Childhood Identity (Politics)

In this month's Tiny Letter, I used last week's nostalgic post as a jumping off point to discuss childhood, belonging, and identity politics. In it, I write:

That evening, we gather around the television in my grandfather's home and watch the presidential debate shape up. President Ronald Reagan—a man whose name I've never not known—and Walter Mondale—a man whose name I never can remember—engage in some sort of gentlemen's fight. I pour a second bowl of cornflakes, spoon on heaps of sugar, and notice my family, sitting in the dark, hanging on President Raegan's every word. They are the Spanish moss to his  presidential cypress. I am the heron hunting food.

Between spoonfuls of flakes and sugar sludge, I try my best to stay inside the lines of my Return of the Jedi coloring book. My mother turns from the living room, asks whether I'm paying attention, tells me I could stand on a stage like that one day. I look at the television and hear the president’s voice as gentle as a grandfather's, and I look back down to my Ewoks. Why can't I color like my childhood best friend, Adam Sills? If I were president, maybe my mother and teachers would hang all their hopes on my Ewok colorings.

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Redefining Recovery

It’s National Recovery Month, so I’m spinning a few pieces on the subject and reimagining the language. What is recovery? How do we find it? Consider the word--recovery. We use it as a badge of honor, sometimes a scarlet letter of shame. “I’ve been in recovery for almost twelve years without a drop,"  or “did you hear how Mary had to check herself into a long term recovery program?” It’s a shorthand of sorts, a way of classifying the more broken folks from the less broken folks.

[tweetherder]What is recovery really, though?[/tweetherder] Is it nomenclature confined to the world of addiction? Doesn't it imagine returning to a state of being or regaining something once lost? If so, couldn't we all stand this sort of returning, this kind of regaining?

Consider this.

She makes her way to the merry-go-round, grabs the bars sticking from the ears of the tiny black horse as the older children push her faster and faster. Her face is pure freedom, joy. Ponytail swinging wide, centripetal force slanting her sideways in the saddle, she dangles leftward, as if supported by a cosmic wire. There are no worries about gravity, which, as any adult knows, can sometimes be a real pain in the neck.

Round and round and round she goes, and where the laughter comes from every adult knows.

There are monkey bars and those same bigger kids who pushed the merry-go-round traverse the rungs. They swing from bar to bar, reach the end, examine their hands for callouses or new blisters. Laughing, they make it to the end of the line where they wait another turn. Titus pauses at the top of the ladder. “Help!” he shouts, and is lifted, held, and guided by adult arms. Rung by rung he smiles. At the end, he is dropped to a ladder, which he descends before running to my knees. He looks up, says, “I did it, Daddy.” I don't correct him.

In the evenings there is only the community of children creating a sludge-slick sheen of sweat and dirt, which they swap back and forth as they play Chinese freeze tag. I tell them the name of this game is not politically correct, but they shrug and go on, continuing to generate the smell worn by livestock. They chase and shout “your it!”

They want to fly and pose for photos. They want to believe the universe is raucous and good, even in the dark of evening. They are light on worries and gravity.

The world is a sacrament, an outward manifestation of the goodness of God in the land of the living. It’s the children who see this best and with the clearest eyes. Before first-kisses, first drinks, and first layoffs, even the most ornery of the lot is more innocent than the most innocent adult. This is the beauty of children.


I read, once, that a good lawyer came to a good teacher and asked how a man could find the kingdom of God. The good teacher looked at the good lawyer, said, “unless a man is born again he cannot find the Kingdom.” The good lawyer asked, “how is it possible to become a child again?” The teacher responded, “only believe.”

"What is recovery?” you ask. I’m not sure that I have it all quite deciphered yet. But consider the children. Now, you tell me.



Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In it, I discuss faith, doubt, and random bits and pieces of my life. Sign up and  received access to my serial eBook, Dear Little Brothers.

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And don't forget to keep you eyes out for my upcoming book from Zondervan, Coming Clean.

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How to Pray For Fish

In our fifteen years of marriage, Amber and I have moved more than migratory birds. I’ve written about this before, just two months ago. What's more, at the time I penned those words about home, I had no plans of moving again. But humans are creatures of habit, and our habit--so it seems--is to get the seven-month moving itch. And when that itch sets in, we scratch it. All animals scratch their itches, see.

