Filling Need with Deed

I strive to write clearly, but with the topics I write about, I am sure I fail sometimes. One ridiculously simple point that isn’t always clear: The title of my blog, makingtheplay.com. What does it mean to make plays? What is a play anyway? Hopefully this post will clear that up a bit.

I don’t feel the need to define play strictly. I believe you know the plays of your life when you encounter them. Sometimes they are explicit, such as picking off a pass in football or picking up a check in a restaurant. Other times they are less clear, such as openly honoring someone’s right to disagree or silently changing your experience of a situation by having an epiphany about it.

The importance of a play varies from person to person, and it varies from moment to moment for each individual. I like to think they all have unlimited potential. No play is too big or too small to be worthy of your effort.

Every moment of our lives, opportunities to make plays are available. We make some. We miss some. We move on in the present moment with new plays available for the making.

This past week, three playmakers in my family died. I wrote about my Uncle Jake last week (you can read that article by clicking to the link here It’s Been Fun). This week I want to write about Ron Block and my Aunt Susan Klaus Hoffman. You may or may not know them, but both made plays that were important to me. By discussing them, I hope to shed light on what it means to make a play.

Truth be told, Ron Block wasn’t part of my family. Not by blood at least. But I loved him, and he treated me like family. His entire family treated mine with kindness, so he and the Blocks are family to me.

As a single parent, my mom did her best, and her best was incredible. But she was human (although I think many would consider my mom Saint Kate with the love she has for the world), and after playing the roles of mother, father, and breadwinner, she didn’t always have time left to figure out how to take care of what she wanted for me. That’s where Ron and the Block family often stepped in.

My childhood memories are filled with times I spent with the Blocks. They drove me to countless games and events. As I write this, I have visions from their back of their minivan flooding my head (to be clear, there was a new minivan every year, and I hope more than a few of you are laughing your butts off at the thought of one of Dee’s new minivans parked next to Ron’s old S-10, both immaculately cleaned by Ron’s compulsive hand). Ron was typically at the wheel, unless of course we had been to the beach where Ron had imbibed plenty of fun (and more than a few Black Labels), in which case Dee drove back home. Anyone who knows Ron will have plenty of memories of Ron smiling and laughing as if the point of life was simply to smile and laugh, which very well might be the point of life. The man could celebrate, and he never needed much of a reason.

Once when Ron and I were celebrating at a graduation party, we had a conversation about my personality. I was a pretty serious kid at times (okay, that’s the understatement of the year, quit laughing people), and Ron noted that as I entered my early 20s, I was starting to loosen up a bit and have a little fun. I like to think I’m still on that path, and I like to think I learned some of it from him.

One particular memory of Ron has been popping up in my mind for years. One year Ryan and I had to make Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts. Ron knew mom and I couldn’t handle it on our own. He was good with tools and had a workshop in his basement. So he took Ryan and I, and we designed, drilled, weighted, cut, and finished our cars in the workshop. Unlike so many parents today, Ron didn’t interfere with my design, weighting, or aerodynamics. He let me create and build my own car. He simply made sure I was safe with the tools. It was the perfect level of guidance.

I am pretty sure the design of the car was mediocre and finished with mediocre results, but today the process means much more to me than any result ever could. Ron thought about me and cared enough to step up and make a play. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful things life has to offer: Someone sees a need and fills it with deed. It’s like a dovetail joint that brings together the spiritual with the physical, the intangible with the tangible. It’s common, yet when it’s experienced with great awareness, it seems miraculous. It’s the essence of making a play.

When Ron made plays for me, Dee, Rhondi, Ryan, and Darren should get credit for their assists (and they made their own plays for me too). They shared their husband and father with me, and that’s worth more than a small mention. Sometimes we can’t make plays without assists from others.

That’s where my Aunt Sue comes in. She certainly made her own plays in life, but she also made assists by allowing my Uncle Hank to be another father figure in my life. She and my cousins, Kyle and Tim, shared selflessly and included me in their lives in so many ways.

