Why I Took My Sons to a Graveyard


“What about this one?” Finn asked, walking up to a faded gravestone.  The weather had done its work on the old marker, and we could barely make out any of the writing.

“No,” I said.  “It doesn’t look like it. I can’t see any signs of military rank on this one.”

We walked on.

Every year since they could walk I’ve taken the boys to a local cemetery on Memorial Day.  This has happened even when we’re on vacation for the long weekend somewhere.  I get little flags from the grocery store, and we make plans to “go for our cemetery walk,” as Finn calls it.

We look primarily for people who died in a war, as this day is intended to honor.  Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, the day when everyone would come to the cemetery to mark the graves of those who died in war.

Today it seems like it’s mostly for buying goods like mattresses on sale and vacationing.

I’m not against those things, of course, I love a good bargain and rest.  But, if we’re going to get the day off of work, we should probably use it as it was intended, right?

Sometimes we can’t find people who died in battle, though, and so we’re OK just putting the flag next to any grave of someone who served in a war.  Here in North Carolina, that also means we put an American flag next to folks who fought in the CSA, indicating they fought with the Confederate States Army.  Our oldest cemetery here in Raleigh, established in 1798, has a number of those.

There’s a little irony there, of course, marking the graves of those soldiers with the flag they didn’t fight under.  But there’s also a lot of hope there, too.  Having all my roots in the South I know what it’s like to not love that part of your heritage, and seek to redeem it somehow.

Perhaps we can help them do that in a small way on this side of the grave.

Plus, it’s a good opportunity to learn.

“The Civil War was when we fought against each other, right?” Alistair asks.

“Yes,” I say looking down. “Because,” Finn continued, “sometimes people disagree and then they can’t work past it and so they fight.  And that’s bad.”

“It is,” I nod.  “Some things are worth fighting for…but I hope that never happens again.”

“That’s when the slaves were freed, right?” Finn wonders.

“It is.  People used to think some people could be used as slaves just because of how they looked, and that’s wrong and evil.  We fought over that.  Some people still think that way, which is also wrong and evil.”

“Martin Luther King worked hard so everyone can live together free,” Finn went on.  We’ve been reading a lot about MLK lately.

“Yeah,” Alistair chimed in, “people used to not be able to be friends or eat together and he changed all that.”

“He worked hard to,” I said. “It’s crazy to think you couldn’t do that, right? We still have to work hard to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”

“Yeah, that makes no sense,” Finn said, elongating the ‘o’ on that ‘no.’

We find another grave, from World War I.  Alistair plants a flag.

“Dad, who won in World War I?” Finn asked.

“Well, we won that war,” I said, “working with other countries.”

“And we won World War II, right?” he continued.

“We did.  You great-grandpas fought in that war.”

“Wow, we won a lot!” he said.

“Well,” I hedged, “in war, even when you win it feels like it hurts.  You’re glad it’s over, but it hurts.”  I’m trying to be honest.

“Yeah,” Alistair said, “because people die, and that’s always bad.”

“Yeah,” Findley said, “which is why we put out flags, right?”

I patted his head, “Right buddy.”

We stumbled across a small marker.  “Hey Dad, is this one?”

“No, buddy.  That’s a grave for a baby.  They were too young to be in a war.”

“Oh,” Finn said, “that’s really sad.” He knelt down by the grave and ran his finger along the simple moniker, ‘Infant Son.’  “How did the baby die?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, buddy. It doesn’t say.  It just says that it didn’t live past a year. Sometimes that happens.”

“Are people under our feet?” Alistair asked.

“They are. Which is why we’re careful,” I said.

“Can they hear us?” Al asked.

“No,” Finn said, “when you’re dead you can’t hear anything.”

“Right,” I said.

“Everything dies,” Alistair offered truthfully. “Everything that lives, dies.”

“They do.”  We walked on.


“Yeah, Finn?”

“It’s a pretty day to be here.”

He knelt by a grave and put a flag down next to the one we had stuck there last year, one of the few that survived.

“It is, buddy.  You can learn a lot about life from a grave yard, right?”

He nodded, “It’s why we come here, right?”

But he didn’t bother to wait for my answer…he knew it, anyway, and they walked off together to find another person to honor.