These facts being the facts, it should come as no surprise that we’ve moved again. Amber’s mental yarn was beginning to unwind; the circus of raising four boys in a house the size of a shoebox had done her in. We’d had plans to expand the little house on the little farm from day one, but when would we break ground? Who knew? So, on an average Thursday in late July she called me saying both she and the boys needed a touch more space. “Boys need to run,” she pleaded on the phone before sending me a country listing. “There’s a pond.”

Her voice quivered, tinny as a guitar string strung too tight, and she said, "I’m going to look at it.” She wasn’t so much asking for permission as making a declaration, and if you know Amber, you know this about her—you can’t shake Amber free of an idea once she’s made a declaration. She visited the house, fell in love, and four weeks later, the boxes were moving out of one place and into another.

To be fair, there are other factors precipitating the move—factors into which we need not delve. All factors aside, on August 28th, I walked into my new home, the house with the pond in the woods.

Whisper Pond.

It’s quiet out here. It’s so quiet, in fact, that if you bow your heads and close your eyes, you can hear the cricket prayers in the early morning. It’s quiet enough to hear the hum of the Milky Way, and if that’s hyperbolic, it’s at least dark enough to see the cloudy glow stretching across the night sky. The moon peeks over the ridge in the late evening, reflects in the glassy pond while I walk the dogs. It’s just the two of us--the moon-man and me--and we listen to the cricket prayers, the Milky Way’s song, and the tiny clink of dog tags as my pups search for a place to relieve themselves.

Amber’s taken to calling our pond “Whisper Pond.” She tells the boys this as they string up rods and reels. “If you run around the pond screaming, you’ll scare the fish away, not to mention the peace.” It's a pragmatic statement, but this all about pragmatism. Amber is teaching them, in her own way, about sacred space, the spaces where God hides under rocks or in the boughs.


On Tuesday, I walked to the pond with the boys, only a stone’s throw from the back door, and I watched as they dropped lines into the water. I fingered a set of prayer beads in my pocket, but I didn't pray a word. No Our Fathers. No Jesus Prayer. No I Just Pray You'ds. I just ran my fingers over the tiny polished orbs and watched as Isaac worked a jig through the water. Watching your boys is its own form of prayer, I think.

Ike worked his rod—reel, reel, reel, twitch—and just when he’d nearly played his lure to the bank, there was a great thrashing of water and his rod tip bowed. He whooped—so much for Whisper Pond—and said, “Daddy this is a whale!”

“Don’t lose your cool,” I warned. “Work it; keep the tension.”

He worked like a seasoned angler, like one who’d grown up on the water and I marveled at his instincts with a rod in his hand. He’s good at this, maybe a born fisherman, maybe a distant relative of Glaucus. He worked his catch back to the shore, landed it, and lipped it. And if I were an Arkansan with a penchant for litotes, I’d put it like this—this weren’t no small fish.


Each of the boys followed suit, laying a line across the water with varying degrees of skill. They’re learning the great art of boyhood here at Whisper Pond, even as I'm recovering my own sense of it. Every catch resulted in a whisper-shattering whoop and holler, first from them, then from me.

ian Titus Tippa

We’re home here in the woods. We’re home with our pond, our crickets, our stars, and the velvet blanket of evening quiet. [tweetherder]We’re home[/tweetherder], and this time I telling Amber this: [tweetherder]I’m happy to move again, but only if you load me up in a casket first.[/tweetherder]




Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In it, I discuss faith, doubt, and random bits and pieces of my life. Sign up and  received access to my serial eBook, Dear Little Brothers.

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7 Things to Tell Your Sons About Anxiety


Twenty-some-odd of us sat in the living room on plush chairs, recliners, and an elegant sectional. Conversations among friends began to have the feel of a twelve step meeting, what with everyone confessing all manner of anxious thoughts. On a whim I asked, "how many of you struggle with overwhelming anxiety, like the need-to-breath-into-a-paper-sack-and-tuck-my-head-between-my-knees kind?" The hands shot up, nearly all twenty, to which my only response was, "whoa."

Some said the breakneck pace of life was wearing them thin. Others spoke of work pressures, or material need. Some noted that the stress of weddings, or house moving, or the yada-yadas of life had upended them. [tweetherder]The world loads us down with external pressures, I thought, and we pack it on. It's what humans do.[/tweetherder]

Pack it on.