Aunt Sue also shared her family of origin with me. I have great memories of spending time with her brothers, sisters, and parents, Harold and Ruth Klaus. One of my earliest memories is of her marriage to my uncle at their family farm in Harbor Beach. Another is smelt dipping with Uncle, Harold, and her brother Tim. We fished for hours, then used scissors to gut the fish for what seemed like hours more, then fried and ate them. Talk about filling a need with a deed. It was a perfect adventure for a young boy.

When her brother Tim was a teen, he and Uncle Hank put up a basketball hoop that provided hundreds of hours of fun for me, and I’ll never forget fishing on Sanford Lake with her sisters Jackie and Linda. These were times they used their skills to make plays my mom couldn’t make. That is not a knock on my mom. It’s a nod to their thoughtful efforts to make the plays my mom simply couldn’t. It was filling a need with a deed.

Given all the memories of my aunt from my youth, perhaps it’s a bit ironic that one of my lasting memories of her will be her late-life battle with MS. Truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily the battle that impressed me; It was the grace with which she accepted her disease.

Early on in the course of the disease, she fought through pain and debilitated motion to continue making plays in life. She constantly sought to make contributions to her communities. When she wasn’t teaching a class of her own, she was working as an assistant, tutor, or volunteer. She was always active making plays in her community through the schools, churches, and other organizations. She lived to make plays that helped enrich others.

I am sure she had moments of frustration, but she rarely showed it when I was around. On the contrary, she often seemed to be at peace with her frailty. It was as if she understood: This is my path. It’s the only one I can travel, and I recognize that I am the one who must travel it.

It often seemed as if her greatest strength, her grace, was revealed through her greatest weakness, the weakness that eventually took her life. With her grace, my aunt displayed one of the key principles of what makingtheplay.com is all about. The situations of our lives do not dictate our experiences of them. They do not control us. We have creative power to construct our own experience and meaning of life. We rise above situations when we understand that our experience of life resides in our own awareness. Ultimately, perhaps life becomes what we can make of it. No situation is too big or too small. Every play has unlimited potential, and you may never truly understand the value another person attributes to your play.

Our biological frailty has taken two great ones this week, Ron Block and Sue Hoffman. Even though they are gone from the world, their spirit will surely live on in those who knew them. For me, I hope to remember them by making plays like they made for me. I hope to be able to see needs and fill them with deeds. I hope to understand life is what I make of it. And as I progress toward my own inevitable frailty, I hope to show grace and acceptance of what I can no longer influence.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. Ron and Sue were certainly worthy of your time. Whether you know them or not, I have a humble ask. Make a play. Fill a need with a deed. Place Ron or Sue or someone else you know in mind, someone who made plays for you and has now passed. Grab your favorite beverage, and give a toast to them and the plays they made.

Prost. Cheers to Ron, Sue, and you and yours. May you make plays until the day you can’t, and when you pass, may your plays live on in the memories of your loved ones.

It’s Been Fun

Human resilience amazes me.

After a long battle with various ailments and pain, my Great-Uncle Jake died Sunday. We buried him Thursday. He was 87 years old. He was a fine man. A damn fine man.

To me, Jake always looked like Johnny Cash if Johnny Cash were a farmer. He was a big, strong guy. He had a great sense of humor and was quick with a smile and an unforgettable laugh.

If the world around us had ever sunk into chaos, Jake’s farm would have been a good place to be. Jake was self-reliant. He could grow things. He could fix things. He could hunt. When he wasn’t working on the farm “making hay while the sun shined” -as his eldest grandson Steve eulogized – he was working a second job in a saw mill or spending time with his family. He had an unstoppable work ethic and generous heart.

Jake walked a path in life that is hard for me to imagine. When he was 11, he and my grandmother (who was then 16) ran the family farm when their father died (he was trampled by horses) and their other brothers were off fighting World War II or running their own farms.

When he was 29, Jake (and my Great Aunt Mary Lou) lost a daughter. She lived 4 days. When he was 48, he lost his oldest son. Young Jake was 21 when he was cut in half by a drunk driver who plowed into the back of his semi as he attended to it on the side of the road. He left behind a wife and a 9 month old son (Steve, Uncle’s eulogizer, now a 39 year old PhD geneticist with a wife and 2 children of his own).

