May 23, 2015

How Are You?

So this afternoon I was browsing through Quora, one of my favorite websites for fascinating answers to interesting questions, and I came across the question "Platitudes: What are some sweetly comforting things that people say that are factually incorrect?"  The top answer was "You deserve better", which I found to be an interesting and counter-intuitive response that made me curious to read more, a prime example of what makes Quora so much fun.  Usually, I just stick to the top answer and move on the next question, but this time I decided to look at some of the other responses.   At first it was interesting and thought-provoking, but after awhile I began to notice that many of the answers had a dispiriting, bitter, and cynical vibe.  I finally exited the thread feeling a little gloomy.

I understood that many people were coming from a place of grief or pain, and in those situations particularly, platitudes can be useless at best, hurtful at worst.  But still, a world in which phrases such as "It will get better" or "If you work hard, you will succeed" are banned for being factually incorrect would seem a very bleak place.  I guess, part of it is that these platitudes and many others are not always (and may not even often) false.  We can't speak them with certainty of course, but because they have turned out to be true often enough we rely on them.  In some cases platitudes can't be proven true, but really can't be proven false either.

This brings me to the critique of "How are you?" (which appeared on the thread).  I am well versed in the phrase, as I use it with every customer during my weekend/summer job at Kroger.  I often hear this greeting dismissed as insincere.  After all how many people really are interested in an honest answer?  And how many people actually have the time and inclination to give an honest answer, often to a complete stranger?

But I think this is an overly (and often curmudgeonly) literal interpretation of the greeting "How are you?"  I think most of us understand that the question is not to be taken literally, and the standard answer of "I'm fine, thanks" is also not to be taken literally.  To me "How are you" is a simple, polite way to acknowledge the existence and importance of another person.  While we might not really want to know how the person is, our inquiry indicates a general feeling of well-wishing.  In asking, it's my way of pronouncing a sort of blessing, a hope that is all is well with you.  And the expected response of "Fine" is really a way of saying "Thank you for your well-wishes towards me."    When you think about it, what more supposedly honest and truly caring way, would there be to interact with strangers that is socially acceptable and not invasive? I suppose you could just decide that you will not say "How are you?" to anyone unless you really want to know, and in a job like mine and really any time contact with strangers is necessary you will simply come across as aloof and maybe even rude.

Of course with people we are close to, and with whom we have some insight into what struggles they may be facing, "How are you?" has an entirely different meaning and will generally get a different response (although, even then a person might respond, "I'm doing okay" as a way to ease into the truth of the current difficulty).

So, I for one, am not going to get too tangled up in how sincere my literal inquiry on your well-being is.  Instead, I'm going to keep saying "Hi, how are you today" to acknowledge your presence, let you know that you matter, and communicate that I hope you are well.  My question might not be genuine, but the sentiment behind it most definitely is.

Apr 17, 2015

Dealing with Death

Pictures are all we have left.  Pictures in albums and pictures in our hearts. This photo of the photos was taken at Dad's visitation, Monday,  December 1, 2014

Death is the negative image of birth.  And as with birth, when death comes home it feels like it's never happened in the history the world until now.  Though rationally you know that birth and death happen to millions every single day these events barely touch you. But when it happens to you it feels like the world has stopped turning--that the impossible has happened to you and your family alone.

As Mat Kearney sang, "we're all one phone call from our knees."  For me those phone calls came on the mornings of November 5 and November 26 respectively.  Mom reached me around 8:35 A.M.  I was in the staff bathroom at the school, about to brush my teeth when I got the news that grandma was gone.  Three weeks later, Barbara woke me up around 5:30 A.M. with the words that I'll never forget:  "My dad died this morning." (My first response had been a comforting, certain "No, that's not true.  That's not true."  For next week or so my mind kept returning to that nightmarish moment and to the utter disbelief I felt.  It's as if my mind had to replay that moment over and over until I could accept it's awful reality).

I never really knew what to do when dealing with death as it happened to the loved ones of friends and acquaintances.  We spend so much of our lives running from death, convincing ourselves that we are somehow immune from it, that we often don't know how to deal with death, when it touches people we know and care for.

I don't feel qualified to expound on how to deal with death of someone close to you.  I'm still figuring that out  myself.  And each death is different, with the circumstances, the amount of preparation one had for the death, the age of the person, and your unique with relationship all coloring each individual grief in it's own terrible way.