After our impromptu group therapy session, I stopped to consider how to train my children about the pressures and anxieties baked into their one little life. And so, writer as I am, I jotted a simple list--7 things I want my sons to know about anxiety.

1. In this world, there are neither winners nor losers; there are only brothers and sisters. 2. Stress and anxiety do not make you weak; it is part of the human condition. 3. The well-adjusted men are not those who stuff their anxieties; the well-adjusted men are the ones who face their fears. 4. Find a good therapist. Talk to her. Tell her about your daddy issues, even though your daddy issues relate most directly to me. 5. Materialism breads anxiety; don't give in to the myth of scarcity. 6. Lying about your own anxiety creates a barrier to presence; it keeps others from knowing who you really are. 7. Perfect love casts out fear; learn to accept perfect love and know you are perfectly loved.

Granted, the list has subparts, and so perhaps it's more than seven things. Let's not dwell on the minor details; deal?

The point, more succinctly, is this: I want my children to grow into authenticity, truth, and the tenderest expressions of manliness. And so, I'm training them to know their anxieties, to speak them to the wind, to pray about them, to accept them as part of their humanity. I think it's only fair.


I jotted that list, and then I turned to poetry. It seemed, perhaps, a more permanent solution for sticking these principles in my kids' craws.

To My Sons #3

The world of men will try to classify you as one of two types: winner-winner-chicken-dinner or loser-looser-skid-row-boozer.

The winners, says the world, have an appetite for anxiety, and they choke it down like brussels sprouts or year-old protein powder. No pain no gain, says the world.

The others? They wear anxiety like mustard stains on frumpy frocks. They sit on therapist couches and talk about their daddy wounds, says the world.

There will be days these falsities feel truer than any shooting star. Your boss tossing an aloof air of success around the trading floor. "Never let 'em see you sweat."

Your brothers who buy the shiny this-and-thats or zoomy such-and-suches on credit--buy today, pay from the grave-- say, "work hard; play hard; die hardboiled."

There is nothing to see here, no flip-floppy anxiety, says the world, hiding tenderness under a bushel.

"Never trust a man selling a horse with two names," my grandfather used to say. "She'll likely answer to neither."

"Never trust a man who doesn't name his own anxiety," I say. "He'll likely answer to no love."


Do you struggle with anxiety? Do you feel upended by the stresses and pressures of life? If so, welcome to the human condition. The real questions, though, are these: 1) what are you doing about your own anxiety; 2) what are you teaching your children about their own anxieties?




Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In the first of edition of the July newsletter, I'm discussing growing young. I'm also giving away Chapter 3 of Dear Little Brothers, a serial eBook. Sign up in the box below to receive Chapter 1 and look for the July Tiny Letter in your inbox to download the other chapters!


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Grandma's Passing

My grandmother slipped behind the veil last week. Slow, groggy, feeling a little too tired, she laid down for a ten-minute nap and woke in eternity. My parents said she went with a smile on her face. She was 95. As my friend Karen said this morning, "weddings, births, and funerals tend to turn people toward reflection." Yesterday, a few handfuls of celebrants gathered at Moore's Funeral Chapel, and we reflected on the passing of a saint. She was a woman who used her 95 years well. By all accounts she was a student of scripture, a spiritual mother, a living prayer.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to share a poem at her funeral. Today, I'm sharing it here.


For Grandma Upon Her Passing.

At 95 we thought she might live forever, suspended between nature and eternity, the passages caused by old age or accident, whichever God gifted first. Brow folded over brow, wisdom lines tracing trenches until her 90th birthday, then no more. (One can acquire only what wisdom is acquirable.) Thin-skinned hands, veins light purple the color of queens who seem to outshine the lot of us. Affections turned toward home, toward husband, and children, and children's children, to mother and father, to friends who visit in late afternoon memories. In well-worn age, the world's weights became helium balloons, releasable, laughable, floating things. Memories, family, faith, hope-- these are the anchors of age.

95 and we thought she might live forever. Perhaps she did.

IMG_4733-600x600 Image by Amber Haines.


Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In the first of edition of the June newsletter, I'm giving away Chapter 2 of Dear Little Brothers, a serial eBook. Sign up in the box below to receive Chapter 1 and look for the June Tiny Letter in your inbox to download Chapter 2!

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