Smokey the Bear and the Power of Rational Discussion

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Guest Post by Troy Lacey

As a child, I remember watching numerous Smokey the Bear commercials. I loved Smokey because he appeared to be a kindly, wise teddy bear that had an important message for me. Smokey was not frightening or abrupt but seemed to really care about us kids. I even felt important when Smokey told me that only I could prevent forest fires. What empowerment for me as a young child to know that I had the responsibility of saving our forests, and not just the responsibility but also the power to either save or destroy.

Of course as I watched those commercials and saw the scenes of devastation inflicted upon those forests by some careless person flicking a cigarette butt or leaving a campfire unattended, I was a little scared of that power. What if I didn’t prevent the forest fire? What kind of monster would I be to let the forests burn and poor little creatures die or be left homeless? Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be entrusted with that kind of awesome responsibility. Sometimes this made me a little embarrassed to watch Smokey’s commercials, as if he would somehow see through my inadequacies and chide me for my lack of confidence.

As a child, however, those thoughts passed through my head rather quickly, and it was on to thinking about playing with my friends or getting ready for school or reading my See Spot Run first grade books (and later comic books) or jumping into mud puddles. When you are young, it always seems as if there is a better time to think about things, specifically when there is absolutely nothing else to distract your attention. So Smokey’s public service announcements sat in my subconscious but only seemed to grab my attention when the commercial was actually on television; otherwise it was out of sight, out of mind.

As I grew older, Smokey’s messages started to annoy me.

As I grew older, though, Smokey’s messages started to annoy me. It wasn’t like I wanted to see forests burn or animals suffer, but I was tired of Smokey’s preachy attitude.

It seemed that if anything was fun, Smokey was against it. I couldn’t shoot off fireworks or camp in the woods or watch my friends smoke a cigar without a jaundiced eye. Just to contemplate those things brought an image of Smokey shouting in my ear, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”

Don’t even try to do anything with fire—that was the real message Smokey was conveying. “Fire is bad, trees are good,” Smokey seemed to be saying, as if he were some cruel god trying to take back fire from mankind so we would shiver and huddle in a dark and mirthless world. Well, I wouldn’t stand for it; Smokey’s constant harping had caused me to revolt.

I became a true pyromaniac. Anything having to do with fire was good enough for me—just give me fireworks, campfires, barbeque grills, and sparklers. I welcomed them all with open arms and pushed Smokey’s announcements into the deepest recesses of my mind.

Now that’s not to say I became careless; I always practiced safety first in whatever I did. No shooting bottle rockets into a drought-stricken forest for me. I always banked my campfires and put them out when leaving the campsite. I made sure my friend put his cigar butts into the campfire or ground them out on concrete or asphalt.

Maybe Smokey the Bear wasn’t on the level with us the whole time.

Perhaps my actions even became a subtle way for me to get back at Smokey—kind of like a “see people can enjoy fire and still keep your precious forest safe” dig at the old scrooge Smokey. Though my conscious mind would have scoffed at the thought, there was a little part of me that flinched, realizing that the only reason I practiced safety first was because of Smokey’s public service announcements that had been hard-wired into my subconscious.

As I grew out of my teen years and started to watch the news more, I became aware that maybe Smokey the Bear wasn’t on the level with us the whole time. I watched as firefighters on television would say they had deliberately set fires in order to remove underbrush from forests or to weed out pests and parasites. My mind reeled. Using fire as a forest management technique? What kind of baloney had Smokey been feeding us all these years?

With the advent of the Weather Channel, I learned that a large percentage of forest fires are started by lightning strikes—not humans. Yes, there was still a lot of stupidity out there in the world, and human agents will accidentally cause forest fires, but I began to feel that maybe Smokey had a hidden agenda. Just as many acts of God as acts of man started forest fires, so why should I listen to a preaching bear?

Candles to Smokey are like creepy clown dolls to everyone else.