He Grabbed His Hand

209BE421-BAD3-47FE-8761-060B88C7F2DCIt’s 1:30am and I can’t sleep.

This is, unfortunately, typical in these days. I’ve read the articles about how the shelter-in-place, going on 8 weeks now, is affecting all of our rhythms, clouding our brains.

It is certainly that. That, and the massive poison ivy rash I’m nursing now for a second week. I wake up scratching absentmindedly, and when I come to, I can’t undo the wake.

But tonight there’s more.

Today my 5 year-old’s preschool, a place that has worked hard with both of my boys, but especially intently with my feeling, perfectionist, bright young guy, had a drive-up graduation.

We are so grateful they did.

Our buddy regularly notes that he misses his friends. He regularly expresses some hesitation about next year: a new school, no familiar faces, a new routine…and routine is everything to this guy.

And so the cheering teachers, the gifts, and the fact that he won the “science award” because, well, you’d be hard pressed to find a kid more enthralled by nature and facts, the kid was having his day.

It was great.

He smiled ear to ear. He had me redo his hair three times (and immediately asked if he could mess it up again after the brief ceremony). He waved and told everyone what he’d been up to and held tightly on to his little diploma.

But he did it from so far away.

I could see it: he wanted to hug them and be hugged. He wanted to give a high-five and fist bump and he wanted to do more than just show up; he wanted to be there.

But he couldn’t. We can’t. Not yet. And for our little guy who feels a lot but is not very touchy-feely, for him to want to do that…and you could see it on his face…and not be able to, well, it’s just another tragedy of this whole mess.

Even if we can be together in these days, it’s mostly just showing up, and not a lot of being, together.

And it made him sad. And it makes me sad for him. Well, and for me. Because those teachers deserved the hugs and high-fives and much more! Our guy is a handful.

And so, as we were standing there, and this little boy just wants to hug someone, to celebrate some joy in a span of weeks that have been marked, even for his little heart, by some anxiety and the daily question, “when will the virus be over?”, as we’re standing there, he reaches over and, without looking, grabs his big brother’s hand.

And he just stands there, holding it.

He just stands there talking to everyone, answering questions, saying thank you, drawing strength from the one place lately where he’s been able to not just show up, but also be and interact: his constant companion.

He grabbed his hand.

And tonight, thinking back on it, I am proud of both of them. For him, because he knew what he needed in the moment and did it. And for his brother, for letting it happen.

And even though I’m up late tonight thinking about all this, I’m not doing so out of worry, but more out of awe and wonder.

I somehow think that today showed he, they, are going to be alright in spite of all this, if they keep doing just that: hanging on to each other, drawing strength, not just showing up, but being there, together.

Looking Up at the Stars on Earth Day

shutterstock-563677597-3___20123123363Last night we all piled into the Honda in search of the stars.

The Lyrid meteor shower was set to start in the Eastern sky around 10pm, and though it was a Tuesday…I think (it’s hard to tell in these pandemic days, right?), we let our towheaded stardust-wonder boys stay up way past their bedtime to go on this adventure.

They wrapped in their sleeping bags at 7:30pm, just after dinner, making no effort to contain their excitement.  To manage expectation we put on a movie and turned down the lights, hoping they might sleep a bit before we hit the road.

No luck.

Every half hour, on the hour, we were bombarded with requests for our ETD (estimated time of departure).

Unable to hold off the savage pajama-clad explorers any longer, we clamored into the car and headed out.

The light pollution in Raleigh is actually pretty low, at least compared to our previous Chicago haunt, so we knew the sky would be clear.  The challenge was finding a clearing at all.  The woods of North Raleigh are as thick as tar, especially now that all the buds have bloomed and the leaves have been loosed.

We drove north toward Creedmoor, getting dangerously close to Oxford, but no dice.  We thought perhaps we’d find a bridge overlooking the lake which would ensure a better view, but when we drove over the overpasses that crisscrossed the lake we saw flashlights dancing on every bridge: night fisherman taking advantage of the warm weather and the fish jotting near the pylons.

I asked my partner to put on some “space music” for the adventure: the theme from Space Odyssey, Rocket Man, or Bowie’s Starman.

Instead she chose Brandi Carlisle which, for her, is celestial music…and it is.  It’s interesting how some musicians with that down-home feel, like Carlisle, can throw you toward the stars with lyrics that are so beautiful they’re otherworldly, right?

