Same as the old year. Different numbers.

Every year I think it will be different. Every year it’s the same. I look around and watch people get excited about the new year, and think to myself, “Same as the old year. Different number.” This year hasn’t been any different.blackr 2014 block

I never seem to be where I want to be on January 1st. I am never even where I think I should be. I know a lot of people who are having great success in their personal and professional lives. Most of them don’t deserve it in my opinion. (Shhhh…don’t tell them I said that.) I’m stagnating. My heart’s desire more than any other is to be a writer, but I can’t get anyone to pay attention to what I write. Meanwhile, a 20 year old kid I know who doesn’t have any interest in writing gets published in a national magazine. Where’s the fairness in that?

It was a fluff piece–one of those lists that everybody loves. You know, “21 Things All Humans Need To Know About The Mundane Task They Should Be Doing While They’re Sitting On Their Computer Reading This Stupid List.” But, hey. That’s what people want to read now. That’s what gets their attention–trivia. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep writing seriously, and keep bitching about nobody reading it while nobody reads it.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Bitter, party of one!” And, you’d be right. I am bitter. But, I’m also hurt, angry, sad, dejected, and spent. I have no motivation left to do anything I’m doing. I’m not lying when I say that I’m just going through the motions. It’s all just mechanics now. No heart. No spirit. No purpose.

I need a break. No, I don’t mean a vacation. I need a break–something big that happens to make me think what I’m doing is worth something, and that I’m headed in a real direction. But, I’m not holding my breath.

I miss my friends. I miss being in a place where I had friends. I miss being in a place where my friends and I did things we liked doing. Maybe if I still had friends who had some ambition other than getting through the week so they could drink beer on the weekend I’d find the inspiration needed for the motivation I lack. Who knows? Maybe not.

So, yeah. Happy New Year. Same as the old year. Different number.

The Longest Week Ever

I woke up at 4:33 this morning. By 4:58 it was clear I wasn’t going back to sleep, so after FINALLY finding where grades were posted for my graduate courses, I got out of bed and started getting ready. It’s now 5:55am and I’m completely ready to go, but it’s still too early, so here I sit watching reruns of Judge Judy and fretting. . . .always. . . .fretting.

Tomorrow is the last day of school (school as in my teaching job) before Christmas break. This week has been the most interminably long week yet and it was preceded by the worst week yet. I’m actually still trying to process everything that happened last week because I can’t believe it actually happened. I won’t go into detail because it doesn’t really matter, but I wanted to write about some part of it because the whole incident has caused my anxiety to peak at a level I’ve not experienced in years.

I’ve learned a few lessons–here they are:

1. Truth doesn’t matter anymore. When push comes to shove, people don’t care about the truth. They care about what benefits them most.

2. Trust no one but me. Because people care about what benefits them most, they DO what benefits them most.

3. Don’t talk to people about important things. They say they won’t tell other people, but they always do.

4. I should’ve stayed in Fort Worth. Maybe I’ll see about going back.

Merry Freakin’ Christmas, Jason. Do you mind if I smack you around a little more???

I’m so depressed now that I think I’ll just go to bed next week and stay there.

Where Would Jesus Shop?

I’m going to go ahead and throw out this disclaimer before I begin: it’s quite likely that I’m about to offend some of your holiday sensibilities, but I want you to keep reading anyway.

Today is Black Friday. No, don’t get confused, it’s not the same Black (or Good, depending on your heritage) Friday where we remember Jesus’s crucifixion. This is the Black Friday where we conduct our own! …Ease up, Jason, hyperbole this early in a blog post might come across as angry…

black fridayThis is the Black Friday where we remember the metaphorical crucifixion suffered by the greatest symbol of the Holiday Season, the American Corporation. Yes, today is the day that every corporation awaits with anticipation for three-hundred-some-odd days a year. Today is the day when millions of Americans forget what they said at the Thanksgiving table just yesterday: “I’m just thankful for my family and friends. That’s all I need,” and proceed to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on things they just can’t live without! That is, of course, assuming they were even at the Thanksgiving table yesterday and not already camped in front of Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or Target waiting on that rare instant where a flat screen TV is on sale for incredibly low prices…at least until March right before time to start considering first quarter earnings.