  "What should I say?" and "What can I do to help" were two questions I always had when someone I knew had experienced a loss. While I don't know that I can answer those questions with absolute certainty, I can share what meant a lot to me.

What to say

"I never know what to say," is a common dilemma for those acquainted with someone who is grieving.  And the truth is, even having going on through losses of my own, I still feel the same way.  We want to make things better, and the honest truth is nothing that anyone can say can accomplish what we want most--to bring back the person we lost.  We also don't want to make things worse. But again, the loss itself is far worse than any clumsy comments we might make.  Nonetheless, in my experience there were words that were comforting and those that. . .well, let's just say they didn't help.

Say something.
Often times it seems easier to just not say anything about a recent loss.  It's awkward and fraught with the worry over saying the wrong thing.  But ultimately pretending the loss didn't happen is really for the one's own benefit rather than for the benefit of the grieving person.  If you can, share a memory or a positive impression about the person who died.  I found I really treasured anything specific and non-generic people shared, even in a Facebook comment, about Grandma or Dad.  But even if you draw a blank on something special to say about the deceased don't let that stop you from expressing sympathy.  "I'm sorry for your loss" might be a cliche' but you really can't go wrong with it, and it is so much better than acting as if nothing happened.

Don't offer advice or explanations. Be careful about asking questions.
"Try to trust in God,"  "It was God's will", "Oh my God, how did he die?"  These are all risky routes to go.  Some might find solace in your counsel or perspective or find themselves eager to go over the painful details.  Many won't.  Instead, do let them know you care.

Don't presume you know the closeness of the relationship or the extent to which someone is mourning.
"Well, at least he was just your father-in-law."  No-one ever said those exact words, but there were a few well meaning folks who suggested something along those lines, and it hurt.  The official relationship between the mourning and the deceased doesn't necessarily tell you about how grief is being experienced.  Policy at the office may determine what losses are "worthy" of bereavement leave, but we aren't bound by those restrictions.  It's better to assume someone is mourning deeply and find out they weren't that close to the deceased after all, than the other way around.

Don't forget to check back in.
In some ways the hardest part comes after the funeral is over and everyone has moved on.  The death of a loved one, at least in my experience so far is not something you "get over" but that you gradually learn to live with.  We've been blessed by the people who were insightful enough to ask weeks and even months after Dad's passing how we're holding up.  A simple, heartfelt "How are you doing" allows those that don't want to to talk about their grief an easy out: "I'm doing okay." But it also opens the door for those who have a deep need to share their grief.  Just keep in mind that you might get the latter, so if you're going to ask, be prepared and willing to commit some time, a listening ear, and a sympathetic heart

How you can help

While it is important to say something to a grieving friend, and even the "I'm sorry for your loss" can be comforting, the other big cliche' "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help," can be dispensed with.  No one is going to actually let  you know, so it's better to offer to meet a specific need.  Indeed if you are close to someone who has lost a loved one but you didn't know the loved one well enough to be deeply grieving yourself, you are in the perfect position to be a real help and genuine support.  Here are two things that people did for us that really helped a lot and meant a lot.

Make food.
Thanksgiving Day we ate hot dogs.  No one felt like cooking a big feast just over 24 hours after we'd lost Dad, and we didn't much feel like eating fancy fixings either.  But even after the holiday, we were busy planning the funeral, still taking in the shock of the sudden loss and we had neither the time or the inclination to cook.  The soup, the fruit and vegetable  plates that people brought really helped.  After the visitation, my friend J and his wife Evelyn brought Chinese take-out over to the house and it hit the spot.  What a blessing!

Help with the kids.
Joy Lacorte, as I've shared on this blog, was a lifesaver in the days immediately following Dad's passing.  And when she left, J, Evelyn, and J's parents Dr. John and Grace Carlos stepped in to save the day.  J and Evelyn took the boys out for supper and entertained them for a good portion of the visitation hours.  Then on the day of funeral, they kept Ezra through the service since he was hollering and making a lot of general commotion, not understanding what was going on.  My boss Brenda Arthurs gently took Elijah out when he started getting antsy near the end of the funeral service. These friends generous willingness to take on our kids allowed us the time and space we needed to say good bye and we'll always be grateful.  If you can "take the kids" you can know that you are making a real and meaningful difference.

