He was a goalball guru and once told me there was a reason for his world without sight. He also taught me about the importance of finding a path.

Sebastian was about eighteen when I first met him more than a decade ago. Blind since birth, he had attended a weekend recreation program I helped publicize to the media.

A likeable young man with a dry sense of humor, Sebastian liked to poke fun at his blindness. He’d ask me questions like this: “What do you call a blind rabbit sitting on your face?” When I told him I didn’t know, he’d crack, “An unsightly facial hare.” I think it was his smug grins more than the jokes that brightened my days.

He had a habit of ending many of his comments with the tag, “God willing.” He told me that faith meant a lot to him and that there was a reason for his world without sight.

One of Sebastian’s passions was goalball, a game played with a bell ball on a gymnasium floor. The object of the game is for one team to roll the ball across the opponent’s goal line while the other team attempts to block it.

Sebastian was a master of the game, especially when he was on defense. I can still see the intensity on his face, the way he listened for the oncoming ball, and the way he’d swat it away.

One time, I arrived very early for a goalball tournament to take pictures for a newsletter story. The gymnasium was quite still as a I was setting up my tripod. Then – the familiar sound of a white cane tapping the floor on the opposite side of the gym near the bleachers.

It was Sebastian. I watched him carefully climb the bleachers as high as he could go. He felt the walls and windows, and tried to touch the ceiling with his cane. He proceeded to walk the perimeter of the gym, searching with his cane for doors, chairs – anything, as I later learned, that would give him a feel for his surroundings. Finally, he got down on his knees and swept the floor with his hands feeling for warped boards and dings in the wood.

When he finished, I asked him about his exploration. “It’s good to know ahead of time where the surface cracks are,” he said. “They can make the difference in a game.”

“What about the bleachers and walls around the gym?” I asked.

“Knowing where they are helps me to know where I am and where I might need to go should something happen,” he explained. “It’s a path for me to get there, God willing.”

When I think of Sebastian, I always see him that day probing his environment. Indirectly, he taught me the importance of probing my faith – to know where I am with it, where the cracks are and where I might need to go.

And with a little luck, I’ll find a path to get there… God willing.

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March Madness: The Bump That Makes Her Stand Tall

“I’ll probably read Luke, Chapter Eight, before I see the doctor,” Emma told me a few weeks ago before she went in for lung cancer testing. “Hey, if my number’s up, it’s up. I’ve learned not to worry about things I can’t control.”

As she struggled to get up from her chair to get a tissue box from her kitchen counter, she fought back the obvious pain in her back and half-laughed. “Look at me; I’m a question mark that’s falling apart.”

At eighty years of age, Emma hasn’t been able to stand up straight in almost a decade. Numerous surgeries have wreaked havoc on her posture, curling her shoulders and hunching her back so that she awkwardly stoops forward when she moves about her home in a tiny town thirty-five miles north of Tulsa.

“But this…” she said, tapping her fingers on a half-century-old bible, “is what makes me tall. The bible gives me faith and that’s what is important.”

Emma is a student of the bible; she reads it in its entirety each year. “It points me in the right direction, especially now with my illnesses.”

In addition to her back and shoulder problems, Emma has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which is one of the most common lung diseases. It makes it very difficult for her to breathe. Despite her coughing and shortness of breath, Emma and I talked about everything from poetry to college basketball. She recalled her days as a tomboy, senior class president and school bus driver.

When we met again just the other day, Emma told me she had tested positive for lung cancer. But before I could say anything, she began reciting: “Life is real, life is earnest. Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor and to wait.”

Gesturing for me to have a seat at her kitchen table, she said, “That’s from Longfellow. A Psalm of Life.”

Emma sat down next to me, spread open the morning newspaper to the men’s basketball tournament pairings and said, “So, I still have some living to do and more than enough time for March Madness.”

With a nod, I glanced down at the brackets to study the match-ups more closely. As I smoothed out the sports section, I felt a bump underneath the newspaper. It was Emma’s bible.

Smiling, she rested her hand on it and said, “You know, this little book is likely to pop up just about anywhere.”

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For Sale

Not really… And they’re all over Oklahoma right now.

Anybody know what kind of tree it is?