Now as I watch the new Smokey the Bear PSA’s I discover the message is “only you can prevent wildfires,” not forest fires anymore. Now Smokey wants us to stop all wildfires. Is a bonfire in the middle of a person’s yard a wildfire? Does Smokey want to put church youth groups in prison for roasting s’mores over an open flame? The latest PSA’s even have people morphing into Smokey, and Smokey is trying to banish even more fun activities. Spoilsport Smokey pooh-poohs birthday cakes and makes you feel guilty if you give him one. Apparently candles to Smokey are like creepy clown dolls to everyone else. He even has a “Don’t start your ATV near a grassy field . . . it can lead to wildfires” promo. I mean, come on—is there anything that you can do outdoors now? Not according to Smokey, I guess.

If I could say a few things to Smokey, it would probably be something like this: Please Smokey, don’t insult our intelligence anymore. Your scare and bully tactics don’t work now. If you would say something like, “We can minimize dangerous wildfires and forest fires by practicing a few common-sense safety procedures,” we’d all be on board. But get over trying to tell people how to live every facet of their lives outdoors—you’ll just tick people off and make things worse.

After all Smokey—

“Only you can prevent people from tuning you out on wildfire safety.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

Troy Lacey works at the desk behind me as a science writer and our resident know-it-all (from comic books to rock layers to world history to the flag of Sri Lanka, Troy has an answer for almost any question). He is also a connoisseur of weird snacks (which he always shares) and has been struck by lightning twice.

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Just the Way He Is

 

Duds lying

When we first saw him, he was cowering behind the breeder’s fence, his tail wagging wildly. He was not abused or neglected, just the last of a litter of dachshunds, too terrified to crawl beneath the open gate, yet eager to meet these girls who had driven two hours across tobacco fields and Podunk Kentucky towns to see him.

The breeder scooped up the chocolate-colored S of a dog and handed him to my best friend and roommate, Laura. He pressed his long neck into the crook of hers, stopped trembling, and sighed.

We named him Dudley and quickly learned that he has some odd ways about him.

He dislikes transitioning from one surface to another, such as from sidewalk to grass, and is frightened of any hard surface. Our shoes are safe on the tile hearth because he won’t step on it, not even to retrieve a toy.

He tugs against the leash in panic when we pass a storm drain or manhole on our neighborhood walks. He puts on the brakes when we walk him to the apartment office to pick up packages. No matter how we try to coax him or familiarize him with perceived threats, new situations turn our otherwise well-behaved, intelligent dog into a quivering wimp.

At Christmas, we drove him six hours to visit my parents in South Carolina. But with wood floor throughout my parents’ house, Dudley froze in place wherever we set him down. His relentless whine hung like shrill white noise in the background of our conversations. We petted and shushed him, but he was inconsolable, wanting only to be held. What was meant to be a joyous introduction turned into a cacophonous ordeal.

Though no one can fully despise a velvet-eared, caramel-eyed puppy, after a day of this commotion, he’d worn a pretty thin welcome. If I’m honest, I resented him for making me look bad to my family. In my frustration, I made snide, terrible comments such as, “I wonder if the breeder has a return policy?” and “Are there surgeries to remove a dog’s whine box?”

When others made digs at him, I said nothing—or, worse yet, I agreed.

“He’s a needy fella,” Mom commented.

“Yeah, we got stuck with a defective dog.” I sighed. “He’s a scaredy-cat. That’s just the way he is.”

Duds and Flower“Be quiet,” my dad commanded, peering down at the crying dog. When Dudley shifted nervously on the floor and ducked his head, I didn’t run to comfort him.

“That whining is something else,” said my brother. And I agreed.

I felt judged for Dudley’s behavior, and in trying to deflect my feelings of failure, I didn’t even realize how cruel I sounded.

Halfway through our visit, Dudley finally found the courage to walk around the kitchen, albeit with a whimper. But he refused to cross one stretch of kitchen floor. We figured out that the dishwasher and oven, situated across from one another, created a sort of valley of the shadow of death for him to pass through.

