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Sunday, May 21, 2017

When You're chapter

This is an "Interlude" chapter from my book, explaining how homelessness feels for a father...

When you’re homeless, you feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Like there is an invisible wall between yourself and “normal” folks. It feels like it’s a slow-moving nightmare and you can’t tell which part is the dream and which is reality. You want to wake up, but you’re already awake.
It feels like you’re watching the normal folks with their normal life, a life that you used to have as well, and you start forgetting what all that felt like. What it was like to have a kitchen, and a stove, and a bed...and an address. You try to forget about your dogs and your cat and your garden. You overhear bits of conversations about mundane home ownership, and you wish you could be doing those things that had the normal people complaining. You wish you still had a lawn to cut. You wish you had a driveway to seal, or an electric bill to groan about. You’d give anything for a nosy neighbor.
When you are homeless, you don’t wake up on Monday mornings, have the Monday morning blues, and make jokes with your coworkers about how “It’s Monday again...” Because when you’re homeless, every day feels like Monday. Every day greets you with the blues. Every day finds you one day further removed from humanity. One more day since your last meaningful conversation. One more day since you had clean sheets and a warm bed. One more day has passed since you had a cup of coffee in your kitchen, in your mug, from your coffee maker.
When you’re homeless, you can’t run home for lunch, or grill out, or hang your laundry out to dry. You can’t take a warm shower at the end of a hard day’s work, because you don’t have a shower, and you can’t find any work.
When you’re homeless, you can’t stay indoors on a cold, rainy, November Saturday and get caught up on some reading, and have a nice fire in the fireplace and make some soup and watch the cold rain as it falls. When you’re homeless, you try to stay dry and warm and out of sight if you can.
When you’re homeless there are no pictures on your walls, because you have no walls. So, you carry them in your wallet, and in your heart. They come alive at night, these pictures. They haunt you. Pictures of your little girl and the rope swing you had in the oak tree out back, and how she laughed, and wanted you to push her for hours. Pictures of how your beloved dog Bonnie would come over to you on the sofa and lay her chin on your leg, and let out a soft little sigh and look at you plaintively until you scratched her head. Pictures of your daughter and the time you filled the Jacuzzi tub with Mr. Bubble powder, and she was lost in the suds and laughing up a storm and having the most fun you’d ever seen. Pictures of when it was that you had a life.
Other times, it’s like being on the inside looking out. You swear everyone knows. Everyone sees. You hide your bedroll in the trunk of your car but maybe they saw it when you were getting your school books. You circle the church where you hide your car at night to get a few hours of sleep. You circle it like a hawk, hunting for his prey, waiting until you don’t see any headlights coming in either direction and then you pull in before someone sees you. Your heart races, and pounds and you swear that this time, they saw your taillights and they’ve called the cops. You hurry up and back into the overgrowth until you are hidden from view. They can’t see you but you swear they can. You wait, being as quiet as a mouse, barely breathing. Ten minutes go by. Then twenty. Sitting still like this means the fatigue that has become part of your DNA, starts to catch up to you but you fight it. After enough time passes, you let out your breath and realize that nobody saw you. You’ve pulled it off one more time. You get changed into your sweatpants and sweatshirt and zipper into two sleeping bags and try not to let yourself admit how cold it really