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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Epiphany (of sorts): A Hopeless Romantic looks back at a difficult Christmas

It’s Wednesday December 27, 2017. Two days after Christmas. For the first time in, perhaps, my entire life, I’m glad Christmas is over.
I went home (to the Philly suburbs) as I always do at Christmas. I love my hometown and I love the sights and sounds of my childhood, but this time, for many reasons, it didn’t provide me with the usual respite from my wandering. This time, it made me feel like I’m still homeless. Homeless in the worst kind of way.
Homeless with a home.
I have a home. I have a 750-square foot townhouse that I share with my nineteen-year-old daughter. I have a good job at my alma mater. I sleep indoors and I’m rebuilding my life and I’m even starting work on my Master’s degree. But I feel like a vagabond. At Christmas, I feel like a Nomad. Like a man making yet another trip on the trade routes, through the deserts and mountains that make up this wilderness in my heart.
Christmas always gets me. I am a hopeless romantic and Christmas is the most romantic time of the entire year. This particular Christmas didn’t disappoint on that front either.
I am considerably older than my coworkers. Most of them are young married guys, with young families. There are three women on our staff of nine, one is a widow, and the other two are in their early twenties, and both got engaged this Christmas.
I am thrilled for them both. I know both of their fiancés, and they are great guys. But looking at their posts on Facebook over the last few days, made me feel a twinge of sadness.
I remember when I was those young men. I remember when I asked my (now-ex) wife to marry me. I remember when I realized that I’d only ever loved one woman enough to want to marry her and here she was…and I asked. I remember how great it felt to have a fiancĂ©, and then how great it felt to have a wife. I married the love of my life. Sadly –as I was to find out a mere three years later—my wife did not.
She’s already divorced the second love of her life and has multiple lines in the water looking for number three. Meanwhile, I’ve licked these wounds for nineteen years and wondered if anyone, anywhere would ever make me feel as giddy, romantic, and excited as I did that day.
It’s not about her anymore…I’m as over her as a man can be and still be civil. In fact, given my despise of divorce and how much I really do love marriage, I often feel a little guilty that I am this glad to not be married to her now. Trust me…it’s not about her.
It’s about marriage.
It’s about the whole “For better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health” thing that I swore to her, and meant every word. I remember saying “I do” a little too soon in the exchanging of the vows, and the pastor getting a big chuckle out of it. (In my defense, he paused and I thought he was done) I couldn’t wait to say “I do.” I just wanted her to be my wife.
I remember going out in public with a wife. I remember the way it took me a few months to get used to the feeling of a wedding ring. (I’m not a jewelry wearer) I remember how much I really liked having someone at home that I had to check in with if I was going to be late, or to call and see if she needed anything on my way home from work.
I thought by now there’d be a few kids, and a few thousand memories, and friendships we’d forged over the years with other married folks. I thought maybe we’d teach a Sunday School class or host an exchange student, or buy a beach house. I thought we’d be having guests come to our house for Christmas once in a while. Instead, I am a one-man caravan up I-95 each Holiday season. All the while wondering what it would be like to have those Christmas dreams come true, doubting now that they ever will or even that they could. I admit to a touch of jealousy when I see families who have what I’d always hoped I’d have.
I stayed single all these years for several reasons, some good, some not. Devotion to my daughter was number one and I am glad I did that for her. But fear and doubt and disillusionment were all tied equally for second on that list. I suppose I thought I’d get over it. I guess I thought I’d take the chance one day. I suppose I thought that I’d meet someone else who truly took my breath away, for whom my heart beat, and without whom I simply would never feel complete again. Someone who made me a little nervous. One amazing woman who would cause my heart to skip a beat, and my hands to tremble as I pulled a black box from my pocket, slowly dropped to one knee, and asked the once-in-a-lifetime question, for the second time in my life.
But I blinked and nineteen years went by. And now I fear I’ll never find her. Maybe I was never going to find her anyway. Maybe this is just my lot in life.
But if it is, it’s a shame. Because somewhere under all this hardened, brick-wall I’ve surrounded my heart with, lives the soul of a romantic. The spark is flickering and dying, but it’s still alight just enough to remind me of how I used to be. And who. There are songs I would sing her, poems I would write her, family I would proudly introduce her to. There are places from my childhood I’d share and photo albums and names carved in trees, or written in the long-hardened cement of a sidewalk somewhere outside of Philly.
There is a light display, and a crowded table on Christmas Eve, occupied by smiling, loving faces, all of whom share my last name, or my ancestry, or both.
There is a pile of exactly the perfect Christmas presents I would have bought you if I’d have met you. There is a friendship with my daughter you could have forged, and maybe been an influence and a help to her when she was so devastated by her mom’s recent husband.
There are secrets I hold in my heart that I would have told you, had you ever shown up. Dreams and plans and hopes and successes. Whoever you are, I’ve pretty much given up on you ever finding me, or me finding you. I think we missed each other, and our concentric circles are now growing in the wrong direction…taking us a little further from each other with each moment. But if you are –or were—out there, you must have been someone special. You must have been astounding and magnificent and you were probably the most wonderfully lovely woman I was ever going to meet. You probably would have saved my life. Oh, I’m not dying, and I have no plans on doing so anytime soon. But inside, perhaps, I am…just a little each day.
Brennan Manning once said, “There are three ways to commit suicide: Take your own life, let yourself die…or live without hope.” I would never consider the first two. I fear I am already in the grips of the third.
Whoever you are…you would have saved this life of mine. You would have painted fresh color on the canvas of my heart where only grey exists now. You would have thrown open the dusty shutters and let the light in. You would have made me smile when I pulled into the driveway at night.
Maybe you’d come with kids of your own, and my longing for a full house would have been satiated. Maybe you’d become a fan of my writing, or my cooking, or my harsh attempts at singing. Maybe we’d flip some houses together and share our creativity.
Maybe you’d slip your hand inside mine when I knelt to pray for our family, and I’d feel your breath on my cheek as you leaned in to offer your input as well.
Maybe one Christmas, I’d glance across my coffee cup and see you at the other side of the table…the kids would still be asleep and the house silent for a little while. We’d both feel the warmth of our dreams coming true in a simple thing like the stillness of a Christmas morning and we’d know, without speaking, that both of us were as in love as we could ever possibly be, right then, in that moment.
But not this Christmas. Because I haven’t found you yet. And I am beginning to doubt that I ever will.