Laura sat Indian style on the floor, holding a rigid Dudley before her. She pointed to his reflection in the shiny black doors, reasoning with him before the ambivalent appliances. But Dudley would have none of it. The oven and dishwasher were out to ambush him and that was that.

I rolled my eyes and left the room, disgusted.

As we drove the six hours home, Dudley, exhausted from his fretful visit, lay with his rear in my lap and his head resting in the crook of Laura’s arm—another of his particulars, to be touching both of us at the same time.

I knew something was bothering Laura, and finally she told me, tears polishing her eyes,DudleyBlog “You hurt Dudley’s feelings by saying those things about him. He can tell when you’re upset at him.” A few leaden moments passed before she said, “Worst of all you didn’t take up for him.”

A day later we visited Liz, our friend who welcomes Dudley into her home when we’re out of town or busy for the day. Dudley has a grand time playing with her dachshund, Gibbs, and two Shih Tzus, Gemma and Button.

Incidentally, Liz also has hardwood flooring throughout her house, but when Dudley comes, she spreads before him old bath towels and blankets, making a sort of red-carpet path throughout her house for his fearful royalty. She seems happy to make concession for Dudley’s particular demands.

After telling her about Dudley’s fear in South Carolina, she shrugged and said, “Dogs have their things like humans. I tried for years to change Button.” She looked down at the black and white Shih Tzu, fluffy head nearly indistinguishable from shaggy tail. “He’s so timid about strangers. I tried and tried to socialize him, but his underlying nature was not changeable. He was never going to be a social butterfly.

“So I decided to accept him just the way he was.”

Her words cut deep as I recalled the unkind things I had said and thought toward Dudley.

That evening I cupped my pup’s face, stroking his ears and kissing his long nose. I told him I was sorry, promised to defend him and comfort him—vowed to do better. He looked sleepily up at me, accepting the attention, not the least resentful or begrudging, as if he had already forgotten.

And I realized that though Dudley is hesitant and fussy, he’s also loyal and forgiving and precious. And I love him for it—for all of it.

That’s just the way he is.

Dudley

Why You Must Do To-Do Lists (aka My “As Seen on TV” Life)

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In the grand history of list making, I don’t suspect there’s been a list maker quite like my mama. She hoards stacks of spiral-bound notebooks filled with meal ideas, to-do lists, Christmas and birthday lists, ideas for decorations, records of things, sermon notes, quotes, and the Lord only knows what else. It’s as if she has no memory whatsoever outside those little pads of paper.

This disorder—or hyperorder—must be hereditary because I’m a list-making fiend. Why, you ask, do I keep within reach at all times a work to-do list, a home to-do list, and a weekend to-do list?

You know those dysfunctional people in “As Seen on TV” infomercials who really shouldn’t be alive for all the sensational burns and cuts and hand cramps and falls they’ve endured? That would be me without my lists.

What can the to-do list do for you? 

1. Keep you organized. From remembering birthdays and bill payments to recalling times of events and important engagements, lists will keep you on track. And since forgetting any of these things might make you seem forgetful, scattered, or irresponsible, keeping a list can save you from embarrassment.

2. Save you time. When you start making lists of groceries, things to pack on trips, or  birthday gifts to buy, you don’t have to spend time thinking about what to buy, what to pack, or what gift to give when the time comes.

3. Help you be more thoughtful. One of my favorite lists is my birthday list. No, not for me (though I do have one for myself), but for other people. If you’re listening when people talk, you can pick up on interests or wants or needs that they mention. Jot them down, and when it comes time for birthdays or a just-because gift, you can pull out an idea. It will mean even more to the person because you remembered something that she mentioned she likes. So yes, I’m literally making a list and checking it twice (so you better be nice.)

4. Help you meet goals. Let’s get this straight: lists don’t work unless you do. But there’s something to be said for organizing your thoughts and setting them down on paper. Once you know what you want, you can make a plan to go after it. I keep a list of goals to accomplish in a year, a week, and each day. You’d be surprised how accomplished you feel when you can mark goals off your list.

5. Let you think about other things. During college programs when our elderly president sat on stage, I watched him pull a notebook from his pocket, jot something in it, and then slip it back in his pocket. One of the faculty told me years later that the president wrote thoughts in the notebook to take them off his mind so he could concentrate on the moment. This is one of the main reasons that I find it necessary to keep lists. My lists are the involuntary muscles—the breathing and heartbeat—of my life, freeing me to focus on the voluntary things like my job or writing this blog without trying to remember that I need to take something back to Hobby Lobby this weekend and get a ring cleaned at Kay’s.

How do you get started?

Decide how much of your life you want to organize. You might want to start with a daily list. I keep a day planner for my month-long goals and things that are set in stone (vet appointments, payment due dates, vacation days), but I use sticky notes to write down my intricate to-dos each day (give Dudley his heartworm pill, pick up celery on the way home, do the laundry). At the end of the day, what I didn’t get done I roll over to another list for the next day.

Start with one notebook—or several. In one notebook I keep track of movies to see, books to read, gifts to buy, my bucket list, and my travel list. Another notebook holds a list of things I’m thankful for and a list of wedding ideas (just in case). Another one keeps a list of publishing markets and ideas to write about. (In other words, with all these notebooks, I’m becoming my mother.)

If the idea of a notebook scares you, start with a sticky note. A word of warning about sticky notes: they are prone to taking flight. I am haunted by ghosts of sticky notes lost. Dudley has eaten a few. The wind has snatched several others. Some have inexplicably disappeared, probably hanging out with Amelia Earhart and DB Cooper in Atlantis somewhere. Take my advice: a nice day planner or notebook is more reliable.

Try a bullet journal. A bullet journal is the perfect to-do list format for someone who enjoys doodling or handlettering and wants to micromanage their life. Basically, you create a day (year) planner and include in it anything that you want (lists, a hand-drawn calendar, etc.). The bullet journal is a little too intense for my purposes. But you may enjoy the challenge. Learn more about the bullet journal here.

Check out Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner.  Leadership guru Michael Hyatt (host of the podcast This is Your Life) has created a planner that helps you determine your habits, rituals, goals, and motivation. If you’re serious about getting your life in order, this is the planner for you.

The important thing is to choose the to-do list method that’s right for you and stick with it.

There! Now I can mark “write to-do list blog post” off my to-do list.

 

The “Accidental” President, a Fish Ladder, and the Way Forward

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In the hotel room last Thursday morning, I felt ill knowing what lay before me at noon. An editing conference had sounded like a good idea, but only after registering did I notice that “network” was one of the events on the daily schedule. I’m not uncomfortable with conversation in general, but when it’s penciled in on my agenda I’m downright terrified.

To combat my fear, I googled “how to network.” The web articles said, “Act confident. Call names. Give business cards.” That I could do. The websites also advised, “Make sure you know what you want to get out of a conference before you go.”

This suggestion made me nervous because direction—knowing the way forward—has been hard to come by lately. Do I want to build a freelance business? Do I want to meet lots of people, win friends, influence people? Is it OK that I don’t have a five-year plan? Do I need to write a book? Do I need to just keep my blog? Is that enough?

Direction—knowing the way forward—has been hard to come by lately.

Networking, turns out, was easier than I’d expected. For the next two and a half days, I introduced myself dozens of times and wrote down details about the people I met so that I could remember their names.

For those days, I sat through lectures on copyediting, style sheets, fiction editing, marketing, Chicago Manual of Style, and building a freelance business. Through each lecture, I felt aimless because I’m an in-house editor while most of these people were talking about growing their freelance editing business. To be honest, I was a bit envious of their focused pursuits. At least they had a concrete goal to work toward. More clients. More income. More opportunities. I have a stable job.

Halfway through the conference, I had reached the sort of conclusion that you wouldn’t expect to reach in the middle of an editing conference. Though I was grateful to learn more about editing, I found myself wishing for more discussion about writing. At the end of each session, I returned to work on an essay in my room. And it became particularly clear to me that I’m not called to be an editor. I’m called to be a writer.

I was excited to have at least that much decided. It seemed like a step forward.

Grand Rapids

I like to stick my nose in corners of the world that other people might not think to snoop in. My guide is Atlas Obscura, a website that lists obscure landmarks across the country and around the world. When I typed in Grand Rapids, the pickin’s were slim for destinations. The world’s once-premiere fly paper factory. A gypsum mine. A hot dog hall of fame.

Two attractions seemed promising: the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum and the fish ladder.

The thought of watching fish jump their way upstream interested me even more than a museum dedicated to a forgotten president. Gerald Ford? What was Ford known for?

But when in Grand Rapids, do as the Grand Rapidians do, which is apparently—by the name of the airport, the highways, the government buildings—to revere Gerald Ford.

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The Accidental President

From the first signs in the museum, I saw the story of a man whose life seemed to set him up for the great task that would be thrust upon him. Because his father was abusive, his mother divorced him when Ford was only a few months old. However, his mother and stepfather were principled people who instilled principles in Ford. He had a temper, which his mother helped him control by learning discipline, reading scripture, and memorizing the poem If by Rudyard Kipling.

During the Great Depression, his stepfather, who owned a hardware store, chose not to lay off his workers but simply to reduce their salaries, including his own. This taught Ford the importance of taking care of others even at sacrifice of his own. In high school, he had the choice to attend an elite school or a school with immigrants, minorities, and the working class. His parents chose the latter where he would “learn more about living.”

In Boy Scouts he earned the rank of Eagle Scout, and at the University of Michigan he balanced the books of his fraternity during the Depression. All this, to say nothing of his military and political service after college.

After Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, Ford, who had only ever wanted to be speaker of the house, was appointed vice president. Only months later, after Nixon resigned, he found himself promoted to president. Ford is the only man in American history to have been appointed vice president and president without being voted in.

I know exactly how I would have handled the news that I’d just been appointed the most powerful political position in the world. “You’ve got the wrong person for the job,” I’d have squeaked. “Surely there’s someone else—anyone else—who could rise to this challenge better than me.”

I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. . . .

But that’s not what Gerald Ford said in his inauguration address. To a distrustful, bitter, divided nation, he confessed,

“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. . . . I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. . . .

“I now solemnly reaffirm my promise I made to you . . . to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best I can for America.”

Some people called him the “accidental president.” But in his biography of Ford, James Cannon said, “He was the right man for this country at the right time at the most extraordinary crisis in our constitutional system since the civil war.” Gerald Ford had been prepared along the way, always taking the next right step until it, surprisingly, led him to the White House.

Ford faced the opposite struggle that I face. He had his way laid before him, not necessarily a way he wanted, but he took it—though not without fear and doubt. In the book The Right Words at the Right Time, Betty Ford said, “There had never been a time in our lives when we so much needed a source of strength beyond ourselves.” During that time her husband reminded her of Proverbs 3:5–6, verses that she said “became our prayer.”

I glimpsed this passage on a plaque near the Fords’ tombs as we headed to the fish ladder down the street.

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The Fish Ladder

In 1974, Grand Rapids built the series of concrete steps with water flowing over them, as a sort of apology for constructing the Sixth Street Dam and thereby inhibiting salmon and other fish from making their fabled trek upstream.

fish ladderThe ladder simultaneously created a popular destination where people can peer over the concrete wall surrounding the ladder, keen to see the dark splashes of breaching fish, fighting their way against the current.

Watching their struggle felt like inspecting a metaphor under a microscope. Why do fish do it, do you suppose? Why swim upstream? Why flap against rocks? Why fight the current, the natural flow of things, simply to return to where they started?

I guess that if we could ask them, if they were very articulate fish, they might say, “I don’t know. There is something inside me, like a magnet, pulling me toward the old place. I move forward until I come to a wall and press against it, unsure for a moment how to proceed. But here is a ladder the city has built for me. Here is a way forward. And so I splash and jump and beat myself against the concrete.”