As our trek turned into a journey, the boys in the backseat fell victim to sleep, wrapped in their Spiderman and Star Wars cocoons.

We explored our digital maps, trying to find a good spot.  With the parks closed, clearings were hard to come by, and the ones we did find had too many lights.

Finding one promising spot, we woke up the boys.  I got out and craned my neck toward the sky, putting my hand over the street lights in my line of view.  The sky was darker and clearer…but not enough.

I got back in the car to give the disappointing news.

We tried one more, a school parking lot hidden in the trees.  The boys had played ball there last year, so we knew there was a clearing.  As we approached, though, we knew it wouldn’t work…the trees were too tall to see much of the sky.  That, and there were “Video Monitored” signs all through the parking lot, which meant we couldn’t stick around for long anyway.  One of the boys asked if they were recording us as we drove through and I said, “Yes, make sure to smile!”

He did.

Seeing our adventure was going to be a bit of a bust, I saw a light in the sky that offered some promise.  As I pulled in the parking lot, the mood in the car lifted, especially in the backseat.

“Welcome to McDonalds,” the voice crackled over the monitor, as if from the International Space Station.

“Two large fries,” I said. “That’s all.”

“Second window,” the disembodied voice responded.  In my adventurous mind she had said, “Roger. Copy that.”

We flew our wheeled rocket to the window, docking next to the sliding glass doors.  The woman behind the glass smiled and handed us our wares.  They might as well have been from another planet, honestly: the boys have only eaten at McDonalds one other time in their life that we know of.

The steam filled the car with the smell of fat and fried starch.

As we drove into the driveway I set up some lawn chairs facing East, toward the end of the concrete.  The youngest opted for the comfort of the couch inside, but the eldest held out, sitting down on that lawn chair, gazing over the roof, chomping his hot fries.

“A pretty good night,” he said after a while, still looking up.  “I’m cold, though.”  It was almost midnight.

We didn’t end up seeing any meteors that night, at least not all together. My scientist of a wife got up at 4am to catch a glimpse, saw one, and headed back to bed.

But even though we didn’t see the meteor shower, I have to think that we honored Earth Day just a bit, spending some quality time on an adventure with our stardust children, paying attention to the unfathomable fact that we are floating in space, and if we want to live well in this absolutely awesome, unthinkable existence we’ve been afforded, we should take a risky adventure of gratitude every-so-often and take good care of the place that allows us to do so at all.

Because this floating blue marble needs to stick around for a while so my kids can take their stardust families on such an odyssey one night, right?

We didn’t see the meteors, but I got to hang out with the stars of my little universe for a bit.

Something’s Wrong

somethings-wrong2My two boys have started to tell us “I love you” a lot.

And I mean, a lot.  Like over ten times a day.

Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the fact that we’re spending just a whole heck of a lot of time together, and they call our name before they know what they want to say, and so they just fill the response with, “I love you.”

But much of it, I think, is because they know something is wrong.

Every morning my 7 year old asks if the people who have the virus are getting better. “Are there fewer cases?  People are getting better, right?  The spread is slowing, right?”

The fact that he knows “slow the spread” at all is a little jarring to me…I don’t think we’ve ever used that language around the house, but he does watch the news with us.

Being a “Corona-kid” is not easy, I think.

Hell, being a Corona-parent is not easy. It sucks in a lot of ways.

These days we take walks together on the regular.  We play outside every evening now, when the weather allows.  There are a lot more game nights and shared movie nights and cooking adventures that involve them.  And I guess the silver-lining-seeking folks would say this is all a plus.

And don’t get me wrong, in some ways it’s good to be together so much.  We’re all stretching and growing.

But it’s not normal. Something’s wrong. And in some ways we’re all shrinking inside these walls in ways we have trouble admitting. And no silver-lining can prevent the kids from seeing that.

I don’t think they’ll be “messed-up” by any of this anymore than any of us are messed up by this.

But the fact that they’re saying, “I love you” a lot makes me wonder if maybe, along with the evening games and movie nights we just might need to remind them that they are, and always have been, really loved.

Maybe we should say, “Yeah, something’s wrong…but it’s not you. You’re so right. And so loved…

Which is why we’re staying home right now.”

Creating a Culture of Failure for My Kids

OIP“Fail hard and fail fast.”

When I sit down at my desk these days, I tell myself this mantra before I begin making calls.  As a fundraiser and mission ambassador, a lot of my day-in and day-out is spent on the phone calling donors, making connections, making asks, and scheduling visits.

And I love the work. I enjoy the work. I believe in the work.

But deep inside me there is this unfounded, but embedded, fear that I’ll be rejected by the person on the other line.  Or that they won’t call back.  Or that they will, but I won’t like the answer.

“Fail hard and fail fast,” I pep-talk myself.  Because to make the ask you have to risk the fail.  You don’t do it wantonly, of course, and you don’t do it without preparation and planning.  In other words, I don’t *try* to fail.

But I have to risk it.  I pick up the phone.

Or, when I pitch an article, I always pep-talk myself before clicking the “submit” button.  “Fail hard and fail fast,” I’ll say, out loud.  I sound like a lunatic, and honestly only a lunatic would submit some of the articles I’ve submitted over the years…

I love the work. I enjoy the work. I believe in the work.

And I’d rather be a lunatic that risks life than a sane person who never lived.

And as I continue on this journey of parenthood, it’s become even more important for me to let my kids see my fear and trepidation, but then see me take the leap anyway.  They need to know that I fail, so that they know they can fail.

“We can do hard things,” is another phrase we repeat a lot in our house, especially before baseball games, roller-skating (especially that first time), and cooking experiments.  We’ll fail hard and fail fast as a rule.

“Jump,” I told my six year-old when we were at the park recently.  He was about 8 feet off the ground and, like his father, doesn’t love heights.  He nervously looked at me.

“It’s ok,” I said, “jump. You can do it.”

I didn’t offer to catch him.  And I didn’t promise him it’ll be “OK.”  Because, how would I know how it turned out?  All I knew is that he could jump safely from that height, and he’d probably learn something about himself while doing it.

He counted “1…2…3” and took a leap.

He landed, rolled, laughed, and did it again.  For a kid that doesn’t like heights, that’s no small feat.

Recently he received a book with instructions on how to draw animals.  It’s an advanced book, much more advanced than a 6 year-old can handle.  But he wanted to try it.

Circle after circle, oval after oval, he slowly drew an anteater, and an otter (which he eventually colored green), and a tarantula.

Was it great?  Hell no.

But was it good?  Well, it was for a six year-old I think.  And even if not, as cranky author and theologian Ann Lamott says, “we all have crap first-drafts” to throw out into the world.  The point wasn’t doing it well; the point was doing it.  And with some drawings, he crashed and burned. That tarantula looked more like a hairy glove with a smiley face than an arachnid.

But fail hard and fail fast.  Try it anyway.

Honestly, I don’t like doing things I’m not good at.  Part of my disfunction is needing to be, or at least appear, perfect.  But I’m working on this.  And I don’t want my boys to fall into this trap that, I think, starts early.

So we’re going to fail hard and fail fast as a family.  We’re going to build a culture of failure, of making mistakes, of doing things we suck at with all our heart.

And, hopefully that means we’re going to be really good at something, one day.

We don’t need a generation, largely like mine, who feels they have to be perfect.  Not everyone gets an A every time, Karen!

We need a generation who doesn’t believe in “perfect” anymore, but believes in good risks, fast failures, hard falls, and the resilience that comes from it all.

Fail hard and fail fast.  Crash and burn with a blaze of light that illumines the faces of everyone watching.  Melt their faces with your failure. Take the risk.

And then try again. You can do hard things.

When I Made My Kids Stop and Touch the Tree

It was St. Patrick’s Day.

Well, not quite. It was the Saturday before. But everyone was pretending it was St. Patrick’s Day, and so there was a lot of revelry going on that afternoon, with families gathering on the green square that, while not emerald green, was starting to show some signs of life here in North Carolina.

And the walking lifeforms present, the mammals especially (mostly human and canine) were equally decked in green like that grass, all pretending to be Irish for a day.

Which I find exceedingly odd.

Every March we seem to all forget, or forcibly ignore, the history of “Irish Need Not Apply,” a sign that meant much to my Scotch-Irish family at one time. I’m sure we’d like to think that we’ve forgotten that history because we’ve grown past it, but I suspect humanity has just decided to trade prejudices.

Which is a disgrace that I’ve written about before in other posts.

But, anyway, we’re there on the lawn, and the boys are playing with other kids, and they’ve all picked up sticks and started to cast spells on each other with them. Harry Potter is pretty popular in our house, even for as young as the boys are. Magic entrances the old and young alike.

But then the wands became swords, which is a natural evolution that probably is a nice metaphor for human evolution somehow, and the sticks started to be used to hit this big, old oak tree in the middle of the square.

Swing. Chip. Chop. The kids hit the tree with relish, and the bark started to fly and the sticks started to break, which sent them in search for more sticks. Chaos. Fun. Smiles. Laughter. Almost too much to stop it. The adults kept their distance, letting them play for a bit in that anonymous, friend-making way kids play before they pick up those social norms that will destroy their ability to get along with anyone and everyone. No one wanted to interrupt the play.

Except…that tree.

And I said, “Hold my beer,” and my friend obliged, and I walked over and I knelt down next to the tree alongside my youngest, Alistair. He was hitting the tree with that stick, fighting an imaginary foe.

And I touched the tree.

I felt it like you’d touch an old gravestone or an important marker. He watched me. “Feel it,” I invited him. He reached his hand out, eyes wide. “What’s it feel like?” I asked. “It’s rough,” he said, inspecting it carefully.

Then I touched his arm in the same way. “This is the tree’s skin,” I said. “It’s like yours. Feel yours.” He did. “Your skin keeps you safe. The bark keeps the tree safe.”

“It’s alive,” he said.

“Yes, and growing. We can’t hurt its skin. Touch it. It’s alive. You’re right,” I said, turning back to it. “We can climb it. We can hang a swing from it. We can do all sorts of things with it, but we can’t take its skin.”

He dropped his stick. He invited his brother to feel it, too. And soon the kids were all feeling the tree, sticks at their sides.

And then they ran off to play swords and wands and other games, and left the tree to stand sentinel.

And all it took was reminding them that the tree was to be used, not hurt or destroyed.

All it took was to remind them that it’s alive, like them.

Do It Anyway

My 4 year old, Alistair, he’s got a mind of his own. I mean, I guess all kids his age do, but we’re encountering a kind of superhuman resistance in this little person that my wife and I have not found in our older son, so this is new territory for us.

He’s a kind kid. He always shares his fries.

And he’s creative, often making up songs all on his own to sing to himself while he does puzzles or plays with his action figures.

But he’s particular. Very particular. Everything has an order, a purpose, and he’s not happy when that order meets deviation. He’s got a rigid inflexibility that we, as parents, often see as a bit of a burden.

And then yesterday happened.

Last night, after a quick dinner out before choir practice, my son was methodically and slowly separating our food containers into “trash” and “recyclable,” all while standing over the appropriate receptacles.

He was there so long that a line was forming behind him as adults were waiting to dispose of their own trash. But he just kept going, slowly, painstakingly separating, like some kind of pint-sized Captain Planet.

“Hey buddy,” I said, “these people are waiting to throw things away, too.”

“I’m going fast as I can,” he told me, not even looking up.

At this point the people in line, confusing him for being a cute, innocent eco-warrior, started to chuckle.

And he heard. And this guy, well, he doesn’t suffer fools easily. He’s like his mom in that way.

And he stopped his work, turned and looked at a line of adults, four deep, and said loudly, forcefully, “It’s not funny to laugh at people doing the right thing!”

Tears in his eyes.

They stood in silence. Most went to another trash can.

I looked down at my little guy, wondering how we would ever get that little will to bend.

But this morning I have a different feeling. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to tell him, “Good job, Al.”

Because there will be plenty of people in his future who will laugh at him for doing the right thing, especially when it’s not popular. There’ll be plenty of people who, in their impatience, will encourage him to do a rush job, cut corners, or not put his heart into something.

I hope when he’s mocked for doing the right thing in his life, he does it anyway.

Do it anyway, Al.

I’m starting to think that little will is going to work in his favor, eventually.

And when the world laughs at you for being focused and giving your all to saving what’s important to you, do it anyway.