When I sat down for the funeral and read his obituary printed in the program, I’d forgotten about the young daughter, Marilyn. But I remember when Jakie died. I was 5, but I still remember my mom and grandmother and their seemingly unstoppable tears. It was the 3rd death of a 20-something male in my family in a 5 year span. I was only 7 weeks old when my father died, so it was my first memorable experience of despair.

But this isn’t about despair. It’s about resilience.

Our moods ebb and flow, and with the changes, our thoughts change as well. We go from up, optimistic, open, full of possibility, to down, pessimistic, closed, and devoid of hope. We then feel our thoughts. When we lack awareness, we blame the world for how we think and feel. When we are fully aware, we understand that we project our thoughts and feelings onto the world independent of the circumstances of the world. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Our experience of the world is what we can make of it. Most of us understand this at times. We have some say in how we experience life.

Yet certain situations seem to have a gravity to them, an inescapable force that sucks us down into it. The death of child is one of those. Uncle Jake lost two of his children.

To me, the most incredible part of the grieving process is our human resilience. While it is completely normal to grieve, it’s also completely normal to move on from it. Yes, when the loss is in mind again, the pain returns. Yet we always move on at times, often long stretches at a time, demonstrating that forces such as gravity do not exist in thoughts and feelings even though it seems as if they do. It’s in our nature to overcome what seems like emotional gravity. We have resilience. We nurture our own emotional crops.

My uncle understood this. You see, farming wasn’t just his occupation. It was his life. He used the dirt of this world as a fertile medium for growing the life he desired.

Once, when Steve asked why he became a farmer, he responded, “You get to be your own boss.” Despite all the lack of control farmers have over weather, disease, and soil, he still viewed himself as his own boss of his experience. He was a farmer. He was his own boss, the man with influence over the crops he cultivated. He did the best he could with what he had.

He understood this to the very end. At his funeral, Uncle’s pastor described his last rites and meal in the hospital before going home to hospice care. He asked Uncle, “Is there anything you want to tell Mary Lou.”

“It’s been fun,” Uncle said.

It’s been fun. Imagine that. After 87 years, under any life circumstances, could you have a better testimony about life? This was from someone who was forced into being the man of the farm at 11, lost two of his children, farmed for a living (and sometimes a starving), breathed saw dust in the mill all winter long, and fought the pain of those physical occupations for decades.

It’s been fun. What a damn fine man my uncle was to be able to see that. And yet, if we are being honest, he was completely ordinary and normal. He is a testament to finding the miraculous in the common.

For his last act of resilience, his sons Bill and Mike have taken on their father’s sense of humor. At the funeral, they laughed the laugh they inherited from him as they delivered a nod to the cycle of life only a farmer can truly appreciate, “He still has one more spring planting to do.”

As the procession left the funeral home parking lot to go plant Uncle in the cemetery soil, we drove past a last reminder of his life here on Earth, a life spent working the earth. Mike had driven his father’s old tractor to the funeral home and parked it in the lot near the road. It was the first thing I saw when I pulled up. It was one of the coolest and most fitting tributes I’ve ever seen at a funeral.

It was a fine tribute to a fine man. A common man yet a miraculous man. A man who used his life to point in the direction of our incredible resilience and capacity to enjoy life.

I have no answers folks. I won’t pretend to understand how the spiritual works here on Earth or beyond. I won’t tell you what to think, and I am fine with whatever you believe. But today I like to believe that Uncle drove his tractor to heaven, hopped out on two good knees, and firmly shook God’s hand. And I like to believe that God grasped my uncle’s big, powerful farmer hand in his own and gave it a worthy shake, the type of firm, respectful shake I practiced with Jake when Mom and Grandma tried to teach a father-less boy how men shake hands. And I like to believe God greeted Jacob Hoffman with the message I would speak to him if I had one more chance to tell him what I thought about his time in Earth’s dirt.

“You cultivated a damn fine life, Jake. Glad you enjoyed it.”