is. The cold has gotten into your bones by now and you can never quite feel warm. Your body is warm enough with all the layers, but you’re still breathing frigid air and you wake up shivering. You feel like every pair of eyes in the world is dialed in on you when you’re homeless. Do they know? Surely they know. Everyone knows. You walk with your head down, and your eyes lowered. Because even if nobody else around you knows, you know. And that’s bad enough. You stop looking in store-front windows because you can’t bear seeing your own reflection. You hide your shame when you see your daughter, because after’re still her daddy.
Sometimes, you feel like a caged animal. Like the little people inside a snow-globe, never moving, never showing any reaction whenever some outside force shakes their world and stirs up the snow. Their smile painted on. Their faces plastic and emotionless. That is you now. Feeling less and less, because feeling anything at all only reminds you of who you used to be and who you are now.
When you’re homeless, you don’t tuck your kids in at night. You lay there in your sleeping bags and cry because you miss them. On the coldest nights, the tears freeze to your cheeks and they cut you like diamonds when you wipe them away. You remember your little girl’s bedtime prayers and you swear you can still hear her voice as she says them... “God bless Bonnie and Cooper and our cat Jackie. God bless Daddy...”
God bless Daddy.
God? God who? You question Him. Sometimes you curse at Him because it feels like He’s just left you here.
Sometimes you cry out to Him for mercy and beg Him for hope. You pray to Him. You pray to him for your daughter. “Please, God,” you beg, “Please give me a place to live again. My daughter needs me and I need her.” Then you think about her life and the pain she feels. “Please God,” you continue, “Please protect her like I would if I was there right now.” And the tears resume, and the sobs, and the memories, and the questions, and the doubts.
When you’re homeless, you no longer get your daughter once a week and every other weekend. You get McDonald’s for an hour every few days after school. You try hiding the truth from her, but she’s smart. She finds out, and then you feel even worse because you know her, and now she is worrying herself sick about you every night. When you’re homeless, you are still someone’s father, but you sure don’t feel very fatherly.
When you’re homeless, you think of the old days and the happy times and those memories are triggered by the strangest things. I was walking through the mall one hot summer afternoon, just trying to stay out of the heat. I walked past the “Build-a-Bear Workshop” store and I stopped outside and watched the little kids. There was a girl there who reminded me of my own daughter a few years before. She was finishing up her bear and doing the little routine where they tell the kids to jump up and down and turn around. I remembered all the trips we made together to this place. Back when I had a job and a home and she had a bedroom where she kept all these prized little stuffed friends. It felt like it was a million years ago. It felt like I was watching it all from some cloak of invisibility. The little girl clutched her new beloved friend as mine had done. I turned away in tears. I raced to the bathroom before the sobs embarrassed me in the mall.
When you’re homeless, every little thing reminds you that you used to have a home, and your daughter used to spend weekends with you, and you used to be someone.
When you’re homeless, you reach a point where you want to quit. In that moment, you’d better have a reason to keep fighting. You’d better have something or someone you love more than you love yourself. Believe me, when you want to give up, when you want to craw inside a bottle and die, or jump from a bridge, or just fall asleep in the dead of winter and let your body freeze...there had better be a face you see when you close your eyes that keeps you going. Because when you’re homeless, just you alone...

