mountains, just to see if you can do it. Each takes courage to take the initial step and sign up for the journey. In each case, it takes resiliency to show up week after week—especially when you don’t want to or when commitments make it difficult. And, once we’ve finally climbed the mountain, we realize we haven’t reached the end, but have begun a journey that will carry on through our lives.

Father’s Day Musings

Father’s Day is almost here. Our lives have been so crazy lately with David’s surgery and Matthias graduating Middle School, it’s easy to miss everything happening around us–especially a day like Father’s Day. But this time of year reminds me how grateful I am to be a dad and how grateful I am for my sons.

A few weeks back Matthias and I went on his school camping trip. I love getting out into nature with him and seeing him hang out with his friends. He seems to be growing and changing before my eyes lately. Honestly, sometimes I find myself freaking out that he only has four more years until he graduates. I think of the things I haven’t taught him yet, the things I neglected when he was younger, the things out ahead of him and feel like I could be such a better dad to him. Then I remember growing and learning is a life-long journey.

David has had a few bad colds and a hard time breathing this year, to the point I have worried about him many nights as I put him in his bed. Finding out he had a polyp in his nose the size of my index finger has explained so much. All these things remind me how inadequate I really am to keep my boys and my family from harm. No matter what steps I take to protect them, so much is out of my control. I have to admit the idea I can keep them healthy and safe is an illusion. And yet, I am grateful for those who surrounded our family and helped us help David get the surgery he needed.

People don’t really talk about this, but being a dad is vulnerable. Dads want to be strong for our kids and families. Dads work hard to provide for our families. Dads want to be role models and to teach our kids. We may not wear our hearts on our sleeves, but our love runs deep. Every dad, whether he drives a truck, works in an office, or stays home with the kids wants the best for his kids. And yet we all wonder if we’re up to the task. We worry the day will come when we can’t provide, can’t protect, can’t be there.

We want to be the super hero who can fly in and defeat our foes with lightning speed and the strength of steel. But we know we are flesh and blood. Our foes don’t use magic, or diabolical riddles, or elaborate scientific contraptions. Instead we fight to pay mortgages, pay for college and provide the best life we can for our families. Dads want the best for our kids.

In today’s world, being a dad takes courage. We have to withstand the pressures and fears we face. This Father’s Day honor and celebrate the dads you know who have shown their faithful love. Remember the dads who mentor and teach you. Let them know the difference they make.

 

Superheroes A-Z

“I think, think, think; draw, draw, draw; write, write, write. I am an artist and an author,” Matthias said when he came home one day at the end of his first week in kindergarten. He had drawn pictures since he was three years old. But, from this moment forward, Matthias has claimed his creative space as an artist and an author.

A couple years later, I was putting him to bed one night in late March. I noticed he had paper and drawing supplies in bed with him.

“What’s that?” I asked.“It’s drawing stuff. I’m making a book for mom for Mother’s Day.”

“Really? Wow, that’s still a few weeks away, I’m impressed you’re already working on it.”

“You guys are working on Mother’s Day at the office, so I thought I would work on it too so I’ll have enough time to make the book.”

“That’s awesome. What’s the book?”

“I’m drawing super heroes. Three for every letter of the alphabet.”

“Like, super heroes we already know, or ones you’re making up?”

“I’m making up my own superheroes. It’s a surprise, don’t tell mom.” he answered.

For the next few weeks, everywhere he went he had his superhero book project with him. As Mother’s Day neared he began taking his drawing supplies to bed with him more often.“I have to keep working so I can have it ready,” he told me, sounding like a college student working on a term paper.

“Ok, you’ve been working hard. You can stay up a little late, but only one picture then you need to go to sleep,” I told him. Putting him to bed I was both worried he wasn’t getting enough sleep and proud of his dedication to the project.

As he neared completion, I came up with a what I thought a great idea, “Matthias, what if we take your drawings and get them bound and put a cover on it, so you have a real book to give Mom?”

“Yeah, Mom would like that,” he answered.

“Maybe even we could make a few copies so you have one and we can give a couple to the family? You’ve worked so hard on it, it would be cool to share it. I think they would enjoy it,” I suggested.