Ahhh…Black Friday. A great American holiday tradition honored from the earliest days of our republic. But, let’s notcyber monday forget that other great American holiday tradition, Cyber Monday, which dates from some time around the Civil War if I’m not mistaken. Yes, Cyber Monday is the day when millions of Americans sit at their desks, still hung over from all of the Black Friday festivities, look over their shoulders and around their cubicle walls to make sure the boss isn’t coming, and log into their Amazon.com accounts to snatch up the deals on those items which are too rare to even make it to store shelves. What would the holidays be without the macabre excitement of staring out the window two days before Christmas hoping against hope that the UPS truck won’t just drive by this time, but will actually pull in the driveway and bring that one….last….thing you needed that will make Christmas the holiday it was always meant to be.

small business saturdayAhhh…Cyber Monday. Another great American holiday tradition from the middle years of our democratic experiment. But, not the last! It seems that social anthropologists have discovered another great American holiday tradition that dates from sometime around the Great Depression. Small Business Saturday is the day when millions of Americans are guilted by their local Chambers of Commerce into buying sacks full of one-of-a-kind gifts (available only at one of our 25 locations) and unnecessary plastic items that make great stocking stuffers! Everyone knows that Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas until you’ve awakened in a cold sweat at 1:28am on Christmas morning having remembered that one-of-a-kind gift you purchased on Small Business Saturday that would make Christmas complete, but that you’ve completely forgotten the location of, and that you’re willing to creep through a darkened house risking life and limb to find.

Ahhh…Small Business Saturday. The most recent American Holiday tradition begun during a time of great testing for our nation. Now, if you will, pardon me just a moment while I wipe the sarcasm that has dripped from my
teeth to my chin….

I don’t have anything at all against Christmas shopping and I’m not one of those people who says that the only way to really celebrate Christmas is to not exchange gifts. I enjoy giving and receiving gifts as much as the next guy. But, I’m concerned about how our entire social order is now consumer driven. We don’t really make anything anymore, we just buy things. And, because we don’t buy enough to suit corporations the other 362 days a year, they have now worked these fake holidays into our cultural lexicon. We’re being duped and we don’t even know it.

I’m not saying stop shopping on Black Friday or Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday. What I’m saying is, think carefully before you do. Companies put their products in these terrific sales in the hopes that your brain will bejesus save tricked into buying more than you normally would because you’re “saving” money. Trust me when I tell you that if you were really going to save money on those items, companies wouldn’t sell them for what they sell them.

I don’t know where this sort of consumerism stops and I don’t think most people understand how dangerous it is. It’s a snowball rolling down a steep hill and we’re all in its way. Christmas, the way we celebrate it, is largely a construct of the 20th Century. Most of our Christmas “traditions” are drawn from pagan celebrations. I wonder if we even really know where and how the Christmas celebration started.

Fount of Every Blessing

One of the benefits of growing up in the Methodist Church is that I was exposed to most, if not all, of the great hymns and songs of Christendom. Week after week I opened the hymnal in my pew to hymns like, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” and “To God Be the Glory.” It was these hymns and songs that first taught me about who God is; about Jesus’s great love for me; about what a powerful friend I have in the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great modern worship songs, but the words to these songs are the foundation of my faith. More and more, they are also its anchor.

One of those great hymns I learned at a very early age was, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I can’t tell you how many times I sang it in church as a child, then as a teen, and finally into adulthood. The number is probably in the hundreds. But, it wasn’t until I was almost 30 years old that the words of that hymn were burned into my mind and on my heart.

It was a terrible time in my life. I was in my first, and what would be my only, semester of school at East Texas Baptist University. Despite great hope and great help from many friends and family, I found myself on the precipice of failure once again. I knew that when school was out in December I wouldn’t be coming back. I would, once again, forfeit a chance at success because of the fear with which I’d become so familiar, and from which I could not escape.

I was in the University Chorus. As a matter of fact, I was Baritone Section Leader. We were preparing for our fall concert and one of the pieces we were going to perform was a truly magnificent setting of that hymn with which I was so familiar–or so I thought. It was during a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal that the sealing of my heart took place.

Everything seemed normal. I already knew the words and the music, so all I had to pay attention to were the nuances that Mr. Moore, the choir director, added. Then, midway through the second verse, it was as if I was hearing and singing the words for the first time.

Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God.
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

O, to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

I was overcome. My voice broke and tears welled up in my eyes. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and my knees felt like they were giving way. It was in that moment that I saw myself in the light of God’s grace and mercy. It was in that moment that I realized His love for me was far deeper than the scars left behind by each one of my disappointments and failures.

I couldn’t sing the rest of the song. I just stood there, crying. Each time Mr. Moore stopped to fix a problem I would compose myself, but each time we started again, I was overcome. Even days later in the concert I could only get through the first verse before the feelings came over me. Oddly, no one seemed to notice that each time we sang the song I stopped midway through; not the students around me, and not Mr. Moore.

That was 14 years ago and I still cannot sing that hymn all the way through without breaking. It is, in a very real, non-poetic sense, the song of my heart. It is the song that reminds me just how loving God is. It is the song that reminds me just how far Jesus has gone to seek me out.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was turned away by people who call themselves Christians. It was during one of the most desperate hours of my life when I needed to know the love of Jesus most. Instead, I was judged, convicted, and sentenced to separation from the church. I was angry and hurt. I felt lost and alone. But, once again, this song was there.

