Putting Up Walls

This is the house our crew built. Cool, huh?

While the rest of the inhabited universe is talking about Sunday Sales or Super Tuesday victories or the festering verbal manure of Rush Limbaugh, I thought I would share with you fine folks a little snippet from my weekend. Seems we could use a little good news.

This past weekend was Disciple NOW weekend for my church and for a great many churches in Gwinnett. In fact, 18 churches sent their middle and high school students to Cross Pointe Church in Duluth to hear the musical styling of Unhindered and the teaching of Pete Hixson. Over 700 pre-teens and teens slammed together to sing and shout and jump and in general enjoy themselves in the name of Christian discipleship. The theme was “Mirrors, Windows and Doors.”

On Saturday, as the rest of the churches assembled for a morning service, the high school students from my church were on the west side of Atlanta, just off Woodward Avenue, standing in a slightly chilly warehouse and facing a daunting task: frame out an entire four-bedroom house in one day. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the eight hours available to us were for building all of the walls (interior and exterior) from scratch, hauling said walls to the build site, and then attaching said walls to the floor decking.

And did I mention that someone was going to have to go and install the floor joists and decking before we could put up the walls?

In case you don’t know how any of this might be possible, it was all expertly coordinated by the fine folks of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, a not-for-profit organization that helps build affordable homes and even better lives. I had signed my group up to help, and so we became part of a Day One build.

Half of my group went, in the rain, to the build site to begin installing the floor over the crawlspace. I remained with six of my girls at the warehouse to construct the walls. After a thorough (and humorous) introduction to the hammer, nail, and nail pouch, as well as a quick lesson in how to frame a wall (hint: let the hammer do the work), we were divided into five teams (there were several other volunteers) and commenced to building some walls.

I got to watch the young ladies in my group, who were dispersed through all five teams, and it was fascinating. As you might expect, none of us had any real experience with construction work, so the hammer was highly advanced technology for the first thirty minutes. The girls seemed afraid of breaking the wood, so they weren’t swinging the hammers with confidence. In fact, it often seemed as if they were afraid of breaking a nail – the metal kind.

And each time one of the girls would declare that she couldn’t do it, couldn’t go on, was just wasting everyone’s time, one of the Habitat volunteers would come alongside of her and gently challenge her to try again. Or would encourage her that she was giving her best, and that was all that mattered. Or would just be honest and tell her, “Hey–you don’t have to be perfect. Just be willing.”

By the end of the first hour, most of the girls were driving nails into those walls with the proficiency and confidence of a veteran builder. It took less than two hours to get all of the walls built, loaded onto a trailer, and hauled to the build site.

It took only four hours to get every wall up, secured, and nailed down, and oh–we got every single truss for the roof on top of the house too.

At the end of an eight hour day, my students could look at what had been a hole in the ground and see the bones of a house.

So could the woman who will one day live there. Her name was Telecia, and she had been building at our side the entire day. When we got ready to leave, she forced the kids to stop and take a picture in all of their mud-covered glory.

“I don’t want to forget any of you,” she said. “Thank you for this.”

We got on the bus sweaty and tired and achy. But the kids didn’t fall asleep on the drive back to Grayson; they talked about the build, what it meant to them, how special it was to have Telecia beside them for the whole thing. And when Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, they were still talking about the same thing.

So often, when someone mentions building walls, it’s a metaphor for the emotional boundaries that keep us isolated from other people. But on Saturday my students built walls that brought them closer together, and would one day bring a family close to each other too.

I’m hoping we can go back for the dedication, so the kids can see their hard work at its end. But if not, it will always be something special to know that, thanks to a weekend built around mirrors, windows and doors, my students gave a deserving family a new home and a fresh start.

My First Book Is Now Available For iPad and iPhone

The new cover for my book, Blue Like the Sky. Now available for your iPad and iPhone.

So I’ve written before about my first book, Blue Like the Sky, and how I published it through a company called Blurb. Like any good self-published and control freak author, I have gone back and done a little work on the book, adding some new content, changing the cover art, rearranging pictures–making it available as an ebook on your iPad or iPhone.

Yes, you read that correctly. Blue Like the Sky is now available as an iBook for $4.99.

