Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wright Words: The holiday gratitude challenge

As a child there was only one thing I dreaded about Thanksgiving. It wasn't the juicy turkey, sumptuous stuffing, mashed potatoes, Waldorf salad, pies, more pies, and if I was well behaved, even more pies. No, nothing on the menu was dread-worthy.

What caused me heartburn wasn't anything that happened during the meal; it was something that happened right before the meal. I knew odds were high that my father would be the one to bless the food and give proper thanks.

I heard my father pray countless times growing up: over meals, in the car, at bedtime, at church, as Jack Nicklaus stood over a putt to win the Masters in 1986. But it was over Thanksgiving dinner that my father took the responsibility of saying grace to rare-air level. The prayer lasted so long that by the time we finally ate, most families were already enjoying their late-night turkey sandwiches. There was one year when Dad's Thanksgiving prayer went so long we went straight from the table to the Christmas tree to open gifts.

It was during those prayers that I learned to listen with my eyes closed. Or were they, Mother? Like a trapped prisoner looking through jailhouse bars, I peered through my thick eyelashes to make sure one of my siblings hadn't grabbed the hot roll over which I'd already shouted "dibs!"

Many years later, it's my turn to be the dad, and I've decided to launch my own approach. Throughout the holidays, at dinner every night until New Year's, we all say one thing we're thankful for.

There are only two rules to our Holiday Gratitude Challenge. You cannot repeat anything someone at the table has already said, and you cannot repeat any item from a previous day.

We started a few nights ago. It has been an interesting exercise to think of things we're grateful for that might not be so obvious.

I challenge you to take the Holiday Gratitude Challenge. If you do, you'll find low-hanging fruit in the first few days. After all, who isn't grateful for their family, their country, the scriptures, etc.? It's what comes next that really opens your eyes to the personalities of your children and, perhaps, to Mom and Dad.

I discovered that my wife is grateful for Steven Sasson, the mind and the man behind the first digital camera. That's probably not something that would've come up in the typical Thanksgiving Day prayer. But she feels genuine gratitude that someone brought cameras, digital and original, into the world and into our home.

She's right; just try thinking of life today without the camera.

As for me, my family learned that I am grateful for innovative genius Hans Riegel, creator of the gummy bear. No explanation required.

My oldest daughter is grateful for Steve Jobs and his ubiquitous iPod. Again, no explanation required.

Her younger sister is grateful for the art of origami. She's quite talented, and, if we let her, she'd build her own paper house in the backyard and move in immediately.

My 7-year-old son is grateful for his collection of little things. Little cars, little pins, little rocks, little treats he sneaks into his little pockets.

My youngest son, age 3, is grateful for Mr. Walt Disney and for the parents who brought him into the world. If Mickey Mouse had a Mouse Mom and a Mouse Dad, my little guy would be grateful for them, too.

What other things are we grateful for that don't automatically come to mind?

I am grateful for airplanes. Imagine a world where every time you needed to get from Va. to LA you had to hop in the car. Imagine the meetings you would miss, the family reunions never planned and the funerals with too few in the pews.

I am grateful for Gregory Orr, a poet and professor at the University of Virginia who inspired me to do what I do. He turned tragedy — having accidentally shot and killed his brother when he was young — into art by writing a series of stunning poems and later a gripping, gorgeous memoir. I am grateful for him and for his courage in sharing his story with the world.

I am also thankful for cell phones, hot water heaters, garage door openers, men and women in uniform, and Taco Bell.

I hope you and your family will take the Holiday Gratitude Challenge. You might be surprised at what things you rely on and how grateful you are for them.

Reminiscing on my own list reminds me that while my late-father's never-ending Thanksgiving Day prayers sure made my stomach growl, I'm enormously grateful for them, too. I wonder if wherever he is right now, he's still blessing last year's Thanksgiving Dinner.

I hope so.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wright Words: The day my daughter slayed a dragon

People around me must be wondering why I'm getting misty-eyed so often these days. Blaming it on allergies or seeing "Secretariat" might be easier, but the truth tells me it's all about the upcoming birthday of my 11-year-old baby girl.

Twelve is a big birthday in the Wright House because it means baby-sitting gigs, pierced ears if she finds the courage, and a transition at church from the runny noses of Primary to the big, bold world of the Young Women organization.

All of it has her nervous about what awaits. It would have a me a bit anxious, too, except for my favorite memory from her first 11 years: The day she proved she could slay a dragon.

It was a Sunday like most others at our chapel in Oakton, Va. Good messages, lots of warm fellowship. But the speakers? They were unforgettable. Particularly a petite, beautiful young lady standing a hair under 4 feet tall. She was 7 years old.

As is custom in Primaries around the world held each week in more than 100 languages and in buildings of all shapes and sizes, precious children from age 3-11 take turns delivering short talks on basic gospel principles. These angels speak on faith, prayer, temples and families. The words are few, the messages pure.

My own angel was to speak on Heavenly Father's plan. It was not the first time she'd been assigned, but previous attempts were rather unsuccessful, sometimes in very dramatic fashion. If she'd been old enough for her own reality show, it would have been a hit.

There were the fake tummy aches, creatively imagined bug bites, and blank stares from the primary pulpit followed by sobs and a superglue grip on Mom or Dad. The misery always eased outside the room on a welcoming couch in the foyer. