What a year it’s been. I’m sitting in my office listening to the song by Maverick City Music, The Story I’ll Tell, and I can’t help but get caught up in some of the lyrics. It begins like this:
The hour is dark, and it’s hard to see. What you are doing, here in the ruins, and where this will lead. Oh but I know, down through the years, I’ll look on this moment and see your hand on it, and know you were here.
What story will we all tell about 2020? Just one short year ago I wrote this in my journal as I approached 2020 after taking the girls to see Frozen 2:
My wife had a great idea and I totally agree with it (typical!): A challenge of mindfulness for the next 30 days to choose being present over perfect. Being present in the chaos of my daily life. How can I actually do what it takes to love the good, accept the bad, and live through the messiness of it all?
That was written Dec 1, 2019. I had just finished reading the book Present Over Perfect, and was beginning to sense a sea change in how I wanted to do life, yet I didn’t quite know how I would get there. I knew that the way I currently careened through life though wasn’t sustainable. I was constantly stressed from living life in a hurry. I had clear priorities (I thought), but most of them included getting things done, rather than enjoying the life that I’d worked so hard to build and the relationships with those who mattered most. For the first time in my life, I was starting to believe that perhaps having a plan wasn’t enough.
Speaking of plans, I started the year planning to run for public office again despite my traumatic run three years ago. (The one where I ended up in the hospital in the first 6 weeks and we suffered a miscarriage, all in the midst of a tough campaign). My heart wasn’t really in it, but my drive to make impact had convinced my head that this was the right next move. Plus, this was the next logical step in the plan right? Spoiler alert- I didn’t run.
Then came 2020. And the first lesson I learned is that plans are about as useless as a baby’s diaper (meaning often full of crap, and you’d better be prepared to change them often). Eight days in, I had a meeting in Nashville that would change the trajectory of my career. No big deal, just presented with a chance to revolutionize how the ed reform world operated when it comes to partnering with communities. Would I be interested in taking on a new role, and developing this idea of collective leadership? I was terrified, not because of the opportunity, but because it wasn’t a part of my plan. Or at least not how I saw it.
This also exposed for me another flaw in my overall approach to life that I was struggling with at the time: I had very little margin of any kind. I mean margin broadly defined. I was doing a lot, so trying to do a few things really well wasn’t really in the cards. I had too little relational margin, so it was easy for me to snap at the girls in moments of frustration if we were running late, because well, we were always running late. The problem with how I’d set up my life, was that there was no margin for error. Everything had to go according to plan or nothing seemed to work. Flexibility (not a strong suit of mine, wasn’t built in). You can feel it when you don’t have enough margin because little things become big things, and opportunities become problems instead of the other way around.
By March, I was hitting a brick wall. I remember getting off a flight from NOLA, sick and tired, and vaguely worrying about this new thing called Covid-19. Days after I arrived home, the country began shutting down. The girls wouldn’t return to school afterwards. Our church hasn’t convened (in person) since then. I haven’t been on a plane since that last trip to NOLA after flying every week somewhere for the past year. Apparently NOLA, the place where I’d just left was now the epicenter of a growing national crisis. I felt sick in more ways than one, but I figured that a little rest would take care of it.
Things were changing though, and I could sense it. Perhaps 2020 was providing me with a much needed reset. At the end of March I wrote:
As they say, the body keeps score. If we don’t take care of ourselves physically, if we don’t align ourselves properly, it doesn’t matter how strong we are mentally or spiritually. (Ryan Holiday). I need to make sure the the new normal I create, allows space for the type of aligned life I want to lead. For example, for years I’ve wanted to become more flexible. Literally and figuratively. This is my opportunity to build new habits of stretching myself during this season. Literally by having a daily time of yoga and stretching and figuratively by attempting my hand at some new ways of thinking and doing work.
I knew that I needed to do more though. I started seeing a therapist as well, a black man who has helped me tremendously this year examine and address my internal limiting beliefs. Breakthroughs began to happen in my relationships, but most of all in how I viewed myself. I’ve spent so much of my life measuring myself against what others might think of me. I had to come to terms with what drove my need to control circumstances, outcomes, and perceptions of me as successful.
The spring of racial unrest brought it all together. Suddenly it all came full circle for me. As we were engaged in national and personal conversations about the role of racism in our culture, I began exploring my own inner monologue. The only black kid in all my classes, expectations couldn’t have been higher for me to prove them all wrong. Everywhere I go by myself with the girls, people stop me and remark what a good father I must be, simply because I’m doing what I should be doing. After reading Ta Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, I was reminded of the advice that was passed down to me, you’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far. And so, yeah of course I was invested in trying to control as much as I could, because I knew how much was out of my hands. I assumed that control was my safeguard.
Besides, I’ve never felt like I was doing anything simply for myself. I’ve never had that luxury. Too many people are depending on me. And so I soldiered on, with considerable personal cost, until finally…the damn broke.
This year I started a project, chronicling each month of the pandemic with a monthly recap video. It became our tradition to watch the video at the end of each month to see what we’d accomplished. What I learned the most was how we grew as a family.
In the beginning, I was just trying to capture life as our new normal. Then there was the March video which covered our last public outing- a school dance. Next up was our stay at home spring break that was April. The spring projects that began with building steps in our backyard, and culminated in a play-set installation. The best father’s day ever. Our summer rituals at the pool (we had it all to ourselves all summer!). Our trip to the Little Grand Canyon and our early fall cabin getaway (which included more hikes). In between there were birthdays (lots of them) and projects (we built a fire pit just a few months ago).
Navigating through the political, cultural, and personal trauma that has been 2020 has at times felt like a full time job, captivating both our attention and summoning all our energy. Yet, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything on my journey. Sure we’ve seen our share of heartache. It’s been difficult not being able to see close family members when they got sick with Covid-19, but we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve all recovered. We’ve recovered and it’s been a wake up call for all of us. We’ve remade our lives in ways that I can’t imagine going back. We’re the fortunate ones though, because I know there are many others whose story doesn’t end the same way.
Recently I finished reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, and it’s like a book written just for me. Over the past month, we’ve introduced a few keystone habits of Sabbath, simplifying, slowing, and enjoying silence and solitude as restorative practices. I think less about what other people think. I bike, regularly. To do so, I had to buy a bike back in march (like an adult one that cost real money). But now it’s a thing. I started a book club with the older two girls (thus far we’ve read Watsons go to Birmingham and now we’re reading A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore- both fabulous. Next up I am Malala).
I know my kids better, because I’ve spent real time talking and playing, and laughing with them. Remember the 30 day present over perfect challenge to start the year? Well, it’s been over 365 days since I began and it’s still going strong. Each day I write about at least one moment that I intentionally choose to be present over perfect (meaning, more being instead of doing). I’m a better person for it, a better husband, a better father, I think a better friend, brother, and son. I think this year has made me more compassionate as a human, more present not only to my own life, but to the experience of others. Who knows, perhaps maybe a lot of this growth would have happened without the trauma of 2020…but I doubt it. I’m a pretty stubborn person. Either way, this is the story I’ll tell when I look back. For the first time in my life, I can wait to see what happens next.