Sinners Like Me

On the day I die, I know where I’m gonna go, Me and Jesus got that part worked out, I’ll wait at the gate ’till his face I see, And stand in a long line of sinners like me, I’ll stand in a long line of sinners like me, I come from a long line of sinners like me, Here’s to a long line of sinner like me, I come from a long line of sinners like me.

From the song Sinners Like Me, Writers: Eric Church, Jeremy Spillman

Tonight I am going to the Eric Church concert. Love EC. My beautiful wife bought us tickets for Christmas. It’s a perfect gift because it is something I will enjoy immensely yet probably wouldn’t go out and buy myself.

So in honor of EC’s music and an important topic, imperfection, I want to tip my hat and give a nod to his song Sinners Like Me. If you ask anyone who knows me, admitting faults hasn’t historically been one of my strong suits. The earlier you met me, the more this was true. The closer you are to me, the more you know it’s true.

I love the quoted line from his song, not necessarily because I agree with his version of judgment day (I have no clue what happens, and I wouldn’t preach to you about that one way or another), but because it paints us all as equals. We all have faults. We all have talents. We do the best we know how to do at the moment, and nobody is perfect. We are perfectly equal in our imperfections, and I think we get along better when we admit it.

I for one need to remember my imperfections. More and more, when I am tempted to be critical, I need to shrug it off and admit, “You know, I make mistakes too.” Humility is a good thing.

I thank my wife, not only for the EC tickets, but for reminding me of my imperfection at times. I like to think I deserve both.

Hero

Have you ever noticed that our favorite stories about mental toughness are the ones in which the protagonist is forced, often tragically, to overcome a situation for which he or she is seemingly unprepared and unequipped? Ever notice that our favorite mentally tough hero has beaten odds even she didn’t believe she could overcome?

When discussing stories of triumph over adversity, I constantly hear people say things like, “I couldn’t do that,” or “I couldn’t handle that.” The truth is you could and you can. We are all capable of much more than we understand. You are as mentally tough as you need to be. Right now, you are capable of mustering as much toughness as you need in any situation. Mental toughness is revealed. It does not need to be built. The only thing blocking you from accessing this mental toughness is your belief in whether it A) already exists, or B) needs to be built.

I used to believe that mental toughness had to be built. I was a big believer in mental toughness training. I spent years of my life earning a Ph.D., writing a 313 page mental toughness training manual, and working my tail off to help people build mental toughness. So what has changed? Why do I now believe mental toughness is revealed and not built? Why have I changed my practice in profound ways in recent years? Some ideas are irrefutable when you apply logic to experience.

On Halloween night 1973, two Michigan State Troopers greeted my mother, hats in hand, to inform her that her husband had just died in a car accident. My mom was devastated. Here she was, 23 years old, a mother of a seven week old baby, and a now she was a widow. She felt like she couldn’t go on, like she’d lost the will to live, the will to parent her newborn. She wondered, “Why did that happen to me? Why my husband? Why didn’t I die instead?” She even wondered at times, much to her own horror and guilt, “If I had to lose someone, wouldn’t it have been easier to lose the baby than my husband? At least we could support each other and rebuild our family together.”

In those moments, it felt like the situation was too much for her and that she didn’t have what it would take to carry on. But then, one day early in her mourning, a thought occurred to her: “I can curl up and die, or I can get on with my life.” Thankfully for me, my mom was capable of choosing to get on with her life. She decided she could rise above the tragedy that occurred and the situations she believed she was up against. The toughness that was in her all along shone through like a light from heaven, and her love created a new world, a world that was unimaginable before tragedy struck.

The personal weight of some tragedies is proof that toughness doesn’t have to be built. It is there when we need it. My mom wasn’t prepared for my dad’s death, and she wasn’t able to build it slowly as she needed it. She needed it revealed in an instant, and it was there for her. To access her toughness, my mom only needed to acknowledge its existence.

For this reason and many others, my mom is my hero. Who is yours?

My guess is that you don’t need to look any further than your own family or friends to find similar examples of someone who beat odds she once believed were insurmountable. If you can’t think of a story off the top of your head, ask around. My guess is you won’t have to look outside your own family. There is a chance you will gain new appreciation for someone close to you, and you might also prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you realized when you woke up today. Mental toughness is yours if you just acknowledge it.