It's only been about five months since Dad died.  I still look for him.  It still seems like perhaps he's just gone away for a bit and will be back soon, as if he's just taking a really long nap (and I suppose in a sense both of those things are true).  We're still in the early stages of living with a loss that will last our lifetimes or until Jesus comes.  But I'm thankful for those that have stepped in to be support us as we mourn.  And I have a renewed personal commitment to trying to support others in their time of grief as well.

Mar 14, 2015

Is Greatness Really All That Great?

"And I can't stop till the whole world knows my name" 
                                                      --"Centuries" by Fall Out Boy

This past week I had the chance to watch Whiplash, a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer and his sadistic mentor.  J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy award for best supporting actor for his performance has the flashier role.  His character, the music teacher Terence Fletcher uses abusive, highly suspect "motivational" methods to draw greatness out of his students.  But for me, the real thought provoking character is the student Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller).  It's really his ambition, not Fletcher's abuse that drives his rise to greatness (and the movie as well).  He succeeds not because of but in spite of his teacher's methods, which in the end are morally and practically bankrupt as well as dishonest. A less driven student would have been broken by Fletcher's abuse.  So the film raised an interesting question for me: What does it take to be truly great? Is it worth the cost?

I'm not sure that the striving for greatness is a Christian imperative.  Personal excellence?  Sure.  But what about being the Best, as in better than anyone else in the world?  As far as I can tell, achieving that means that everything else must be sacrificed, including and perhaps especially relationships.  After all, isn't  it people that most often get in the way of achieving legendary greatness.  Of course there are all the people who must lose so you can win, those whose talents must prove less than your own.  But there are also the people who demand time away from your pursuit of greatness.  The spouses, the children, the parents, the less motivated peers.  If it's possible to achieve singular greatness while maintaining a "work-life balance," I haven't heard about it.

The drive for this kind of greatness at its end is truly a drive for significance that will last beyond this lifetime.  It is a push for immortality.  Nieman articulates this well during a dinner table scene in which he scorns his brothers' accomplishments and ambitions.  His family members argue for the importance of people who love you, who know you personally.  He retorts that we don't know Charlie Parker personally but we are still talking about him.  This is the kind of greatness he aspires to.  But for those of us who believe in Jesus, this is not our only path to immortality--indeed it is a poor substitute for actual immortality.  Jesus' definition of greatness was not about the acclaim, honor, or notice of the masses, but about great service.  The servants are the legends of the Kingdom of God.  Sure there are those who dedicated their lives in service to others that have become household names--Mother Teresa and Jesus Himself are two that come to mind. But I have a hard time believing that their dedication to the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low was motivated by a desire to be recognized as the world's greatest servant..

My goal in life is to strive for personal excellence on a daily basis.  For me that means being fully present, not wallowing in the past or obsessing over the future, but appreciating and giving myself fully to the now.  It means giving my best to whatever the day brings. It means remembering what is most important: That the greatness I achieve in my relationships--with my family, friends, students, and colleagues are the accomplishments that will mean the most to me at the end of my life.  It means trying to make a positive impact in the world not for the personal glory it will bring me for centuries to come, but the for the personal difference it will make in the lives I touch.  These goals may not be compatible with the strive for singular greatness in a particular field of endeavor.  I might strive for excellence as a teacher, writer, or whatever else, but not at the cost of these things.  They are simply more important.  In a way Andrew Neiman was right.  Greatness can only be achieved if everything else is sacrificed.  It's just that sometimes greatness itself may be what needs to be sacrificed to achieve a life of true substance, richness, and eternal significance.

"Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant."
                                                           Matthew 20:26

Dec 31, 2014

The Eighth Annual Inspirations List: 2014

This year's heroes come in just under the wire, as 2014 comes to a close within mere hours of the posting of this entry. Had I completed my entry in late summer as is my usual practice the last four names might not have been on the list, though all four have continually inspired me.  Indeed Grandma and Dad were both recognized as major influences in my life in my 2007 Influential People series.  Though not specifically held up as heroes at the time, I honored both of them as such at the heroes receptions I held with my students a few years back, and I was honored that Dad, at least, was able to attend the reception and be honored publicly.  And Joy joins Virleshay Gayatin (2007 and 2009) and Keisha Paez (2007 and 2011), to make a rare trio that have been twice honored as inspirations.