The Way Forward

Passing Ford’s museum on our way back to the hotel, I thought of all I’d learned about this president that only hours ago I had hardly known of.

And I recalled one of the most poignant signs in the whole museum. “[Ford] began his first day as president in his usual manner. Following a morning swim, he gathered his newspaper and made his own breakfast. Then his motorcade drove him the eight miles from his Virginia home to the White House.”

Time buries some of history’s best men and women who, with no promise of renown or regard, occupy their space, fill holes left by the unfaithful, match responsibility with love, and, when there is no joy, eke by on duty. They are people who get up to make their own breakfast on both the ordinary days and days of note. And with no direction but forward, they press on an unlit path to a chartless destination. They just do the next thing as well as they can.

Sometimes the way forward means looking for the next thing and being ready to embrace it when it comes. For now, for me, it’s overcoming my fear of networking, it’s listening to my intuition, it’s writing every chance I get, it’s pressing against the obstacles and looking for a ladder. It’s trusting and leaning and acknowledging and waiting for God to direct my path—the way forward.

Lessons from an Old House

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Guest Post by Kathleen Herald

Saying goodbye is hard.

So hard that, as I pack up boxes in my old house, I try not to think about the fact that I’m leaving the place I grew up. I prefer to think about how much I won’t miss the cat-scratched drywall or the blue-paint-stained carpet or the chronically clogged shower drain. I’ve honestly all but given up dusting corners and trying not to run my tire through the yard because, as I keep saying to my mom, pretty soon it won’t be my problem anymore.

But one of the last times I said this, she responded, “You know my counselor and I have been working on ways to say goodbye, especially to the house.”

I’m smart enough to realize that this is code for “Hey, kid, saying goodbye is healthy. Maybe you should try it.”

Of course, she’s right. She’s a mom. So instead of listing out all the things I don’t like about the old place to make myself feel better, I’m choosing to say goodbye by remembering some things I’ve learned from it, because I’ve realized that everything I take with me won’t be in boxes.

1. Appreciating the little things doesn’t have to wait.

The crimson flowers on the front yard tree seem more fascinating this year than ever before, because I know I won’t be here next spring­—or any other spring­—to see them bloom. Almost every evening when I pull into the driveway, I go out of my way to walk past the tree and touch a low-hanging branch. I’m trying to press the flowers in my mind like it’s a book.

I always knew I liked this crimson tree and my fireplace and the swing out back and the big windows in the front room. But I’ve just begun to appreciate them, which I think is to have a deeper sense of gratefulness and joy than simply liking something. Be appreciative with your time instead of flippantly taking the loveliness around you for granted. “Goodbye” and “thank you” don’t have to come in the same breath.

2. Painting over something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

When we were in high school, my sister and I taped a piece of paper in the corner of the living room that said, “I heart John Cena.” Our mom didn’t see it for days. When she finally did, she just rolled her eyes, but we thought we were hilarious for hanging it out of her notice for so long. A few days later when we took it down, the tape tore the wall paint. We didn’t mind, because it kept the joke alive.

But to anybody else, our memory looks like a flaw, so I’ll paint over it in the name of home improvement. And I’ll caulk the holes in the ceiling where my grandpa hung a gauzy canopy over my bed when I was kid, and I’ll take down the picture frame that I tried to stack my Christmas presents high enough to reach every year, and I’ll feel like I’m erasing my memories.

But I’m learning that painting over something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Even if after we patch up this poor old house, all the scars that proved we were here are gone, we were still here. Physical evidence is not a requirement of memory.

3. Letting somebody else in doesn’t mean you were never there.

Letting somebody else buy this house feels like a betrayal. I can’t imagine not being able to walk in the front door again or seeing anyone else’s cars in the driveway. But I’ve already gotten everything I really need from this house. And it’s time to let somebody else learn here—to let somebody else slide in their socks on the hardwood floors and get freaked out when the upstairs water switches on by itself.

Somebody else needs this place now. They need the love, safety, and wisdom it has to offer. Why would I want to stand in the way of that?