A couple days after Mother’s Day (like many first time authors, he missed his deadline by a few days, but it was his first effort and he was only a kid!), we headed over to Staples together to make full color copies and get a cover for his book.

“To do full color copies is ten cents per page plus ten dollars for a cover,” the Staples employee told me.

I thought about the cost, and did some quick math in my head, but decided Matthias’ work and Mother’s Day for Lisa was worth the fifty bucks. “Perfect, when will it be ready?”

“Give us 45 minutes to an hour and we’ll have them for you,” she told me.

Matthias and I decided to run over to the grocery store and get Lisa some flowers to go with her awesome Mother’s Day gift. I was feeling happy with myself. Matthias had put weeks of effort into this project. Lisa was going to love it. We would have copies for the family. This was a win for the Leonard boys.

We went back to pick it up. “Color prints, plus covers for twenty-five copies,” the employee started punching numbers into the cash register. “Eighty pages times twenty-five plus covers…”

I began reworking my mental math, “Wait, how many??” I thought to myself. “That’s not a little under fifty bucks…”

“With tax that comes to $485.32,” she said, interrupting my thoughts.

My stomach sank. In my quick head math earlier, I somehow thought the total would be around $50. I missed something. I tried to look like that was the number I expected and pulled out my debit card to pay. “Oh man, Lisa is going to kill me,” I thought now. How quickly it turns from win to loss! Hopefully she would understand since it was Matthias’s work and we were helping him become the first published author in our family—all to celebrate Lisa.  I paid and we went home. Matthias was beaming.

“Are you happy with how it turned out kiddo?”

“Yeah. Mom’s really going to like this. It looks so good.”

Super Heroes from A to Z, a compendium of seventy-eight original super heroes! The book contained not only pictures and descriptions, but he knew the back story to every character, with detail far surpassing what he put down in the book.

Iguona Guy—”Skills of ignuona. Reptile strong. Chest plate of armer.”

Nine Man—”He has 9 times the strike. Nine punches and your out. His strength comes in numbers.”

Paraliser—“If you look into his eyes you’re out. He controls day and night.”

And our family favorite. Edward, “Edward has no powers and is poor. He has no relationship with his parents.” Explains so much, doesn’t it?

We arrived home and presented the book to Lisa along with the flowers.

“Wow Matthias! I love it. You worked hard on this didn’t you? This is so amazing—I can’t believe you came up with three superheroes for every letter of the alphabet! I love it and I love you.”

“Thanks Mom. I’m happy you like it. We made extra copies so we can give it to the family too.” Lisa hugged and kissed Matthias and he ran off to the other room.

“It was a little more expensive than I thought it would be,” I said tentatively. “Somehow I miscalculated how much all the copies would be together.”

“How much was it? How much were you off?” Lisa asked, her face with a look of surprise.

“Well, I was off by a zero.”

“A zero? What do you mean?”

“I thought it was going to be around fifty bucks—kind of a splurge, but you know, it’s Matthias’ book for you. But it was…”

“It was five hundred!” Lisa interjected, her eyes wide. At the very moment I felt my stomach tense up, she laughed. “Well, the good news is, the family will love it and will be happy to get copies.”

“It’s your most expensive Mother’s Day gift ever—but at least it’s for Matthias’ work.” I suggested. “You’re worth it Baby. So is he.”

“Totally,” she said. I gave her a hug and a kiss, relieved she was happy with her gift and not upset about the money.

To this day Matthias draws and writes and creates worlds and characters who inspire and capture a sense of wonder in the world. Everywhere he goes he carries his drawing materials with him in case we have ten minutes of down time. He still creates heroes and heroines, bad guys, villains and now he’s a teenager, creepy creatures too! He has begun writing down his characters’ back stories, creating worlds and telling stories of outer space, Arthurian legends, teenage boys and more.

Every April I pull out Super Heroes from A to Z to remember those precious days, to reflect on how far he has come as an artist and a person and to see Matthias’s labor of love to celebrate his mom.

Monday Musings

Sunday I got to live out a little dream I’ve had since I was Matthias’s age. For months I’ve been bugging my guitar teacher about how I can play music with and for other live human beings. Whether it was at my prompting, or something else, he set up a recital for his students at a local restaurant and got twelve of us out there playing for friends, family and whoever came by.