(click on photo for clearer image)

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The Ladder

A tribute to my father, Dick Kenney, who passed away this week:

Dad, February 1949

My father got high and I held the ladder. “All you have to do,” he’d tell me, “is to hold it steady and turn the radio dial when I tell you. Just don’t move the ladder.” With that, he scooted up to the second story dormer of our house on Hobart Street, fresh paint from his bucket splattering and sticking to Silver, his aluminum ladder.

He ascended rungs like a seasoned, water tower inspector. The higher he climbed, the brighter his mood. With a little jazz wafting from the plastic, black and yellow radio, he was back in the saddle again.

Meanwhile, I was holding the horse. For hours, I’d stand there, checking my watch, my hands frozen to white-hot aluminum. One thing saved me: afternoon ballgames.

A guy named Gowdy, the Red Sox radio voice, broke the clarinet and snare drum hypnosis, his warm twang welcoming us to Fenway. “It’s Red Sox baseball,” he’d say. “Brought to you by the brewers of Narragansett Beer. Hi neighbor, have a ‘Gansett.”

I imagined myself digging in at the plate taking practice swings and sizing up the southpaw on the mound. Daydreaming, though, sometimes meant kicking Silver. “What the hell are you doing down there?” my father snapped, his dripping paint brush blotching the rungs butterscotch. “For cripes sake, Richie, pay attention!”

Dick Kenney's Trio, 1953

We learned to pay attention early on. I practiced my clarinet every day after school. My brother, Steve, did the same with his trumpet. Debbie, our sister, played the piano. You see, Dad was a musician. He played in small jazz bands at weddings, proms and bowling banquets all over the South Shore. I can still see him with his shiny, gold saxophone, breaking in reeds, filling the living room with tunes like The Days of Wine and Roses or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, songs he suggested we learn.

Dad and Me, 1955

Dad was a hard worker, a man of many projects. And he wanted us to be the same way. We’d try sneaking out of the house on Saturday mornings before we’d hear his ominous words: “Don’t make any plans. We have a lot of work to do.” That meant weeding or shoveling dirt over the small river in our backyard that flowed from the faulty septic tank.

Yes, he managed to keep himself busy selling sewing machines, building bedrooms and playing in the band. But his busyness came with a price. It especially took its toll on Ma who seemed sad to see him go off to “play” every weekend. I can’t remember a New Year’s Eve we spent with Dad because those were his biggest gigs. Instead, we celebrated with Ma and the little games she made up for us.  We threw hand-made confetti and pitched pennies against the kitchen wall. But there was always that extra party hat; a  marriage can last only so long…

I stayed in touch with my father after my parents split up. But it was never the same. While Dad remained on Cape Cod, I got the traveling bug and lived in places like Austin, Phoenix and Tulsa. During phone conversations or trips to the Cape, I’d tell him of my love for writing poetry or stories but I think he was quietly disappointed that I didn’t stick with the clarinet. We always talked about the Red Sox, though. It was the strongest bond we had or so I thought…

I used to send Dad my poems every so often. One of them, Hostage, was about how I got soaked in a late-season monsoon by the Hassayampa River in Wickenburg, Arizona. At the end of the poem, I mentioned the river’s legend: “Of the Hassayampa River, it is said, if you drink its water you may never leave Arizona.” He never said anything about it; I wondered if he had even read it.

A few years ago, he left me a message on my phone recorder. It was about paint stains on a ladder. It didn’t make sense. When we later spoke he asked me if I remembered the ladder, the one I held for five summers on Hobart Street. He told me how paint drops still clung to Silver and asked if I could name all the colors of our houses.

He wanted me to know they reminded him of me. He wondered if I had words for a poem, if I knew how much longer I’d be held hostage…

Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.

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Tomorrow’s Cheese

I recently saw this sign outside the First Baptist of Okay, a church in the tiny town of Okay, Oklahoma.

This one took me back to when I was struggling to find words for a book I was writing two years ago. While the project was mostly an enjoyable one, there were days the ideas would not come.

I found myself worrying about daily word counts. I fretted over having to make up for lost time (and words) the next day. The what ifs were also taking hold. What if I don’t finish on time? What if I have to start all over again? What if I really can’t do this?