But this has been a year that has ended in grief and loss, and in the midst of this mourning, there is Joy, and peace and inspiration that has come out of this painful time. I have been inspired anew by these four and so they have a place of honor on this year's list.

My nominees this year are professionals and laymen, unlikely runners and  improbable philanthropists, superintendents and students, old and young, distant strangers and family close to my heart.  They are four women and seven men.  Together they offer determination in the face of adversity, encouragement and counsel, generosity and grace, wisdom that comes from experience and wisdom that comes in innocence.  These qualities are just what I have needed to inspire me in often difficult year.

Herewith, my heroes and  inspirations for the year 2014:

Paul Wood
Tamaria Kulemeka
Ruth-Ann Thompson
Dick & Rick Hoyt
Keith Rodman
Andrews Acheampong
William Leen &  Enid Thomson
Joy Lacorte
Ezra Maycock

A brief note on the photo accompanying my father-in-law Bill Leen and my grandmother Enid Thomson.  I have chosen photos of them in their youth, though I wasn't even born when they looked this way because this how they will see each other when they meet for the first time.  I can't wait for that day!

Paul Wood
I'm inspired by his achievement of his life-long dream

Only a realist like Paul could have made his dream come true. We all fly in our dreams. But for Paul, flying in his dreams wasn't enough.  As long as I've known him, since we met as third graders, Paul has wanted to fly, to be pilot.  And he didn't just want to fly a little Cessna and be a weekend flyer.  He wanted to pilot the big planes, the jet airliners.  He knew all the planes, memorized all the flight attendant and pilot chatter he heard on planes.  It's one of those career goals kids tend to have: cowboy, firefighter, astronaut, pilot.  But Paul never let the childhood dream die.  While all the doctors and policemen, movie stars and athletes fell away in the face of reality, Paul transformed his dream into reality.  Earlier this year Paul finally earned his stripes as a full-fledged captain, earning his left-seat privileges and command of his own plane with JetBlue Airlines.  I admire Paul for his focus, dedication, and effort in achieving his dream and I am in awe of all he has accomplished.  He inspires me to believe that if he can fly high,so can I.

Tamaria Kulemeka
I'm inspired by her encouragement

Tamaria reminded me that I am writer.  After five years as a math and science teacher, most people don't even know that writing is something that I love and something that I do well.  But Tamaria Kulemeka, my colleague at Columbus Adventist Academy and an oustanding English teacher and writer in her own right knows. And she has encouraged me, just as she would one of her students in whom she sees a special talent, to keep on writing, even though writing is not currently a major part of my professional life.  Once earlier this year during some down time between teacher meetings she read through the first few pages of my unpublished novel and her enthusiasm and encouragement in reaction to the story, got me thinking about writing again.  She did more than compliment the work, she encouraged me to keep at it, to not let my gift atrophy.  Thanks to Tamaria, I've started making more of an effort to keep up with my pen & paper journal, I've started mulling over how to move my novel manuscript to the next step, and  I've even been jotting down notes for a new book idea.  And if one day you see my name on cover of a book in Barnes and Nobles or an Amazon web page, you'll likely find Tamaria's name inside in the list of acknowledgements.  Tamaria, you're encouraging spirit may not only change the lives the students in your classroom, but also the lives of your colleagues as well!

Ruth-Ann Thompson
I'm inspired by her generous heart

I can't begin to tell you all that Ruth-Ann has done.  And that's not because her generosity has made such a difference (though it has).  It's because Ruth-Ann's generosity has largely been in secret where only her Father in heaven sees and where I know He rewards her daily in ways untold.  She will never trumpet her own giving, but I want to shout it from the roof tops, if only to let her know how deeply grateful I am and to let her know that she has made an lifelong difference in the lives of many.  One example I can share is the Brandon Je'Zhon Williams Mathematics and Science Scholarship fund she established in the name of her son who was tragically killed in an auto accident a year and a half ago. She awarded the first recipient of the scholarship from my graduating class this past June.

Ruth-Ann has gone through unimaginable tragedy in her life, and yet she has still found the strength and heart to extend grace, even in her grief, to those around her.  For this, I applaud her. And I believe on that final day when she once again holds her son in her arms, heaven will applaud her too with the words, "Well done, Thou good and faithful servant."