Lisa came out and brought the boys to support me. She earned wife of the year points, rallying friends of ours to come out and see me play. Matthias took a super sweet photo us and then kept shooting while she tried to get the camera back–it’s been his little joke with us since he was seven years old!

Matthias is getting so big–he looks more like the rock star with me, but I loved having him out there. The best compliment I got was him telling me he thought I sounded good. At 14 he’s prepared to tell me when something’s not good, so I’ll take it!

I was blown away, some friend gathered up their family drove 40 minutes (that’s far away here on the Central Coast of California!) to come see me and made a day of it. It’s a humbling thing to have people turn up to support and encourage you. Especially when it feels risky like playing and singing in public! I’m grateful to the five families that shared their afternoon with us.

When I started playing my set, David ran from the other side of the patio at the restaurant to come find me. So fun–he heard my voice and one of the songs I’ve been practicing at home and knew Dad was playing music! David is super musical. His favorite thing to do is play the various keyboards we have around the house. He often comes in and “joins in” when I’m playing at home.

Beach Hut Deli in Los Osos hosted us. They had great food and provided a fantastic family environment for all of us to hang out and perform our songs. The owner, Heather was super nice and supportive of us all. I love when we can support local businesses!
My teacher, Patrick Pearson, set all this up for us. Twelve of us performed, from seven to eighty years old, from beginner to some guys who shred on the guitar. I had such a blast performing with Patrick and hanging out to support my fellow students. I’ve been taking lessons for a little over a year now, and singing and playing a couple songs for and audience was definitely the next level. It’s funny how something so small can feel so big and intimidating. And yet, as evidenced by our group, it’s never too early and never too late to start. It doesn’t matter what stage of development you’re at, the more you practice and learn the better you get. There might be a bigger lesson there for all of us.

Fear

The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear.

An imaginary force masquerading as danger, fear can hold us back, hinder our dreams, and act as an invisible barrier to the things we want. When our boys were little, we loved to read What Was I Scared Of? By Dr. Seuss. The Seussian creature main character (what is he anyway?!) strolls in the woods one evening when he shockingly encounters a Pair of Pale Green Pants with Nobody Inside Them. Not given to fear, our hero tells us, he is understandably shaken up by this aberrant creature floating before him. Then the PGPWNIT move, “They kind of started jumping. And then my heart, I must admit, It kind of started thumping.” Still unafraid, our hero runs. Don’t judge. I don’t know about you, but if I met a pair of floating pants jumping up and down in a dark wood, I would run too! And it doesn’t end there. The pants nearly run him over while buying Grin-itch spinach in Gin-itch. Again, he encounters the pants on Roover River fishing for Doubt Trout. By now our hero is willing to admit he’s frightened—screaming and running away as fast as he can. Who can blame him? Are the PGPWNIT stalking him? Everywhere he turns the PGPWNIT show up. So, he hides. In a Brickel bush. For two days. The only reason he finally comes out of hiding—a nagging errand on his to do list. He has to “pick a peck of Snide in a dark and gloomy Snide-field.” We’ve all been there.

Picking snide, his body shaking, confronting his fears, he summons his courage,

I said, “I do not fear pants

With nobody inside them.”

I said, I said, and said, those words.

I said them. But I lied them.

And then it happens—he reaches into a snide bush and touches the pants!

I yelled for help.

I screamed, I shrieked.

I howled, I yowled. I cried,

“Oh save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!”

In the midst of his shrieking terror, face to face with his greatest fear, he realizes the PGPWNIT are as afraid of him as he is of them! The pants are shaking and trembling as much as he is. Realizing the fear is in his head not the PGPWNIT, he decides to embrace them and they “become friends, meeting often, never shaking or trembling, but smiling and saying ‘Hi.’”

I love What Was I Scared Of? for the way it illustrates how we make up stories about people and our circumstances and let our minds get carried away—especially when we don’t understand something. I remember my big writing project from seventh grade, the Last Chance project. We had to write a story about our class taking a space ship to another planet and what we would do to create a new civilization. I did not understand the assignment. And it was huge for our grade. I spent a lot of time and energy avoiding the paper. It was my own PGPWNIT. Eventually, I sat down, read the assignment and start writing. We didn’t become fast friends that Last Chance project and I, but I did complete it and survived the experience.

