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Family, Part III

March 10, 2014

friendship-Mark-TwainAs I shared in the first post in this series, I’ve longed for the kind of tight-knit family in which your close relatives are also among your closest friends. Despite being the last of four brothers, this hasn’t been the case for me, although strides have been made recently for the better. If you’re not friends with your family, though, you can still make your friends your family. Only a few friends in one’s life will be that close, so they are to be cherished all the more. I know this is veering into trite platitudes, the kind of sappiness cornered by Hallmark. But Hallmark can sell a lot of cards because, sometimes, those sentiments are true.

I first met Becca on another blogging site, and she quickly became that kind of friend to me. I was at one of the lowest points in my life at the time, and she helped me through it as, I’m now convinced, no one else could have. She has written her side of the story on this site before. When I needed a fresh start, I couldn’t see any better place to go than near her. I actually lived with her family– she and her husband and two kids– in their guest bedroom, for the first three months after I arrived in Texas. It was funny how quickly I was integrated into the household. I had assigned chores, I ran errands, I house/dog-sat for eight days while they visited family out-of-state; but I also shared in almost every family activity.

Even after I moved into my own apartment, when I would visit their house, it quickly became clear that my status had permanently changed from guest to family. This means that you don’t just come over for dinner, you help cook and/or clean. But it also means that you get to watch the kids open their gifts from Santa, long before any guests come for Christmas dinner. It means when a kid’s birthday party is over and everyone else goes home, you go out to dinner with the family. It means they dog-sat for me when I went out of town, and even though said dog bit Becca then, they welcomed that same dog back into their home. That’s love, folks, the kind of love that can only come from family, even if that family is not by blood.

download_20140310_210311Recently, I was out with all four of them. I thanked them for inviting me on this excursion and Becca said, “you don’t need to thank us, because you’re part of our family. Instead of saying ‘your best friend and her family,’ you should call us your Best Framily.” She was terrifically excited and pleased with herself to have invented such a clever new word; I was sad to tell her that Sprint was already using it in commercials. But I think she uses it in a much better sense than they do. I’m proud that I can call her my Best Friend and them my Best Framily. I never want to take such a blessing for granted.

P.S. Becca says I should sign my blog posts at the end because they just seem to stop abruptly otherwise. She also says I should floss my teeth, so I guess I should listen to at least one out of two.

Um…,
Jason

Family, Part II

March 5, 2014

Today (March 5) is my stepsons’ 15th birthday. I’m no longer married to their mother, and we live in different states, so my hold on our relationship is tenuous at best. It’s still better than what I have with their two older sisters, which is nothing. I didn’t foresee the end of my marriage being the end of my family. We both made bad choices. I didn’t know those choices would affect them so much. Naively, I saw the relationship between my ex-wife and I, and its demise, as only between the two of us. Though it was never meant to be a battle for love or loyalty, she’s Mom to them, and so I was destined to lose.

A long, long time ago.

A long, long time ago.

We were together for almost a decade, and married for over 8½ years. Her four kids were, respectively, 3, 4, and 9 when I came into their lives. The oldest I adopted. Her younger siblings had their father nearby, but I was at home with them and grew into being a father to them. Eventually they called me “Dad,” but now I’m back to “Jason.” I don’t regret leaving a failed marriage. I was blessed to watch four great kids grow up and have such an important role in their lives while I did. What ended needed to end. What won’t end is loving them. I haven’t done my best to stay close to the boys, and the girls would prefer not to acknowledge my existence, but I love them all. I would do anything in my power to help any one of them at a moment’s notice. Even if one day I have a biological child, or adopt one, they’re still my kids too.

I can only hope that time does heal all wounds. In many ways I feel like ten years of my life were all but blinked out of existence, as if they never happened. An “instant family” may not have been something I was ready for, but I tried. I smile at memories and learn the lessons of experience.

It’s been my lifelong dream to have a child who only knows me as Dad. I’m nearing 40 and I don’t know if I will meet someone with whom I can share this amazing journey. What I do know is I have the love in my heart to give to both a partner and a child. Trust me, if I didn’t like kids, I wouldn’t have endured six years of middle school. Even in the role of a teacher, there is no underestimating the impact you can have when you touch the life of a child. Part of the void is filled by the presence of my “best framily,” the subject of Part III. Stay tuned :)

Family, Part I

February 27, 2014
John & Miguel at the beach

John & Miguel at the beach

Valentine’s weekend. Love was in the air, the just-slightly-cool air of an ocean breeze, as my toes bathed in the surf. I stood on this romantic beach in Miami not with my lover but with my brother and his partner. Once we left the beach, we had to hurry back to shower, shave, and constrain ourselves in suits and ornamental nooses, because it was time for another brother’s wedding. Altogether there are four brothers, of whom I am the youngest, and three of us were there due to the relentless prodding of my new sister-in-law. This prodding may or may not have included financial aid, guilt, and/or electricity.