Dick & Rick Hoyt
I'm inspired by their mutual determination

I can't watch this father-son team without getting choked up.  To watch the joy on Rick's face and the satisfaction on his father's face is to experience something truly beautiful.  These two men have blessed each other over the years as they have completed marathons (including Boston multiple times), triatholons (including the Iron Man Triathalon), and even a trek across the United States.  Dick gives his son his sturdy legs and arms so that Rick can experience what he otherwise could not.  Rick gives his father the immense reward that comes from his son's joy, not to mention the physical benefits of a highly active life.  It is a synergy of grace that can't help but remind me of my own heavenly Father who carries me all the way.

Keith Rodman
I'm inspired by his wise counsel

If a wise man once said it, there's a good chance Keith Rodman was talking.  Through the years while he was education superintendent for the Guam-Micronesia Mission during Barbara's tenure as principal of the Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School, I saw his deft handling of the multitude of fires that seemed to continually erupt across his jurisdiction in the far-flung Pacific.  While others feared and fretted, Keith was always calm, reasonable, empathetic, practical, patient, with just the right amount of humor to leaven a tense situation.  In a word he was wise.  I had the opportunity to see that wisdom in action again this past year, and was personally blessed by his listening ear and sound advice.

Andrews Acheampong
I'm inspired by his achievement against the odds

Nothing is impossible.  This is the caption to the picture of Andrews' life thus far.  Andrews ability to overcome obstacles, to achieve when all hope seemed lost, is a source of true amazement and inspiration to me.  In his academic achievements, in his onstage performances, in his success on some key undertakings during his 8th grade year at CAA,  Andrews astounded those around him time and time again.  I'm so proud of Andrews.  He is my hero because he has inspired me to never say never when the apparently impossible looms ahead.  I can hear his voice in my head saying even now "Don't forget, Mr. Maycock.  With God all things are possible."

William Leen & Enid Thomson
I'm inspired by their close walk with Jesus

They never met. And why would they ever have?  This Midwestern man out of Dayton, Ohio and this Chinese woman from Trinidad.  And yet the trajectory of his daughter and her grandson brought them into near orbit. And they had so much in common.  Bill and Enid were born on the 5th of June and 6th of October 1923 respectively.  Both were humble, quiet people who spoke little but served greatly.  They were both industrious and hard-working. Both had a gift for art. Both died in the morning at home, exactly three weeks apart, and both were found in death, as they had lived their lives, felled while on the move.  Both Grandma and Dad meant the world to me.  But the most important similarity they shared is that they both walked closely with Jesus.  Dad and Grandma were giants of faith.  They knew their "Big Brother" (as my grandma called Him) Jesus well, they conversed with Him often, and they trusted Him with their very lives.  They brought the names of their loved ones daily before Him and because of that we were prayed for, buoyed by their faith. Indeed who is to say that it might not have been their very petitions along with those of our mothers that brought Barbara and me together.  They were faithful unto death, and their faithful lives inspire me to walk more closely with Jesus too.

 Dad and Grandma never met, but I know for certain that one day they will, and undoubtedly it will be their mutual Friend who will make the introductions.

Joy Lacorte
I'm inspired by her gracious service

Joy has a strength that can't be found in mere happiness (pun definitely intended).  And I can think of no person who better demonstrates the truth of this statement than our former student and lifelong friend Joy Lacorte.  When I first honored Joy as one of my inspirations five years ago, I described her as a rock, a person of steady character (Read her tribute here).  At the time, I had only observed her faithfulness from a distance.  But the view when she is bearing you up in a time of unimaginable sorrow is a whole new experience.