The fact of the matter is that in each and every instance of heartache and pain in my life, the words to this great hymn always find their way back into my head. Each time I feel that familiar urge to turn away, I am reminded just how far Jesus has come for me. I’m reminded that my heart is sealed by God’s grace.

I guess it would be easier to turn away, and I almost did. I guess it would be easier to simply stop believing, and there was a time when I considered it. I guess it would be easier to forget everything I know to be true. There were many times I tried. Try as I might, I cannot turn away; I cannot stop believing; I cannot simply forget, because each time I do, there is this song.

So many people are hurting just now. So many people are in pain, and are afraid, and are lonely, and are angry. Our nation is, once again, riven with strife and enmity. We find ourselves turned against one another by people who profit from our fear and anger. It would be so easy to turn away and deny God. Even still, “Jesus sought [us] when a stranger…”

I still can’t get through it. Even now, writing this, my heart is racing and my eyes are full of tears. I know that I am bound to God, not by chains or shackles, but by His goodness. My heart is sealed, not by His anger, but by His love. I know that Jesus is still seeking me, not to punish me, but to rescue me.

How I wish I could really put into words what this hymn means to me, but none of them seem to do it justice. So, I’ll leave you with the hymn itself. This is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing the same setting of “Come, Thou Found of Every Blessing” that so moved me all those years ago. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

The United Methodist Hymnal Number 400
Text: Robert Robinson, 1735-1790
Music: Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second
Tune: NETTLETON, Meter: 87.87 D

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

1st Six Weeks Progress Report

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Well, the first six weeks is over. Grades calculated, report cards distributed, and this weekend offers me the opportunity to grade my own efforts. After careful consideration, I have posted my grades below.

Intentions                                 A
Practice                                     C-
Classroom Management      D
Time Management                 F
Organization                           D+
Personal Attitude                    D
Confidence                                F

Average Grade                     Dgrade-D

It’s not like any job I’ve ever had and it’s certainly not what I expected. I have no confidence in my ability to teach school. Actually, right now I have no confidence in my ability to do anything. What exactly am I good at? The only job I’ve ever really been successful in was my job at The Scroll Bookstore. I guess that’s it. I’m good at retail.

My anxiety attacks are back…BIG TIME! I’ve had an attack almost everyday since school started in late August. For the last four days I’ve been in a constant state of panic. I don’t sleep at night. My head hurts constantly. I break out in cold sweats. I feel dizzy, nauseated, and short of breath. Everything I eat makes me sick. I can’t concentrate. I can’t remember things. I’m edgy and irritable. I’ve become completely intolerant of anyone who does anything that I consider inappropriate or unintelligent. I haven’t been this bad since the summer of 2009. The only difference between now and then is that, at least right now, I’m still able to get out and do things. For now…

Aside from my poor performance as a teacher, my performance as a student hasn’t been much better. I’m supposed to have this amazing ability to write, remember? Well, apparently my writing doesn’t translate very well to graduate level work. No…there I’m just average. I have no business being there, but as with so many other failed ventures in my life, I have too much time and money invested to stop. So, I’ll muddle through and end up with a funny robe and a pretty hood and another piece of paper to hang on the wall. And, everybody will congratulate me and tell me how proud they are of me and how much I deserve it. Meanwhile I’ll feel like the fourth grader who had trouble subtracting five digit numbers.

I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what to do or where to go or who to talk to about it. People keep saying, “it will get better.” But, it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. Nothing I do makes it any better.

What I Wish People Understood

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I never dreamed it would be this hard. I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. In fact, I’m not sure of anything anymore. People keep saying, “It will get better.” But, it isn’t and that makes me think I’m doing something very wrong. I’m not the teacher I thought I’d be. Not even close. I’m becoming the teacher I swore I wouldn’t be. No, it’s not getting better at all and for someone like me, that spells disaster.

There are things I wish I could make people who don’t suffer with chronic anxiety and depression about those of us who do. I wish there was something I could say or do to make them realize that we react differently to most things than those fortunate enough not to suffer. People like me, who fight this awful monster, feel things differently. We see and hear things differently. We understand and process things differently than virtually anyone else. A situation which a non-sufferer might be nothing more than an inconvenience or an annoyance might literally be a life-altering turn of events. Minor setbacks for most are major pitfalls for us. sad apple

So, if all of that is true, then what do you need to know? What do you need to do or say? How can you help? The short answer is, you can’t and please stop trying. When people like me hear people like you say things like, “It will get better,” that only makes us feel worse. You see, when things are supposed to get better and don’t (and they often don’t), it makes us feel like we’re doing something wrong. Remember what I wrote before? I know you mean well and that you’re trying to help, but please understand that you’re not.

