Everyone Carries a Story

With hands loosely clasp in his lap, a sweaty empty beer bottle before him, the old man’s body telegraphs the enormous weight of the world resting on his worn down shoulders.

It is breakfast. My food, a couple of street tacos, sits in front of me on the wooden beam of an open-air restaurant along Florida Keys. The day is beautiful.

Looking beside me I see the man take a penetrating breathe – his eyes casting downward into his deeply tanned hands.

The moment proves that sitting a block from a crystal blue ocean does not necessarily guarantee happiness.

A good friend of mine once shared a powerful philosophy I continue to hold closely.

“Everyone,” he said, “has a story.”

“We need to make sure to never overly judge people unless we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We really don’t know what happened to them yesterday, a week ago, or even 5-minutes ago.”

Afterwards my friend sent me a link to a short video clip helped illustrate his theory. As random people entered the screen, words with a brief description of the challenges the individuals face overlay each.

Words along the lines of “can’t pay the rent this month” or “mother in the hospital” appear. Adults, as well as children, pass before the camera lens.

My friend’s lesson, many years later, continues to walk with me each day. No longer do I allow myself to cast early judgments or attitudes based solely on what my eyes superficially digest. While vision can absorb clues or potential indicators, to know the real story, a personal connection must be made.

A waitress stops by the old man’s place at the end of the bannister. Another beer arrives, his head nodding in absent acknowledgment.

Looking around me, my wife sees the man. Looking at each other we find ourselves putting my friend’s works into play. And for both of us, we hurt for the man a the end of the bannister.

In life it is easy to cast judgments based on window dressings. A wrinkled shirt, worn shoes, or an odor as you walk by. For the old man, his unshaven face, leathered skin, and stained clothes hint of a life we couldn’t understand. The weight of the world – his world – appears to be nearly unbearable.

As the waitress clears away our breakfast, I slip away to pay the bill. Returning to the outside bannister I find my wife speaking with the man, now readying for his next morning beer.

She speaks to him, breaking the fog of his thoughts and mental wandering.

Reaching for his beer, he answers. He’s kind and soft-spoken. Life, however, is difficult.

In life, as my friend taught me, people in pain are everywhere. Some speak out while others internalize their feelings – as if retreating will deflect the pain or struggles they face. But as an outsider, all we have are surface clues.

We may never know his full story, but at least he’ll know someone cares enough notice.

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Paradise Evolves Over Time

Paradise is a moving target.

Standing in a small shop, the storeowner laments her neighborhood. Filled with historic homes, dense green foliage lining the streets, and strong hints of a time gone by, her words are heavy.

“Yes, we love it,” she said. “But it’s changing now.”

Looking around I see beautifully restored homes, streets tastefully updated, and people walking along the sidewalks.

“This used to be quite, but now people with money are moving here to make it into their paradise,” she said. “Cutting out trees, tearing down houses, changing the place.”

I think about her words and how they could apply to practically anywhere. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and many times the beauty defines itself in the possibilities rather than the present. And with each person comes a slightly different view of paradise.

At the moment I’m standing on a small island in the Florida Keys. But in reality, this could just as well be said to a tiny town I recently visited in the mountains in northwestern Alabama or the Texas Hill Country. Each is a beautiful location – rightfully attracting visitors to experience and share in their unique charm.

The downside, to many locals, is a certain number of the visitors cannot resist the emotional gravitational pull to make their personal mark on their newfound paradise. To them, paradise could be improved if only…

And so it goes – paradise becomes a moving, evolving target. Progress, the term many times employed to explain changes in a community, will always come with a double-edged sword. As more and more people visit, businesses blossom or move to town to serve the growing audience. And as the cycle continues, the original paradise evolves into something – while rooted in the original – different.

My thoughts go back to a little fishing town our family would visit each summer in the Ozarks. A small, pockmarked downtown, a grocery store or two, and countless rainbow trout waiting for us to unpack the car and get down to the water.

The word got out. Today Branson, Missouri is a juggernaut of tourism – something akin to a country-western version of Las Vegas. The dusty town of sparsely populated two lane roads is now home to an airport welcoming full size commercial airliners.

I’m sure, if I could find a store clerk from those original days, they’d have an opinion or two about what happened to their paradise over the course of a few decades.

Standing near this store clerk in the Keys, I understand the regret she reveals in her words. Her version of paradise is under attack. And the changes are not under her control. And she’s right. Progress (or changes) will one day arrive rendering her town potentially unrecognizable.