Joy had come up from Southern Adventist University where she is earning her nursing degree to spend a week with us during her Thanksgiving vacation.  Early on the vacation hit minor snags as Barbara fell ill for a few days and I had to work, often leaving her stuck in the unplanned role of baby sitter.  By Tuesday things were looking up and we had a fun day in downtown Columbus eating at the North Market and treating her to Jeni's ice cream.  The plan was to head down to Dayton on Wednesday for Thanksgiving with Barbara's family.  But early Wednesday morning our world shattered and Joy's relaxing vacation evaporated.  Barbara and I rushed to Dayton when we got the call of Dad's sudden passing, leaving Joy to watch the boys alone.  I returned that evening to pick them up and bring them to Dayton.  There Joy spent the rest of her break on permanent babysitting duty watching the boys, feeding them, and generally helping out where needed while we were caught up in a whirlwind of grief and funeral planning.  The work for her was not fun or easy, of that I am sure.  But she did it all without a complaint and even with a smile. So often we ascribe a turn of events to God's leading when things turn out nicely for us.  But Joy seemed to find reward in events that turned out poorly for her, but allowed her to be a blessing to others. Indeed God brought her to us for such a time as this, and for that we will always be grateful.

Ezra Maycock
I'm inspired by his simple faith

This is something my two year old son understands far better than I do. Ever since his PaPa, my father-in-law Bill Leen, died, he's been asking after him.  Any time the names of family are mentioned, any time we announce we are going to Dayton, whenever I shared with him who would be joining us for a more melancholy Christmas in Florida, he would always ask in his innocence and profound wisdom if PaPa would be there. And it used to break my heart.  The poor child.  He doesn't understand, I would sigh.  He doesn't understand that PaPa is gone for good, that we will never see him again.  Until one day not so long ago it hit me that it was I that just didn't understand.  Oh I know the theology of heaven and the concpet of death is lost on him.  But in his own simple way Ezra knows, what I often forget in my grief, that PaPa is not gone for good, that indeed we will see him (and Granny and his great-grandfather and his great-aunts and so many others) again.  We don't know exactly when, and so in faith Ezra asks every time, just to check:  ". . .and PaPa?"  And when he receives the sad answer that no, PaPa won't be there, he accepts it peacefully, without complaint, and with certainty that if today is not the day, tomorrow may very well be.  Oh, that I could have faith like that!  For while I can almost hear the trumpet, Ezra can hear it loud and clear.

Dec 23, 2014

Take the Picture

This is one of my favorite (and one of the very few, I might add) photos of Dad, the boys, and me, taken in the summer of 2013.  It's a miracle Barbara got the four of us to sit still long enough for this gem.  None of us were typically enthused to have our photo taken.  I'm so glad she got us to go along!

If you're lucky you have someone like my lovely wife Barbara in your family.  Of course there are many reasons one would be lucky to have someone like Barbara, but in this case I'm talking specifically about her penchant for pictures.  Every time the family gathered Babs would insist on taking pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Multiple pictures of the same pose.  I have to admit I often griped about all this photo-taking and I probably wasn't a very cooperative subject. ("Are we done yet?  Okay that's enough.  We have enough!")  But now I'm so glad she pushed to get the shot.  We have a treasure trove of photos of Dad, many of which we wouldn't have had without her determined insistence.  Here are just a couple of my very favorites.

Pure joy.  Elijah and his grandparents, early 2010.

Ezra and his PaPa, Summer 2014

Nap time for grandfather and grandson. Not all the photos Barbara took were posed.  She was great at capturing spontaneous special moments too.  

This photo of the Leen family, taken on Sunday, September 28, 2014 has special significance.  Not only is it the last photo taken of the complete Leen family, but it also appears to be the last photo we have of Dad.

This holiday season, there will likely be ample opportunities to take a picture with loved ones.  My advice is go ahead and take the picture.  Whether you opt for top-shelf photo session with a pro (check out my friend Heather Rice; she's one of the best in the business), the budget shoot at Wal-Mart or a DIY at home with your iPhone,  let 'em take the picture.  Sure some pics will be destined for the pages of Awkward Family Photos (Heather can help you avoid that fate!), but there will be others that will bring a smile and tear in the years ahead.  And if you're always the one behind the camera, be sure to get in some photos too.  Those pictures of you will mean a lot to someone who loves you when the day comes that those photos and the memories that go with them are they'll have.

So quit griping, strike a pose, smile, and take the picture!

This photo was taken at Dayton area photo studio in March of 2012 (a session arranged, once again at Barbara's insistence).  I cropped this image to make it a solo portrait of Dad and it became the photo we used for the obituary and funeral program.

Dec 21, 2014

A Gentle Man's Rules

As lived by William F. Leen

There's no doubt about it.  Dad was a gentleman of the old school.

He dressed well. . .