Worse still… I’m accepting that I never will.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Thank You, Mr. President.

Sometimes I think it was all a dream. Other times I am forever reminded that it wasn’t. That it really did happen. I don’t talk about it all that much. I wish I could erase it from my history. I wish I could wake up and find myself in my bed, in my house on Barker Road in Spring Hill TN. But I can’t. It wasn’t a dream. I really was homeless.
I spent six years trying to rebuild my life after the collapse of 2008. Three of those years I slept in a Volvo 850. I am 6’ 4” and yes…it was as difficult and uncomfortable as it sounds. The final three years I slept in a 1996 GMC Yukon. Far more comfortable but still an automobile.
I tried everything I could to find jobs but I couldn’t find anything. I returned to college and got my bachelor’s degree. But still it didn’t help. I felt trapped in that car, like an animal. And what was worse…I felt like the government was doing everything it could to make my life worse, and make my recovery impossible.
I wanted to work. I took any job that came my way, and I do mean any. I refused handouts and government assistance. I wanted to make it myself, with hard work. But seemingly every day, the government, especially president Obama, passed laws, and introduced policies that held me captive. Sometimes I swore Obama knew about my plight and went out of his way to make my life more of a hell than it already was. It sure felt that way.
There were lots of us. 93 Million in fact, who had fallen entirely out of the workplace and could not find a way back in. Obama’s answer was to encourage us to get on Welfare and food stamps. To move into Section 8 housing. To sign up for health care that our hard-working neighbors were paying for…against their own wishes, and sponge off the government, the same Government who is always wonderfully benevolent with money not its own. I didn’t want this. I wanted to work. I wanted an opportunity. I wanted to make it like a real man makes it…through hard work.
But there was none, and all the while, Obama mocked me from outside the windows of that Yukon. I couldn’t see him, but he was there. Mocking those of us who are “old school” and who saw handouts as something bad, and pride and self-sufficiency as something good.
This past year, that has changed. Two years ago, I heard a voice. I wasn’t homeless by this point but I was still stinging smartly from the effects of that homelessness. I was angry, and I felt ignored until this voice began to sound out across the country.
It was the voice of Donald Trump. It was as if I was still in that Yukon, but instead of mocking my kind, like Obama did, I felt like I could hear Trump tapping on the glass, talking to me. “I see you in there. I know you’re desperate. I’m going to help you. Are you okay? Hang on…I’m coming.”
And he came. November 8, 2016 was a monumental day for me. When I fed my ballot into that machine in the Knights of Columbus hall in Forest VA, I felt as if I was striking a blow for people like me who were still trapped in their cars, trapped in desperation. I felt like I was looking Barack Obama in the eyes and saying “You didn’t break me! I survived you. I won!”
This whole year has been a remarkable journey that has taken me just a few steps closer to the America I grew up in. My President loves his country again. My President puts his country first again. My President cares about AMERICANS again.
Today My President pushed out a tax bill that is going to make a real, tangible difference in my life, and in the life of my 19-year-old daughter. I’m a single dad, trying to get by on a very average salary. My daughter depends on me entirely and I will not let her down.
I’m going to see about $100 a month extra from this. That’s $100 a month of MY money that I EARNED, that the government won’t be taking.
Call me crazy, but I can almost feel President Trump’s arm on my shoulder, and hear him telling me; “See…I told you that I saw you in there. I told you that I heard you when you were homeless. I told you I cared about you and everyone like you. I’m on YOUR side…This is only the beginning.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Ghost of Christmas that Should Have Been