Although it may be a long time before somebody else has run up and down these stairs more than I have, that day will come. And that’s OK. I’m not meant to be in one place forever. And being in a new place won’t mean I wasn’t once here. As much as I need (but don’t really want) to walk out into something new, someone else needs to come in.

And I am delighted to open the door for them.

 

. . . . . . . .

KathleenHerald

Kathleen Herald is a marketing assistant, donut connoisseur, and used bookstore enthusiast. In her spare time, she pursues her love of literature by writing essays and poetry. She is a Kentucky native who will always stop to pick a golden rod or pick up a stray dog.

Don’t Eat the Cake: The Unrivaled Joy of Discipline

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Photo by Will Echols on Unsplash

You only live once, but if you do it right, one is enough.—Mae West

I keep lots of lists: things I’m thankful for, goals to meet, movies to watch, adventures to take, gifts to give. Most recently, after watching The Golden Girls, I made a list of things I will regret when I get to the end of my life—whenever that may be.

I recently thought of this list when I saw a meme making its rounds on Facebook:

Never forget that time passes so quickly, you don’t even notice. So use the good china, go on the trip, eat the cake, buy the shoes, watch the late movie. Tomorrow is promised for no one.

It’s an old sentiment that I’ve seen on wall hangings and T-shirts my entire life, meant, of course, to make people smile, to urge folks to slow down and enjoy life. But as memes typically do, it boils a truthful concept down to a sugary compote and reflects a common worldview by which we live our lives.

The basis for this meme borrows a biblical truth from James 4:

Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.

Ironically, this verse comes in a chapter that begins by decrying lust for pleasures. And I’m afraid that in trying to get the world to enjoy a life we aren’t promised to have tomorrow, we often forget to make today count—in ways that really count.

What if, on the off chance, tomorrow shows up?

You know what scares me more than tomorrow not coming? Tomorrow showing up and me not being prepared. What if, on the off chance, tomorrow shows up? If we live by this philosophy and eat the cake and stay up late and bleed money today, we’ll end up tired and fat and broke tomorrow (though good china and a trip are always a good idea) (1).

I’m really not down on cake or new shoes. Little pleasures like a macaron on a Saturday afternoon or a new pair of comfy Sketchers now and then drum up endorphins.

I guess my concern is that this kind of mentality—the eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-might-die-or-be-raptured-away philosophy—doesn’t encourage a treat every once in a while but every day! As another meme said:

treat

And if other memes about cake are any indication, we have started making fun of our own indulgence. (The more you weigh, the heavier you are to kidnap. Stay safe. Eat Cake. Or You never know when the rapture will happen—eat dessert first.)

Can I be honest? I don’t need anymore encouragement to be indulgent. I want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but I get stressed, busy, and discouraged, so I tell myself, “I deserve this.” And I sometimes even encourage others to go easy on themselves.

That meme seems to be talking to a straight-laced world—a world that deprives itself of things like cake and shoes. But what world exactly is it addressing? If store windows, TV commercials, and debt stats are any indication, I’m not alone in my inability to say, “No.”

When I had blood work done this February, the results weren’t good. In what sounded terribly like a threat, the doctor told me that my HDL cholesterol was so high that if I didn’t lower it in the next six months she would put me on a statin.

Going on cholesterol meds at 32 doesn’t compute as an option in my mind. So the diagnosis served as a greater motivation for being more committed to a healthy diet and physical activity. It was as if my life depended on gaining more discipline—because it did. Or at least the quality of my life.

Discipline isn’t as fun as cake, but in the long run it beats sugar flat.

You know what is tremendously more rewarding than indulgence? Discipline. It’s not as fun as cake, but in the long run it beats sugar flat. And it’s something that I just can’t seem to get enough of. But I’m trying.