Dad in his senior year of high school looking sharp as always

And  in his younger years, especially, he was positively dashing.

Dad in one of his World War II photos, a gentleman in uniform

Working as a commercial artist in the fifties and early sixties, he would have fit right in the world of Mad Men, at least visually. . .

Dad (second from right) during his years as a commercial artist working in Cincinnati doing advertising art work for companies like Kroger and Proctor & Gamble.  We still have his portfolio and his talent is incredible. 

But far more importantly, Dad was a gentle man. . .
Dad with the love of his life, my mother-in-law Carol.  At the time this photo was taken Dad was a small business owner, having started his own commercial art supplies store, Sterleen's, which he ran successfully until the early 1990s,

Still a class act at 84, in the summer of 2007 with Babs, his elder daughter
 Bill Leen lived out the gentle spirit of Christ.  He understood that "life is more than food and the body more than clothing."  And when his daughters, his wife, his friends, the people whose lives he touched talked about him this past month at his visitation and funeral and in the times in between there was little talk of his personal sense of style or what a charmer he was.  Instead we spoke of his love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, patience, and self-control.

Herewith four rules of a gentle man as lived out by my father-in-law, Bill Leen:

Keep your counsel

Dad wasn't a big talker.  Of course he was uninterested in gossip but even beyond that, Dad wasn't one to volunteer a lot of advice.  He didn't moralize or pass judgement.  His wisdom was lived out, quietly and without commentary or exposition.  He listened well, which made him easy to talk to.  As a result I don't have the the typical postmortem regrets about "things I never told him."  What I do regret is not asking him more questions, drawing more from that deep well of wisdom I know he had.
Dad at his 90th birthday party last summer enjoying conversation with his best friend since they were in high school, Charlie Whistler.  He later told Barbara he chose to spend most of his time with Charlie at the party because he knew that Mr. Whistler didn't know anyone else there.  A true gentle man.

Be of service

Though Dad was always gracious in receiving help from others, he didn't really care to be waited on.  He didn't want to put any one out or trouble anybody.  Instead he wanted to serve, he wanted to be of use.  He wanted to carry his own weight and pitch in to help you with yours.  Even as he advanced in years he remained determined to help himself and help others.  Whether it was carrying bags from the car on a visit to our home in Columbus or doing the dishes, Dad lived to serve.

A gentle man at work. Dad raking the lawn the day of  his 90th birthday party, June 9, 2013

Treat people as people

In these heated days of #ferguson you'll find folks on every corner who claim they don't see race.  But Dad never said those words, and yet I believe he was one of the few people for whom this was actually true.  I found in him (and in his family) a true obliviousness about race.  Not once did I find even a hint of reservation about me being his son-in-law.  I see his influence in his daughters, both of whom have always seemed to find color irrelevant in way that is almost odd in comparison to most people.  And Dad's indiscriminate spirit wasn't limited to race.  No matter your socioeconomic status, social position, or personal foilbles, Dad seemed to do more than just be nice.  He seemed to genuinely view all people as valuable and worthy of his time.

Dad at 82 with his daughters and me, summer 2005.  I imagine many 82-year olds would have looked askance at the long-haired black fella who snagged his oldest daughter, but I never got even so much as a disapproving vibe even during the years following the photo above when that hair grew out into full on dreadlocks!

Live well by living simply.

As far as I can tell Dad didn't have a bucket list.  He didn't spend his time rushing to have this or that "big life" experience.  His greatest adventure was as a soldier during World War II where he moved with the Allied troops from North Africa to Italy to France, along the way having once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like shaking hands with Pope and being billeted on the Champs Elysee.   But since then he's lived a quiet, simple life.  I think he understood that  the best memories don't need a spectacular backdrop.  Dad was both very hard and very easy to buy Christmas presents for (he truly disdained birthday gifts, and his habit of giving his wife a gift on his own birthday is legendary).  He didn't seem to want anything, which meant finding the perfect gift was nearly impossible.  But he was also very gracious and appreciative for whatever he received and so in this sense buying a present for him was easy as we knew he'e like whatever we got him.  As long as I've known him, Dad was the picture of contentment.  He was content with simple food (peanut butter, crackers, raisens, walnuts, crarrot sticks) and ate only when he was hungry.  I can't count the number of times we went out to eat and Dad politely declined to order anything.  He didn't need to eat or drink in order to merry.