I know not everyone has an iPad, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of folks have an iPhone. Regardless of which device you use, you can download my book to your iBooks and read me wherever you go!

And, no, that link won’t take you to the iTunes Bookstore. It’ll be at least two weeks before the book appears there. But it’s coming.

I’m a little fuzzy on this whole selling books thing, mainly because in just writing a couple of the sentences in this blog I’ve felt extremely narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. My ambition has always been to write and sell books, and hopefully be good enough to sell lots of books, but there’s just something in the self-promotion that feels creepy. Vaguely wrong. Immoral, even.

I know that all authors have to sell themselves if they want to make it, and nobody will buy what they don’t know is available, I suppose. But I guess for me, I don’t want to promote my stuff too much for the fear that people will resent the promotion and take it out on the book. And I’m really proud of Blue Like the Sky. It’s not groundbreaking in any literary sense, but it’s an honest walk through a man’s death with that man’s family. There may be people who need this book, and I don’t want to turn them off.

So here’s where I find myself. I’ll keep the link to my bookstore active, and I’ll let you know when the book is available in the iTunes Bookstore, but beyond that, I’m not going to mention this much, if any, again. If you like the work, you like the work. I would achieve greater satisfaction as an author in knowing that whatever books I sell come from people thinking enough of the work to recommend it to someone else, and so on. And if you enjoy enough to recommend it to a friend, hopefully you’ll enjoy it enough to write a rec on the website. But I’m not going to push.

I’m happy just knowing that my family has been blessed by the book, and knowing that 10 or 12 of you have been too. Everything else beyond that is gravy.

Thanks for reading–you are an encouragement to me. All the best to you.

Everything Old Is New Again

My Ella, the Dancing Queen.

Last Friday, I took my daughter to our first Daddy-Daughter Dance. I was nervous. She was hyper. We had to go buy toothpaste before we went.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I was nervous because I wanted to make the evening memorable. I wanted to make sure that I set high standards for her, to ensure that future suitors would have a tough act to follow. To that end, I shaved. I wore a tie. I opened the doors for her. I bought her a corsage. We got our picture taken together thanks to Andrew Watson photography. And then we entered into the actual dance.

(Quick aside: while waiting to get our picture taken, I told Ella that Andrew Watson was the photographer that Rachel and I used for our wedding. Ella made a funny face and said, “He’s not dead yet?” I now know how old my daughter perceives me to be.)

But I was also nervous because my past history with dances is not good. I think I mentioned that at two of my high school homecoming dances I got ditched by my dates, and I never even made it to either prom. So there was a strange sense of deja vu escorting my daughter to a school-sanctioned dance. The only real ace that I had in my pocket was that no matter what happened, Ella had to come back to me at the end of the night. But even that was cold comfort.

I was really hoping that Ella would want to hold my hand, dance goofily with me, and just in general spend the whole evening at my side. I dreaded the idea that she might ditch me.

That’s exactly what she did.

We weren’t even five minutes in the door before the pulsing music called to her and she ran off to find some of her friends. My heart broke. Actually, my heart disintegrated in my chest and the ashes fell to my feet. My worst fear was realized as I watched a silky pink bundle bounce off to “Party Rock Anthem“. With nothing left to do, I naturally started looking around the room to see if everyone else was laughing at my shame. I shouldn’t have worried.

If you’ve never been to a Daddy-Daughter Dance then you won’t understand what I’m about to describe. If you have been, then you know it all too well: slumped dad syndrome. The walls of the gym were lined with chairs, and almost 90% of them were occupied by fathers who had been likewise ditched, their heads hanging low, their faces lit by the screen of their smart phones, their shoulders slumped as they lean awkwardly against the wall in chairs too small for their butts. There is no more solemn glow than the backlight of an iPhone; it highlights the true despondency of modern fatherhood in all of its ugly glory. The men sat there like victims of Medussa–silent, stoned faces hiding the internal scream at a clock that will not move fast enough.

And seeing all of this, taking in the fact that I wasn’t alone in my apparent ineptitude as a father, I felt better. In fact, I gained enough confidence to move farther out onto the dance floor in search of Ella.