I’m beginning to understand paradise is temporary if not indefinable. We all see paradise as our nirvana, the place we can happily spend eternity. That is if only we removed that tree and put a new wing on the house over there…

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Santa Claus and World Politics

Years ago, my son who’d yet to reach double-digit candles on his birthday cake, asked me a question that until that moment seemed unfathomable.

“When do you think the United States will no longer be the most powerful or influential nation in the world?”

To me I stood there stunned – probably much like kids must feel when learning the truth about Santa Claus.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He didn’t justify his question by current event, but sheer logic. Rome didn’t last forever nor did any other of the big players they discussed in his history class. Eventually they all faded or fell.

For someone growing up in the period of men landing on the moon, a thriving economy, and a courageous president telling an evil superpower to ‘tear down this wall’, the concept of the present seemed to expand forward forever.

But my son’s rational shook me to my core. Would the United States be the exception to history or would it follow the well-worn pathway of history?

I guess I say this as I find myself hearing my son’s words coming back to me more often. The nation, who put a man on the moon in under a decade, seems today be losing its mojo. And this, frankly, concerns me greatly.

I believe in the United States and the principles for which it stands. I believe we are a nation of good people looking to do good, not only in our backyard, but also for our neighbors. And I believe, if you ask most Americans, they’ll say the very same.

But America’s role is, in many ways, showing serious fractures both domestically and internationally. Some factors are internal, others external. But regardless, a case could be made the United States’ pool of goodwill equity and leadership ability is beginning to show strains of both economic and political wear and tear.

And I believe the world is a better place with the United States, doing the work of its well-intentioned populace, at the front of the line performing leadership through statesmanship, charity, and when appropriate, militarily. The United States is a special nation, one created by the sweat, blood, and hard work of both man and God.

My political heroes range from Ronald Reagan (R) to Harry S. Truman (D)– leaders who time and time again understood their role and responsibility to keep these principles at the forefront. And they exercised courage of leadership during times of great strife and uncertainty. While many could disagree, no one doubted their convictions.

A quick scan of a week’s headlines ought to give anyone who holds these values a moment or two of pause. And to be fair, this is not the result of one political party over another, but rather a systemic absence of true leadership. This did not occur overnight or with one administration.

But what concerns me today is that without a return to true leadership, America could be relegated to the ‘has-been’ list along with Santa Claus.

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Original Creations Begin From Within

Dreams can originate from the most unusual places.

Recently I found myself with friends in a small restaurant tucked away in the mountains of northeastern Alabama. Uneven wooden floors, eclectic art, and strings of clear Christmas lights draped the surrounding walls. We are, indeed, somewhere special.

The waitress introduces us to the owner, a young woman with a story as unusual as her restaurant.

She warm, friendly, and welcoming. Her name, she shares, is Moon.

Conversation flows easily from her. Taking time to visit with each of us, I turn the conversation back her way.

“How did you get into the restaurant business?” I asked.

She smiles and begins telling us her unusual pathway to all of us being in the same room at this point in time.

“I had a vegetable stand and I didn’t want them to go to waste,” she said.

In most places, this explanation might not be plausible. But in this remote, quiet town hiding in the mountains, dreams can sometimes take unusual pathways.

She is fascinating. Moon is her third name – one she collected after living in California for a few years. The second name, also adopted, she created to match the last four digits of her telephone number at the time. Her given name, a traditional Southern two-name combination, today would as ill fit her as that of the coat from a stranger.

In some worlds, the restaurant owner would find herself on the end of curious stares and questions. But here, where her dreams seamlessly meld into a unique culture of art and nature, she compliments her corner of the world.

She’s confidence is infectious. Our waitresses, as well as other employees I meet, draw a powerful spirit of independence from Moon and her dreams. To them, they each play a unique role in this moment.

Our meals are amazing. The kitchen ‘creates’ rather than ‘plates’ an order. With menu options you would never expect in a small mountain town, the combination of creativity being allowed to roam the wooden floors make you forget you’ve left your home zip code.

Dreams come in all shapes, sizes, and timelines. For this restaurant owner, her dream is result of her evolving self, her changing to the world surrounding her. Reinvention, as she’d discovered, is a natural progression of life – and one to be embraced.

I am sure there are many details of her personal journey I could never capture in a table side conversation, however, I am still deeply intrigued. In life we periodically meet people who tend to use the winds of time and changing circumstance to their advantage. For these people, they understand forcing a square block into a round hole is not always the best use of their time. But rather than expend time and effort into an unlikely result, they look both inward and outward for opportunities.

And in this small mountainside community, one person is harvesting their unique talents and energy to change both the life and world around her.

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