When you start trying, lots of things seem possible because your perspective of things change. You start thinking of how much money you’re saving rather than what you aren’t able to buy. You start considering just how addicted our society is to sugar and nonfood when you start reading labels. (Need help figuring out how to read labels and figure out what is and isn’t good to eat? I highly suggest a book that is both informative and enjoyable, What the Heck Should I Eat? by Mark Hyman. He gives it to you straight, the good and bad, about every food you can imagine and then leaves it to you to decide how to plan your nutrition. I love his balanced approach, and I think you will too!)

As your waistline shrinks and bank account grows, you find that discipline isn’t here to kill your joy—it is here to exponentially increase it by changing your mind about what makes you happy and fulfilled.

That meme got one thing right: time passes very quickly.

What do you choose to enjoy today in the shadow of an unpromised tomorrow? Rather than what you might indulge in, perhaps think in terms of what you might deny to make your days count. What can you decline today that might bring you delayed joy down the road?

Make your list of things that you will regret one day . . .

Then maybe go to bed earlier. Say no to the shoes.

And don’t eat the cake.

. . . . . . . .

1. A part of the Christian community is known for using the imminent return of Christ as a crutch for letting the world go to pot spiritually and physically, despite what Jesus said about doing business until he comes (Luke 19:13). It’s an insidious mindset that I doubt we even realize we have.

In the Air

planeIf we can believe tree rings, the plaque says that the giant redwood, from which this cross section was taken, germinated in AD 528, a thoroughly unremarkable year, according to Wikipedia, except for marking the birthday of this rather remarkable tree.

The relic slab is standing on its side along the way to my terminal, as if it rolled from Scotia, California, to the second floor of the Cincinnati airport (CVG)—a traveler like me, but stranded in the middle of a station connecting people from all points of the globe. I’m not sure why it’s here, except perhaps to remind us.

The circles start at the center where a pebble of time dropped onto the wood. Extending outward, century by century, the ripples run together, less individual years and more the tree’s sum of life. Shown here in polished wood are generations, millions of lives building civilizations, decimating foreign lands, facing new frontiers, warring among themselves, working together in peace, falling beneath division, rising to new heights together—cycles as round as the rings on this tree.

*

Over the revving engines, I can barely hear the flight attendant’s safety speech. But I’m sure she will say, “Be sure to secure your oxygen mask before helping children or other passengers with theirs.” I remember this instruction from previous flights because it remarkably reconciles everything mean and noble in our society.

“Save yourself,” says the narcissist.

“Save others,” says the saint.

“Save yourself so you can save others,” says the flight attendant.

*

We’re rising. The sky, it seems, has no history, more or less the same from age to age. Though my ETA in Orlando is 2 p.m., for now, I am a woman without a past, without a future—suspended in a timeless space.

When houses become game pieces, and the blood returns to my knuckles, the pilot takes us higher.

The Big Sky theory assumes that the sky is so large that no two planes could collide. Have you looked out a plane window at 40,000 feet and seen another aircraft? Ever spotted anything but the wispy sea and your reflection on the thin layers of plastic? Ever gazed into the somber vastness of the heavens, forgetting the earth and all that therein is?

Now we can see nothing through a haze of vapors. There is nothing above me but more clouds, beneath me no earth, around me no landmarks. Nowhere to land and nothing to do but fall.

Is this what the Creator saw when He divided the waters from the sky, holding the planet of swirled vapor like a marble in his hand? I am here before Adam, before Eve, before the first breath of life—in the beginning with cosmic silence throbbing in my ears while God decides what’s next.

*

In a moment, I’m launched through time, millennia streaking by my window, brought back to this plane cabin to be with the company God chose to keep.

The baby four rows behind me cries. The man in front of me coughs. The woman beside me yawns. Two pilots I’ve never seen set us back on earth, heaving a sigh of relief.

Together we rose in the air, together we’ll land, together we’ll disembark and breathe.

I had almost forgotten.

*

How much did the redwood give in its life, year by year taking in carbon dioxide, giving out oxygen. Taking and giving. Taking to give.

This is life, to breathe and give breath.

The circles remind me, I am not alone.

. . . . . . . . .

Previously published in Borrowed Solace journal v. 2.