The Goal is Internal and Within Reach

Piggybacking on the last two day’s posts, which discussed being sad about death because we love life and being present in the moment to an internal goal that is within reach, I want to emphasize the importance of living in the moment. Robert Pirsig’s quote (read yesterdays post or see the bottom of this post for the quote) is an important reminder to me that it is possible to have an internal goal that I am capable of reaching, and that is really all I need to live in the moment. Understanding that my thoughts and feelings are not controlled by outside circumstances has helped me live in the moment much more often the past year and a half.

Living in the moment is a major theme of what I call making the play by being aware, awake, and alive. I understand that nothing outside me has the power to create a certain thought or feeling. Sure, sometime it seems that way, but I always remember that I am free from both external and internal control. This understanding creates tremendous freedom which I can often use to direct my attention toward the potential greatness of this moment. If I am making the play, I seize that greatness, even if it is a very small gesture.

While the play may be external, I have begun to truly understand that my ultimate goal is internal and within reach: Attempt to make plays as often as possible, and when I fail, understand that every moment is pregnant with new possibilities for making more plays.

I realize a beautiful experience of the world and happiness are available every second of every day. I know that I do not need a certain net worth, number of followers, or trophies on the shelf. I may not always have happiness, and that is fine and normal, but I certainly try to remember that happiness only resides inside me.

With that happiness, I can project it into the world no matter what is here in front of me at the moment. Obviously, some things – like the death I wrote about yesterday – occur, and my thoughts about those things preclude me from being happy for a time. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t mean that I am beholden to outside circumstances, and it doesn’t mean I am broken because I can’t power-of-positive-thinking my way out of a bad feeling at the moment. It just means I care for people, understand the fleeting nature of life, and am profoundly affected about it for the time being. I know it won’t last even if it might reoccur to me.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and if you are so moved, I hope it points in an important direction. I would love to hear your thoughts. As always, thanks for reading and sharing.


To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be here. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

By Robert M. Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Sad About Death

I am departing from my usual post themes because in my household we are sad about death tonight. A classmate of my daughter lost his life in an accident. As a school psychologist, I’ve been around the death of school children dozens of times, too many times. I am, and have been, sad about them all.

Please note that my phrasing sad about death, is quite intentional and one of the main points of this piece. Most of us might say death makes us sad, but in truth, the feelings don’t work this way. Nothing makes us feel or think any certain way. Even death and its finality doesn’t have that power.

What’s my point? It’s certainly not to cheapen life or downplay death.

I have no real words of encouragement. I only want to point in a direction of understanding. Our reactions to death vary because our thoughts about death and life vary as time goes on. Our thoughts and feelings vary even from moment to moment. One moment we are crying thinking about loss, the next we are laughing at a glorious moment we shared with our deceased loved one. You see, death doesn’t make us sad. We are sad about it, and that changes over time even if the sadness keeps coming back when the loss is in our thoughts.

I hope we can be understanding of others. In those deaths I’ve experienced in the schools, I often see finger pointing and blame. Children accuse others of crying too much or crying too little because of perceived relationships and closeness. So and so wasn’t as close as I was, so they shouldn’t be crying as much. We all deal with death differently based on our thoughts about it, and it’s alright that we don’t all feel the same at the same time.

It seems like death makes us sad because we almost all view the loss of life as a sad event, and this is especially true when a child dies. But when we remember that death doesn’t make us sad, we are sad about it, I think this nearly universal reaction is especially informative.

We are sad about death because of the way we think about death. We are sad about death because of our thoughts about loss: What we lost, what family and friends lost, what the deceased lost, what the world lost. We are sad about death because we know some people never get over a loved ones death. We are sad about death because we believe a light that burned so brightly isn’t visible anymore. We are sad about death because we remember loved ones we’ve lost.

Mostly, we are sad about death because we love life, and the loss of it can seem unbearable at times. So if you have the chance today, I hope you celebrate life, even the life of someone who has passed away. After all, we feel our thoughts, and in our thoughts, the life of everyone we remember lasts as long as we live.