The general rule is that good daddies are goofy, the kind of person who lets you dance like mad while joining in the insanity himself. And truly great daddies are goofy even in public. I think that goofiness is fueled by a love that we can barely comprehend, let alone harness; when it comes to our daughters and their happiness, there’s just not much we goofy daddies won’t do. So it was that I pressed into the mad throng of pre-teen girls, bobbing my head like one of the Butabi brothers and embracing my inner goofy. I was joined by other dads who had similarly decided to brave the Floor of Death (i.e., the dance floor) in an attempt to find their little girl and vie for her attention. Collectively we looked like drunk chickens pecking for food, but when an action is performed en masse, it takes some of the sting out of the humiliation.

When I finally found Ella, she was parked directly in front of the DJ, hands raised firmly in the air, eyes shut, her little body rocking with the rhythm of the music (C&C Music Factory, I believe). She was surrounded by her Kindergarten friends, and for a moment the scene reminded me of some of Rachel’s old sorority photos. When the music changed, the girls gathered together in a group just as a photographer happened by, and they instinctively linked arms, cocked their heads to one side, and smiled for the camera. At first I thought it was just a fluke in the moment, but every time a photographer walked by the girls would stop dancing and strike the exact same pose. And again, all I could think of were the countless pictures I’d seen from Rachel’s days as an Alpha Chi Omega and my own memories of sorority parties at UGA. Here, fourteen years before it could happen, I saw my daughter’s future written out.

I texted Rachel: “Ella is going to end up in a sorority.”

Though it took me a while, I finally convinced Ella to let me take her to the snack table for a piece of cake and some lemonade. It took her thirteen whole seconds to dump her cake on my shoes, and another fifteen seconds to eat the replacement piece I brought her. She gunned back some of her lemonade and then said something that really took me back to my past:

“Here, would you mind holding my drink while I dance?”

Ditched again. Only this time, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt a strange nostalgia come over me, as if somehow I were Marty McFly caught in the wrong time. Watching Ella navigate the dance floor, bouncing and laughing from friend to friend, finding her own space within the crowd and spinning herself silly to the music, I realized I was getting a preview of her young adult life. I was getting to see how she might be as a woman. And as a father, it brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful. She was confident; she was friendly; she was at home in a group or by herself. But what I was most proud of was the fact that she possessed not one hint of mean girl; she danced with friends who were popular, friends who were hiding behind their daddy’s legs, friends who had tried to blend into a group only to be shut out by the dominant female.

Or as I texted Rachel: “You can definitely tell which of the girls have the Queen of Mean gene. It just flows out naturally.”

Ella seemed immune to that, seemed to only care that she and whichever friend might be in front of her at the time were having a blast. And to see that–to witness first hand just how special my daughter really is–well, it made every other observation pale in comparison. I stood there, alone, holding my daughter’s lemonade like a good little dork, my heart bursting with pride. And if the evening had ended right there, it would have been entirely worth it.

But it didn’t end there. The DJ announced two back-to-back horrible songs that were meant to be for “daddy-daughter dance time” (horrible in the sense that the slow songs he played weren’t exactly intended for daddy-daughter dancing) and Ella came and found me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the floor. I broke from her momentarily (to put down the lemonade), and then joined her.

And there, in the middle of 200 other daddy-daughter couples who were in their own little worlds, Ella and I danced. The fact that she didn’t want to dance to the beat of the music, but instead wanted to do West Coast Swing spins, and dips and under-leg sweeps just made it all the more memorable. And when she finally paused long enough to give my poor arms a rest, she nestled her little head next to my hip and wrapped her arms around my waist.

“I love you, daddy. You’re fun.”

My evening was complete. Ella’s was not; I had to drag her away from in front of the speakers, even after the DJ had announced it was time for everyone to go home. My daughter, it seems, loves the night life. She loves to boogie.

She got into the car a little pouty, but we managed to get home without me having to get ugly and ruining the mood. When we walked through the door she went straight to Rachel to give her all of the details and to show her the corsage and to just float around and enjoy the night that much longer. And when I put her to bed, she kissed me on the cheek and said she couldn’t wait to go dancing with me again. And I told her I that, despite my history, despite how nervous I was for the evening, I couldn’t wait to go with her again too.

That’s the magic of your kids: they can take everything old and make it new again. They can take those parts of your past that might still be a bit scarred and somehow smooth them over. They can take your heart and heal it.

If you’ll let them.