Dad at 84 clowning around at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Summer 2007.  A trip to Cincinnati with his family brought Dad as much joy as a trek around the world. 

A gentle man's true riches: Dad with grandson Elijah above, December 2008 and below with Ezra in March 2013.  The boys loved their PaPa, and he loved them back.

During the homily at Dad's funeral, Pastor Baldwin noted that the world would take little notice of a man like Bill Leen, but in heaven he was a star, a celebrity.  And this rang so true to me.  Dad was a star, and stars are often eclipsed by the glaring, gaudy, short-lived lights of this world.  But they shine on nonetheless, into eternity.

William Frederick Leen
June 5, 1923-November 26, 2014

Dec 2, 2014

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

I thought I’d write you a letter.  It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.  In fact, I think I’ve only written you one other time in my life:  A little less than 18 years ago when I wrote you asking for your blessing for my intent to marry your first born daughter.  I remember putting that letter in the mail and being a state of such anxiety and dread as I waited the few days for the letter to reach you.  And then how absolutely terrified I felt as Barbara and I huddled around the telephone receiver waiting to hear what your reply would be.  Of course, by that time I should have known I had nothing to worry about.  You welcomed me with joyous, open arms.  You trusted me with one of the three most precious people in your life, and from that moment on you’ve never made me feel like anything less than your son.

And that means a lot to me. I have a father, who gave me life.  I had a grandfather who helped raise me when my father wasn’t there.  But there’s only one man who I’ve ever called Dad and that’s you.

There are so many things about you that I admire, and it feels good to know that I didn’t leave much unsaid with you.  I know you knew how much I admired you, how much you inspired me, how much l love you.  So today, all I want to say is what I would have said two weeks ago this past Sunday as we got ready to head back to Columbus after another weekend visit.  What I would have said, if I’d known that the next time we talk would be a little further down the road than we planned. 

It’s about the dishes.  Well, not the dishes exactly.  But about what the dishes represent.  One of the greatest things that can be said about you is that you took care of your family. I know how hard you worked and the sacrifices you made to care for Barbara and Jenny.  I know how you treated mom like a queen and did everything you could to make life easier for her.   Even though you’d been retired for a number of years by the time I met you, you were always doing something to take care of the people you loved whether it was doing a paper route to bring in extra money or working on the never-ending lists of projects mom always had to do.  Some of my favorite memories of our time together were working on some of those projects with you, like tearing down the shed in the backyard.

As the years passed and backbreaking labor in the yard became less practical you continued to find ways to take care of the people you loved.  It was simple things like helping mom with the bulletin on Fridays at church,  saving up our mail and passing it on to us as soon as we arrived for a visit and preparing our bedroom for our visits, with fresh sheets on the bed and towels laid out for us.  And there were the dishes.  I’ll always remember you standing at the kitchen sink, often in your bathrobe and often on a lazy Sabbath afternoon or late at night when everyone else was napping, working carefully and methodically to wash the mountain of dishes six adults and two kids generated.  And I have to confess, Dad, I often felt like I should get up and help you. Or that I should get them done before you got to them so you could have a break.  But I was lazy. I always loved coming to your house because it was such a relaxing, peaceful place to me.  And so most days, I left the dishes for you and indulged in being able to read or blog or watch a video.  And I told myself that I probably should leave them for you, because I knew you liked to take care of your family and that was one way that you probably gained a lot of satisfaction in doing so.  And I guess that was probably true.  One of your greatest joys was to take care of your family.

But now you’re resting, and I feel that the best tribute I can give you is not in words—you were never big on a lot of talk, but your actions spoke volumes. The best tribute I can give is to do my best with Jesus’ help to do what you did, to take care of our family.  My tribute to you is to work hard and sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed to care for your Barbara as you did.  And I will do the same for your grandsons “Little Elijah” and Ezra as you called them.  My tribute to you is to do my part to look out for mom, as you did, to treat her like a queen and do everything I can to make life easier for her.  I know I can’t ever replace you, but I can do my best to do what you did for the people you loved.  So I wanted to let you know the dishes are done.

I’ll see you later, Dad.  Soon, I hope. 

Until then, rest well.  I love you.

Your son-in-law,