On Ebenezer Scrooge’s fateful Christmas Eve, he was visited by three spirits, and they changed his life forever. The Spirits are familiar to all of us who’ve read Dickens’ book, or watched the many iterations of “Scrooge.” (My personal favorite is the 1951 version with Alastair Sim, considered by most, to be the best ever done)
They are the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghosts of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future.
Each Christmas I find myself caught up under the spell of these three “spirits” in the form of memories, current plans, and hopes for what might one day be. But there is another Ghost I have come to recognize at Christmas. He’s a sad Ghost and He doesn’t appear to everybody, saving his hauntings only for those with regret, sorrow, or sadness at Christmas. He is the “Ghost of Christmas That Should Have Been.” He might be the most frightening of all Christmas Spirits.
He started haunting me 18 years ago, when I first got divorced. Instead of showing me shadows of what was, or what is now, or what might one day be, he taunts me with what was supposed to have been. He shows me flashes and glimpses of the Christmases I longed to spend, with the family I dreamed of having, in the home I wanted to build.
His hauntings were muffled and muted for many years, by the magic in my daughter’s eyes. When she was little, and Christmas was still very much a wonder and a spectacle and when it held its childhood excited mystery for her…this ghost was forced into the shadows. I was busy being happy with her, and because of her, and her happiness, and childish innocence banished him to the fringes.
Once in a while, he would step out of the shadows and whisper in my ear: “This isn’t how it was supposed to be” and I would feel the pain shoot through my heart. But my daughter would be smiling and I would quickly cast him aside with “But how it is right now is very good…” and he would go back into hiding. I thought maybe I’d banished him but apparently, he was just biding his time. He knew the day would come when I’d be vulnerable to his attacks and so he waited.
In recent years, he’s been more visible, more vocal, more daring in his attacks. This year…he’s been downright confrontational, right in my face, too close for me to look away. He reminds me of what my Christmas dreams were, and how far from those dreams I find myself.
He shows me visions of the wife I was supposed to have. A wife who would remain and not give up. A wife with whom I had, by this time, built a lifetime of memories with, and who knew me as I knew her. We shared knowing smiles and funny Christmas stories and we hosted parties with those we loved. She was supposed to be my best friend. She was supposed to know me better than anyone ever knew me. She was supposed to have made me better, and softened my toughness, and smoothed out my rough edges. She cheered each victory and comforted each loss, and I returned the favor in kind.
But she never showed up. Not in the 18 years that have come and gone since my divorce. She was never there to wake up to at Christmas, with impatient children knocking at our bedroom door, begging us to get up and get Christmas underway. She was never there to sneak away with and do our secret Santa buying. She never found me and all the romantic, wonderful, thoughtful gifts I would have picked out for her if only somehow, she’d appeared.
But she didn’t. She never became my best friend and knew me well enough to buy the exact, perfect present for me. I never got to unwrap a gift and be overwhelmed by just how much thought must have gone into it, and how perfect it was for me, and how she really had to know me to have seen this perfect thing in a storefront window and thought, “Craig would just love this”
She never laid in bed next to me, wishing it were Christmas morning so she could take this perfect present from its hiding spot and watch me unwrap it. She never showed up and so I have not had the experience of ever having had a perfect gift from a wife who loved me.
This ghost shows me the family I was supposed to have had. The other children. The in laws and out laws and cousins and friends who would come and go throughout the holidays, never wanting to miss time at our house. Relationships would develop and remain. Life would seem impossible without certain of these faces at our table, in our home, and in our hearts. The sort of friendships and relationships that only come from family. The kind that can never include a single man.
There was supposed to be Christmas mornings where my daughter woke to find both her parents there…not one or the other. Short of this, should have been a woman who loved her dad, and loved her as well, so that she’d have the feeling of family at Christmas, even if it was a blend.
There was supposed to be love, and memories, and excitement, and family.
But none of this ever happened and I wonder now, at this point in life, whether it ever will. I wonder if I will ever feel enough excitement about another person to want to share  my life with them. I wonder if I will ever be so loved by another that she’ll go out in search of that perfect gift, and not rest until she finds it, and be excited when she does.
I wonder if my daughter will ever see her dad in love, and see how he does this, and see a woman love him deeply. (She was only 18 months old when her mom and I divorced, so she has no knowledge of what this would look like.)
I wonder if Christmas will ever be what I dream of it being, and what I hoped it would be, now that the wonderful distraction of my daughter as a child has passed.
As a boy, I dreamed of being a parent one day and what kind of Christmas I would have for my family. Perhaps it was there that this particular Ghost of Christmas was born. Perhaps, in reality, he is a monster of my own making. I have always loved Christmas and held a high standard and a romantic notion that could have only been accomplished by a true couple…not by a single man, doing his best to raise a daughter alone.
And so, in that fertile ground, he grew, and on that fertile ground he plants his seeds of regret, disappointment, doubt, and longing. He has never ruined Christmas for me…for I am too much of a hopeless romantic and sentimentalist at Christmas for him to ever take it from me completely. But he has damaged its glow and dimmed its star. This Christmas in particular, has been hard on me in ways I’ve never experienced before.
I need to exorcise this ghost or surrender to his haunting. But I don’t know how to do either. And so, I do nothing. Nothing but enjoy Christmas as I can, and –in my quiet moments—look at his taunting and teasing with honest regret.
Of all the Ghosts of Christmas, he is the most sinister, and the one I am most powerless against.

Christmas is six days away. I have to find a way to silence this ghost before then.