I am continually learning to recognize when something scares me—especially something I need or want to do and to face it like those PGPWNIT. In my mid 30’s I decided I wanted to get a doctoral degree in theology. Despite my transition from ministry to business in the middle of the program, I saw it through, got through my dissertation and earned the degree. At 40 I realized I needed to exercise regularly to be there for my kids and Lisa. I joined a gym with a built-in accountability system of appointments to help me show up. I’m proud to say I’ve consistently worked out 4-5 times per week for four years. This past year I embraced my life-long love of music and started guitar and bass lessons. I’m not great, but I enjoy playing. Many times over the past decade in business, when things seemed scary, dark, uncertain, instead of shying away, I faced my deep fears and found a way forward. One of the scariest things I’ve done recently is to reach out to a group of guys I know in my gym class to grab a beer together. Men typically are not as good at getting together as our wives. And, I have faced the daily realities of raising a son with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome–his surgeries, his extra care, and the scares of nearly losing him to illness.

In each and every case, I looked my metaphorical PGPWNIT in the eyes and,

I said, “I do not fear pants

With nobody inside them.”

I said, I said, and said, those words.

I said them. But I lied them.

My heart thumping, screaming and shrieking inside, I went to the gym for the first time. I applied and interviewed for my doctoral program and finished my dissertation (It felt like my Last Chance paper all over again in my 30’s). Feeling like a fraud I showed up for my first guitar lesson. Feeling like I was high school boy asking a girl on a first date I asked the guys, “Hey, you guys think you’d ever be interested to grab a beer together?” They said yes! And, engulfed in fear, I have shown up for my family and my son to face the realities of Cornelia de Lange Syndrome.

I don’t know what your PGPWNIT is. Maybe it’s a dream, a project at work, a hobby you want to take up, or even the fears around facing a chronic illness. You probably have your own PGPWNIT following you around your Grin-itch village where you live. Danger is real. Fear is in your head. The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear. Turn and engage your fear. Take a step toward your dream. Start your hobby. Show up for yourself, or your loved one, facing illness.  After all, your PGPWNIT and you just might become friends, meeting often, never shaking or trembling, but simply smiling and saying hi.

The path to your greatest success is through your greatest fear. What fear do you need to face?

Heart Surgery

I was angry. Who in the world did this guy think this he was? Lisa and I were already three hours into our four hour journey to UCLA to meet with David’s heart surgeon about his upcoming surgery. Our boys, David and Matthias, were in the back seat of the car and we were well into the trip when the office called. The woman on the phone informed Lisa the surgeon cancelled our appointment as he didn’t come into the office today. Really? Who schedules a pre-operation appointment and then waits to cancel with the patient at noon on the day of the appointment? David was going in for open heart surgery to repair a cushion defect and defective valve—one of his medical conditions resulting from Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. You could say we were a little anxious. I decided then and there I was going to give this surgeon a piece of my mind when we saw him the following week at the newly made appointment time.

The following week we again loaded up the car for the four hour journey from our home down to UCLA. This time, we called the office multiple times to verify the appointment before we got on the road. A week had passed since the enraging phone call, so I had to remind myself how mad I was at this surgeon. I had never met him before, but after his shenanigans the week before, I questioned whether this guy was responsible enough to handle my son’s heart surgery. After all, if he can’t keep his schedule straight, how can he be any good as a surgeon?

We waited in the office and finally were taken back into the consult rooms. A nurse came in and took David’s height, weight and blood pressure. Then we waited. I didn’t feel angry anymore about the cancellation a week earlier, so I had to work to be ready to confront the surgeon when the time came for me to voice my irritation over his lack of consideration and potential lack of competence. It’s hard to be angry when you’re in a reasonably good mood, so I had work at it a bit. At least I was stressed by the very nature of the visit, so that gave me a little negativity to draw on.