...isn’t nearly enough.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Man Who Cried. Thoughts on Liberty University Commencement 2017

So, I’ve been working at my alma mater, Liberty University, for three years now. Because I started in August, 2014, I missed that years’ Graduation and by the time Commencement 2015 rolled around I was already knee-deep in side jobs and had no time on weekends to come see the kids walk. Besides, I knew how bad traffic could get, and if you don’t have a very good reason to be there, it’s better to stay away and watch the live stream.
However, this year a dear friend of mine was walking and she came up from Pensacola to do so, so I promised her I’d come out and see her graduate.
My friend Stephanie is a single mom, who raised four great kids, two of which are college grads and two who are in college right now. She works full time and in 2012, right after I graduated, she got inspired to finish her degree. In fact, I talked her into it. She was wanting to be a teacher, and couldn’t figure out how to balance full-time motherhood, and a full time job, with getting her degree. I told her about Liberty University Online, where I completed my Bachelors, and she enrolled.
Other than talk her into it, all the credit is hers. She did the work and put in the hours and earned that special education degree.
So, that was my reasoning for being in attendance yesterday. Yes, President Trump was speaking at Commencement, but honestly…I’d heard him on campus already, and while I LOVE our president, I hate crowds and traffic, and commencement is the poster baby for both. I was there to support my friend.
(As a side note, the evening before, James Robison delivered probably the best sermon I’ve ever heard at LU’s baccalaureate service. I wasn’t there for that but I wish I had been)
My daughter is in the University Choir and was singing at the ceremony yesterday morning, so I had to be there to drop her off anyway. I met up with Stephanie’s daughter and her mother and we trudged through the puddles, through the body scanners and found some wet seats in the bleachers. Thankfully the rain had stopped and the sun began making infrequent appearances as the morning progressed.
It was exciting having the president there. Even the extra security, and the Secret Service presence, and the hovering State Police helicopter lent an air of importance. The roar of the crowd when president Trump arrived was deafening.
The ceremony was wonderful. It was an emotional tribute to the grit and determination and vision of our founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. It was a source of pride for me as an alumnus and as an employee of the college. It was a testament to how very well Jerry Falwell Jr. is guiding this ship. There were so many moments of great pride for me but the one moment that burned itself into my heart, that will stay with me until I pass one day, was missed by anyone who wasn’t fortunate enough to have been watching at just the right moment.
We were seated in the bleachers, waiting for the student processional to finish. This takes a long time, since about 7000 students walked yesterday. The ones who had already filed in were standing together, talking, taking pictures, and waving to the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they knew. The camera crews were roving the audience, taking brief shots of the students and streaming them onto the two giant video boards on the field. There were beautiful ladies and handsome young men all smiling and mouthing “Hi Mom!” or “Thanks Dad!” to the crowd. There was every race, color, and nation on that field. It was already a beautiful, heartwarming microcosm of what Liberty is and does. It reminded me of the line in the classic Andrae Crouch song “Soon and Very Soon” where it says: 
                      “We have come from every nation.  
                          God knows each of us by name. 
                           Jesus took His blood and he 
                              washed our sins away.” 
In fact I was singing that song silently in my heart as I watched the sea of humanity in front of me. And then I saw it. I don’t know how many others in that massive crowd saw it, but I saw it. The cameras picked up on an older Asian man. He was probably around my age and his regalia told me he was there for a graduate degree of some sort. He turned and looked at the crowd, his eyes taking it all in and suddenly, he broke into sobs and his hands went to his face, overcome with emotion. I don’t know if he saw family in the stands or if it was just that the enormity of his remarkable accomplishment suddenly hit home for him and he was overwhelmed. From my vantage point, the latter is what it looked like.
I started to well up myself. Five years ago, that was me. I was homeless, broken, desperate, and holding on to whatever hope I could find. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Religion and Biblical studies mostly from the front seat of my car. Or the public library. Or the Fed-Ex Office work stations. Or the pavilion in Pinkerton Park in Franklin TN, where I lived. (or rather, where I parked my car to sleep in) Sometimes it was in a motel room while I was traveling home to Philly to work for my cousins for a week or so, when they had work for me.
The only thing that consistently gave me hope during that six years I was homeless was my daughter, and the pursuit of my degree.
I remembered, as I watched that brief flash of emotion on the screen, how I broke down in my car on the Thursday before my Commencement as I turned off 460 onto the ramp that leads to University Blvd, realizing that I would never again come to this campus with the gnawing feeling that I was not yet a graduate. I wept again when I took a walk on campus and reminisced at how it was when I was there as a resident student 20 plus years before. I got teary-eyed when I got to campus that Saturday morning and saw the last sunrise I would ever see cresting that mountain without being a graduate.
It took a heck of a lot of work, and determination, and grit to finish my degree, living the way I did. I don’t know the story of that Asian man I saw break down yesterday, but I recognize the emotion, and I’m sure his story is every bit as amazing, inspirational, and wonderful as anything I endured.
That man was the lasting memory I’ll take from yesterday. More than President Trump and his terrific speech. More than seeing my dear friend reach her goal. More than hearing the choir and knowing my daughter was in there singing. More than my pride as an alumnus and an employee.
That man…that emotion on his face and those tears…that’s why we do what we do at Liberty. That man’s dream came true yesterday and the importance of that dream showed in his weeping. I don’t know what part I played in his succeeding. I don’t know what his degree is in, or whether any of my business units on campus touched him directly. But I know that somehow, some way my job intersected with his success and so it made it worth it.
The academic year is furious and hectic for those of us who provide support services here at Liberty. It seems as if we just send off a graduating class and another group of freshman arrives without us having a chance to catch our breath. Somewhere around February you burn out a little, and begin to wonder if it’s really worth it. You watch another group of kids move on and you see a new batch coming in their place.
But once in a while you watch a man or woman break down in sobs because this thing they’ve dreamed of –maybe for as long as they can remember- is happening, and there were times when they wondered if it ever would. You realize that this is why you’re here.

And it’s worth it.