As the humorist, Josh Billings, once said, “There are people who are always anticipating trouble, and in this way they manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really happen to them.”

I was becoming one of those people. So I decided to ask the most important what if question of all. What if I talk with God?

My talks with God may not be what you’d expect. Many years ago, I learned that worries don’t like long walks and, for that reason, my talks are mostly walks. There isn’t much talking either; it’s about letting go and waiting.  I simply walk and wait. If I walk long enough, the answers come.

I guess I walked often and long enough as I did eventually finish the book. Worries fell by the wayside as I waited on God. Words and ideas began to flow again. It’s something I cannot explain. It’s something I cannot teach. It’s a thing called faith.

The best advice I can give you the next time worries surround you is to ask yourself, What if I talk with God? Then, walk and wait.

And try not to eat tomorrow’s cheese.

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Breaking A Chord

A few years back, I worked as a newspaper columnist for the Daily Sun-News which is based in the heart of a retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. In that role, I had many opportunities to write about  people and their passions. I would often set up interviews in a small cafe called the Point of View.

One time, I met with several members of a forty-man barbershop chorus. The music director described the effect that the group’s singing had on him. “When you have a bunch of guys who can really sing barbershop,” he said, “it raises the goose bumps on your arms.”

He then began talking about a phenomenon known as breaking a chord. “If you have four guys that can match up their vowel sounds and sing in tune, you can create a fifth part just by the overtone that’s heard. Sometimes that sound is louder than any of the individual voices.”

The gentleman sitting across from him nodded his head knowingly. “It’s the time when God visits the room,” he said. “That’s the glory of barbershopping—when the chords ring and you get that vibration.”

Another fellow added his take on the breaking of a chord. “When you break a low tone, you think you’re experiencing an earthquake,” he said. “If you break low and you’re standing on risers, you can feel the vibrations.”

I asked them if they could demonstrate this phenomenon with a song, and when they began an impromptu rendition of “Down Our Way,” I felt the goose bumps. So did all the diners sitting nearby as the small barbershop quartet began harmonizing.

Perhaps God is that vibration or overtone we need to listen for a little more closely.

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Is God Really The Tooth Fairy?

“Look at me. Look at my life. It’s been a train wreck.”

I am a social worker and, sometimes, that’s what I hear from people nearing death. It’s what a ninety-year-old, terminally ill patient with heart disease said to me when I first started in the field of hospice care a couple of years ago. We were engaged in a life review discussion in which patients reflect upon the highs and lows of their lives. He brought up the subject of God and how, as a teen, he was a strong believer.

“Lot of good it did me, though,” he said.

“What happened to your faith?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he quickly shot back, his stare, piercing. “You’re an adult. It just stopped working. The older you get, the less sense it makes.”

The sharpness in his tone told me to cut short the questions but I had one more. “Why do you think you had such a strong faith when you were young?”

“Because I didn’t know any better. It was make-believe, like the tooth fairy. At least, I used to get a few quarters out of that deal.”

I walk away from every life review discussion with new thoughts to ponder. Some confirm my own beliefs while others challenge them.

Many are inspiring, especially the people who have made God and faith the centerpieces of their lives. There was the gospel singer with throat cancer who told me she had never missed a single worship service until she became ill. To the day she died, she made it a point each Sunday to whisper the hymns from her bed.

Some are disturbing. A man who would later die of cirrhosis of the liver once confessed to me that he had been a burglar for two years as a young man. “Best days of my life,” he boasted. “Lucky was I to find the Lord later. But I’ll probably pay for those days – and soon.”

I keep drifting back, though, to the conversation with the patient who dubbed his life a train wreck. I think about his take on faith, about it making less sense the older he got.

Every so often, I’ve felt that way, too. I’ve been in the train wrecks; I’ve wondered about the logic of faith. But make-believe? God – a tooth fairy?

To believe in God is to collect the evidence. For me it’s the way the sunrise makes itself known like an urgent bulletin and how a child’s smile does the same thing. It’s the nurse with the reassuring touch gently holding a patient’s hand or the teacher’s aide with the white cane teaching kids Braille. It’s a concert hall of strings and reeds or a willow tree’s family of lady bugs.

What evidence have you found?

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