The other thing you need to know and understand is that, to me, my reaction is perfectly logical and normal. I understand that in your mind I should be able to simply brush off difficulties and let things pass. In your mind, when people say and do things that hurt me, I should be able to simply let those things slide “like water off a duck’s back.” But, it doesn’t work that way for me. I wasn’t born with that switch in my head that allows me to turn feelings, thoughts, and emotions on and off like a lamp. My brain doesn’t work that way. I take everything — EVERYTHING — personally because, to me, everything IS personal. It’s the way I think. It’s the way my heart works. Should I change that? Maybe, but as yet, I haven’t figured out how.

It’s not getting better. It’s just not and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. Please stop telling me it’s going to get better. I know you mean well, but you’re not helping. Please stop telling me to “be positive” or “look on the bright side” or “be grateful that [I] have a job.” Of course I’m grateful to have a job. I never said I wasn’t. But, I’m stressed beyond belief. I’m working myself sick and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. All you’re doing when you say those things to me is making me feel like I’m doing something wrong.

We’re different. We respond to things differently. Please accept that and save your judgment.

Jason’s Inferno

When I was in elementary school we had what was called Fire Safety Week every year. Firefighters from the local department would come to the school and talk to us about how to prevent fires and how to react to them should they occur. Apparently, I need a refresher course.

I arrived home this evening around 6:00 and immediately began preparing supper. I was making taco salad. Everything was ready — the meat, the veggies, sour cream, salsa — everything but the chips. So, I put some tortilla chips on a small cookie sheet and popped them in the oven under the broiler. When I closed the door I turned around, filled an empty ice tray and put it back in the freezer. I turned back around (less than one minute later) and saw flames leaping from the burners on the stove top. I knew that none of them were on. That’s when I saw the soft amber glow in the window of my oven door.

The chips, the chips, the chips were on fire!!

I quickly reached and turned the broiler off and removed the pan of meat from the top of the stove. I decided that since I didn’t have a fire extinguisher the best thing to do would be to get the cookie sheet out of the oven and dump it in the sink to run water over it. (If the front door had been closer I would’ve taken it outside.) I forgot about the movie Backdraft. When I opened the oven door, the sudden rush of air sucked the flames back into the oven and out the door. I closed the door quickly. As long as the door was closed the inferno was relatively controlled. I tried again but the same thing happened. It was then I realized I might be in trouble. There was no way I was going to be able to put the blaze out, my apartment was filling with smoke, and I’m pretty sure smoke inhalation was setting in.

Fire Safety Week Lesson Number 1: When a fire occurs, call 9-1-1.

I grabbed my wallet, my keys, and my phone and ran out the front door. I called 9-1-1 and the dispatcher acted quickly to dispatch the fire department. In about three minutes I could hear sirens headed my way. I thought that perhaps I should’ve told the dispatcher that it was a small fire confined to my oven. I’m not much for the thought of wasting resources, but no matter now. The cavalry was pulling up — lights and sirens, full bunker gear, industrial sized fire extinguisher in tow. The five firefighters crowded into my small kitchen and prepared to open then oven door. I was sure there would be a repeat of my experience only moments before. Not so much.

When the lead firefighter opened the door, dark black smoke poured out, but I didn’t see any flames. The firefighter reached in with his gloved hand and removed the cookie sheet. There, leaping from the pile of charred corn, was one, tiny flame.burned chips It might have been the size of the flame on a birthday candle. I expected him to blow it out, but he didn’t. He (and the other four) took the cookie sheet outside, sat it on the sidewalk, and instead of using a foot, a glove, or the fire extinguisher, they got my neighbor’s water hose. They didn’t even turn the water on. They just held the hose upside down over the chips and let the water that was in it dribble out. The lead radioed in…

Fire out. All clear.

There wasn’t even enough smoke for them to stay and help clear it. One of them told me the best way to get it done. Now, you might think that my embarrassment was complete and couldn’t get any worse. You would be incorrect in your thinking. As I was standing there talking about how to get the smoke out of the apartment, the other firefighters had gone back to the engine and removed their gear. A few of them walked back to the apartment and I realized then that one of them was a former student. My heart sank. My stomach turned and I could feel my face turning red. To his credit he stayed professional. He wasn’t laughing at me — I would’ve been. I looked at him and sheepishly waved. He smiled and waved back. He didn’t let on that he knew me and, at least in front of me, he didn’t make fun of my plight. He was a good firefighter.

As funny as this story is, and it is funny, I am thankful because it could’ve been a lot worse. There is no damage to my apartment or even to my oven. No one was hurt, and except for a rather disgusting smell, there’s little evidence that anything happened. I’m going to get a small fire extinguisher. If I’d had it tonight this event would’ve been over before it started. I’m also going to refresh my memory on the best way to handle kitchen fires, and I’m going to put new batteries in all of my smoke detectors.

Thanks to the Canton, Texas Fire Department for getting here quickly and not making me feel anymore like a fool than I made myself feel.