This event brought a total of four weddings among three brothers, including two divorces, and one brother’s right to marry denied. Only the first in the series, the oldest brother’s wedding, was attended by the entire immediate family. No other family members were present at the next two weddings. But that simply wasn’t going to be allowed this time. My family has never been particularly close and those bonds have been weakened all the more by separations of age, geography, and religious views. Once my father passed away and my mother subsequently developed dementia, we lost much of the impetus to gather at holidays or just because.

Us 3 "constrained" that evening

Us 3 “constrained” that evening

I’ve long found myself envious of people I’ve known who had strong family ties, counted siblings or cousins among their best friends, knew automatically where they would be and what they would do on any given holiday; the kind who, if asked who or what is most important in their life, will always say “family” as their first answer. I’ve longed to become one of those people.

The story of my family is now a story of four families: the one I was born into, the one I was married into, the one my brother just now married into, and the one of my best friend that I have been “adopted” into. That means there’s three more parts to this story to come, so stay tuned. To be continued

Pillaging Pedantic Pontification

February 18, 2014

If you’ve ever watched American Idol, you know the kind of train wrecks you can witness in the auditions. Everyone walks into the judges’ room believing they can sing. Many are told they can’t, and react to that news with varying degrees of shock and indignation, protesting about how their family and friends have always told them what great singers they are. Some are average singers but not good enough for the competition, and that news must be even harder to take. The producers of the show know viewers laugh at people with delusions of grandeur, while those who have some talent but just aren’t quite good enough tug at our heartstrings. Why?

Because we’ve all been there. We all have something we feel we’re really good at, and once a few people reinforce that feeling, your ego starts to swell. Then you begin to feel that you’re more talented, smarter, better than anyone else (at least anyone else you know) at what you do, and this gives you a right to criticize others. “Oh, your guacamole is good, but did you use any cilantro? I always mash it in with the avocados”… You may not even realize you’re doing it, and if people don’t call you on it, you’ll have no reason to change your behavior.

But one day, the reality check hits and you realize that you’re not as good as you thought. You may have been valedictorian of your high school, but then you go to a college where everyone was valedictorian. You discover that growing from good to great requires effort. It happened to me. For years I was told how smart I was and how well I wrote, especially essays. It got me to a point where my essays became lectures, talking at my readers, not to them, and sometimes even talking down to them. On the spectrum between engaging, thoughtful writer and pompous ass, I skidded dangerously close to the latter.

blogging posterIt took my own personal version of the Idol judges to say: you’re good, but you’re not doing your best, because you think you can get by on your talent alone. No one will be interested in what you have to say when you think you’re interesting by default. If you imply that your mind is a Ferrari and your readers are Fords, no one will want to drive alongside you. In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast you can go if no one likes the scenery along the way. With the Idol contestants, all the raw singing talent in the world won’t help if you don’t know how to entertain an audience. It’s no different as a writer.

It’s a struggle to check the ego and turn on the empathy. But that’s what I’m trying to do; stop writing about me, me, me and find ways to make you, the reader, not only interested in what I write, but wanting to read it. It’s very general advice to anyone who wants to be a successful blogger, or ever be a published writer (not that I know anything about that!): write, stop, read it out loud, and ask yourself: why would someone want to read this? I had to do that with this post. In its first draft, it went on and on about the 13th anniversary of registering my domain name and my limited success of living up to that name. I’ve written the same post, in slightly different versions, a dozen times over the years. Not only was it not new, it didn’t say anything to relate to readers.

If you sing a song, write a poem, cook them dinner, etc., most people will be nice and tell you it was good. It’s in our social training and usually it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re trying to improve at something, you need to be open to constructive criticism. More importantly, you need someone you trust who will give it to you. I’m blessed to have a friend who does. Sometimes all you need to strengthen talent is a little taste of humility.

While You Were Sleeping

February 4, 2014

These very pants. Pictured on me, of course.

Saturday night my dinner decided to recycle itself onto my bedroom carpet. I spent the next 48 hours in a semi-coma, hallucinating something about a football game, beer, horses, and puppies eating Doritos in a Kia. When I started to come to Monday night, I stepped outside in my Coke pajamas and someone yelled at me that I’m not a real American. By Tuesday afternoon I finally got to the doctor, who told me to not eat junk food. I turned on the TV and heard that 120 million Americans are under a winter storm warning Tuesday night, which is 8.5 million more than watched that football game. Then I realized that if I can do that math in my head, I must be coming back to my senses. Once back to my senses, I knew that I had not delivered a promised post on Sunday to my 4.5 dedicated readers. Working on it, folks. For now, I’m going to celebrate keeping down two bowls of chicken soup today and not using the word “So” once in this post.