The moment of truth arrived. The surgeon knocked and entered the room. They say you never have a second chance at a first impression. In his case, my first impression has lasted in my mind for many years. As he stepped into the room I noticed his scrubs—not uncommon for surgeons to wear around the hospital between surgeries. But my eyes were immediately drawn to his white tennis shoes—out of date, funky soles, neither utilitarian nor stylish. They are the type of shoe hipsters began wearing ironically a few years later—which did not make them hip at the time. Then my eyes were drawn to his mussed, bouffant hairstyle. Truthfully he had probably come from surgery, having removed his surgical cap his hair showing the signs of a morning spent saving another child’s life. Of course, that wasn’t the narrative in my head when I saw Dr. Cardio Surgeon. To me, his hair and his shoes were further signs this was not the guy to handle my son’s heart.

And then there was his awkward manner. As he entered, he looked like a junior high actor unsure of how to move across the stage, unsure of what to do with his hands while people watched him. Each step was functional with a touch of conscious effort to get him from the doorway to the chair where he eventually sat down. I continued to build my case against him. He had offended me and was showing clear signs of incompetence in my mind.

He introduced himself and performed a rote reviewed of David’s case. He transitioned without so much as a breath into the procedure. With technical jargon I can no longer remember, he described how he would make a cut down the front of David’s chest and divide the breastbone to reach the heart. They would connect him to a heart-lung machine to pump his blood and act as his lungs during the surgery so he could remove David’s heart. He would need to enter the heart and patch the ventricular septal defect (holes in the wall of David’s heart). Then he would put everything back together and close him up. Imagine if Mr. Spock (the original Leonard Nimoy Spock, not Zachary Quinto’s Spock) explained precisely how he was going to open up your seven year old’s chest and repair his heart and you may have some idea what it was like, though Dr. Cario Surgeon lacked Spock’s human touch.

Then he asked if we had any questions. We asked a number of clarifying questions—mostly “Are you really hooking David up to machines to breathe and circulate his blood while you remove his heart?!” in different forms. We asked him how difficult this surgery was for him. He rated it a two out of ten. To us it felt like an eleven. In the midst of this meeting, I realized it would be no use to point out Dr. Cardio Surgeon’s offense at cancelling our appointment last minute. Like Darth Vader, he was “more machine now than man.” I am confident he would have listened and heard my complaint. I am confident the human subtleties of slight would not have computed for him.

A few weeks later, it was time for Halloween and David’s surgery. We spent the anxious hours of the surgery distracting ourselves around the UCLA campus from the stressful reality of David lying in an operating room with chest opened. When he finished the surgery and came to give us his post-op report, we were so elated and relieved the surgery was successful, Lisa couldn’t help but reach out and touch his arm in gratitude. He looked down at her hand and then up at her. He didn’t move other than slowly connecting the hand on his shoulder to its owner. His face didn’t change, he barely moved a muscle, but he simultaneously looked surprised by the contact and like he understood this is a positive gesture. We spent more time with Dr. Cardio Surgeon over the next couple weeks as David recovered in the hospital. Without fail, every other time we saw him, Dr. Cardio Surgeon had at least two other doctors with him. Often they did more talking than he did. He seemed to prefer to do rounds when people were less likely to be around.

Along the way, Lisa’s sister researched Dr. Cardio Surgeon and found he is among the best pediatric cardio thoracic surgeons in the world. He is a world class expert with world class skill. I could have made a big deal and even insisted on another surgeon to operate on our beloved David. Ultimately, who would I rather have open my son’s chest and handle his heart? Someone who’s polite, has his schedule dialed in and wears nice clothes? No way. I’ll take Dr. Cardio Surgeon every time.

We have faced a lot of things since this surgery. Our boys have been sick. Our business had a drastic downturn and we almost closed it down. We’ve experienced intense, rocky relationships with vendors and business associates. Our marriage came close to imploding. And more. Very little of any of these stresses compares with the stress of this experience, knowing someone holds your child’s heart in their hands. Watching David’s surgery, his determination and resilience in recovering, puts many things in life into perspective. And there is no one I would rather have holding David’s heart than Dr. Cardio Surgeon. It goes to show, while you may only have one chance to make a first impression, first impressions are often wrong. Who else have I misjudged? The barista I thought slighted me, who was simply coping with her breakup the night before? The quiet employee I overlooked because I failed to see her consistent and great work? The friend I falsely believed didn’t want to listen to my struggles? Sometimes the person we see as our enemy turns out to be our ally and the best person for the job.