Lazy Writer

January 30, 2014

Once upon a time, I was a better writer. I was a better writer because I wasn’t a lazy writer. I wasn’t a lazy writer because I was surrounded by good writers, and people, whose authority and talent I respected, challenged me to be better.

The previous paragraph is a semi-intentional example of lazy writing. There’s nothing gramatically wrong with it. The paragraph builds as each sentence explains the last. It’s sound expository composition, with a clear thesis and support. Opinions may vary as to whether beginning with “once upon a time” in anything that’s not a fairy tale is a clever hook or a trite attempt to be cute.

BUT… That first paragraph shows inherent signs of laziness. Most notably, repetitive phrasing: “I was” or “I wasn’t” five times in three sentences. Repetition isn’t always bad; it can be intentionally used for effect. More often than not, though, repetition shows lack of effort to makes one’s writing interesting. Also, forms of the verb “to be,” like “was,” weaken writing when overused. Active verbs strengthen writing, and passive voice, like “I was surrounded” should be avoided. I could go on, but sometimes using too many words is just as lazy as using too few.

So why did I become a lazy writer? More importantly, how does one kick the lazy habit and regain his writing chops?

It helps to have friends who are fellow writers show you how lazy you’re being, because they know you can do much better. I definitely have that much going for me.

Next time I’ll illustrate more of my laziness and how to fix it. I would write more about it now, but, I started this on Monday, and… I’m lazy. (One parting hint: Three commas and an ellipsis in a 16-word sentence is probably not for the best).

Matters of Faith #2

January 26, 2014

The following post is the second in a series I plan to share each Sunday for the next several weeks.

This week, for the first time, I went to church on a Saturday night. Becca’s family attends this church, but not this particular service; therefore I was going solo, which exceeds my comfort zone. I’ve now been to three of the four services that this church offers, all except the traditional, 11 a.m. Sunday service.

I’ve been to the 8:30 Sunday, which is rather traditional, and the one they attend, in-between the others on Sunday morning, which is a contemporary service. It’s what some call, perhaps derisively, “rock’n’roll church”; instead of a choir, there’s a band; instead of traditional hymns, they perform CCM songs with the words on video screens. There’s still a sermon, but it’s the condensed version. The Saturday night service shares the contemporary and casual vibe with a few of the traditional trappings and a somewhat calmer, more contemplative atmosphere. Each of these three services have aspects I like, but none feel like the perfect fit.

I don’t know yet if I want to make this my church. It’s close, and it feels fairly inviting; small enough that you could have a sense of community, but large enough to have multiple services and several study groups, outreach opportunities, etc. It’s an affiliated church, though (UMC) and I’ve really wanted to go somewhere non-denominational, as I feel denominational thinking has long been a plague upon American churches.

The other church I tried, since deciding to go back, is Presbyterian, but in name only, it seems. The pastor there works hard to integrate examples of similar concepts in other major religions and from philosophers. This church actively welcomed LGBT members, which is a huge plus to me. They also did things such as going out of the way not to use gendered language– even refusing to say “the Lord” because of its patriarchal connotations (they substitute “The Holy One”) and interpreting all scripture, it appeared, as metaphorical.

In the case of the Nativity, for example, he said there were no angels or singularly super-bright star in the sky, because otherwise everyone would have been there falling on their knees, and it wouldn’t be a “silent” night. He was saying that for the shepherds, hearing the angels sing was really an internal feeling, a calming of the spirit within they could feel because of their simple faith, and so on. But some of his statements seemed to be questioning the sanity of believing in the virgin birth. When I perceive extremes like that, I start to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Church is a great place to stand and sing and sit and listen, surrounded by like-minded people. But all churches I come across say their true purpose is to welcome the hurting and the lost. Can that be accomplished in a worship service? Sermons are essentially lectures, which are generally not the most effective teaching method. In the Gospels, in most cases, when Jesus was teaching, people asked him questions: the disciples, to clarify; local listeners, to believe; Pharisees, to bait. I know we can find such back-and-forth in a Bible study class, but why not in a worship service? If we all have a personal relationship with God, aren’t we all co-pastors?

I have a lot of questions, as I am sure most of us do. I want to discuss the scriptural support for various beliefs, but I also want to analyze beyond just quoting chapter and verse. Many of them are the God-paradox questions, i.e. if God is x, how can y be? I’m sure you can anticipate most of those questions, but I want to save them for next week. I also want to discourse with people who are willing to be open-minded about other religions and belief systems. I don’t necessarily believe that “all religions are true”– I can’t see how you could reconcile some of the divergences– but I do believe that there is truth and wisdom to be found in them all. I also believe that science is humans’ means of discovering the wonder of God’s design. To deny science is to deny the power God has endowed us with to inquire and discover, and there is no valid reason for science and religion to be incompatible. Again, that will be the subject of a future post. Have a blessed day, my friends.

Jodie Llewellyn

The ramblings of an aspiring YA author.

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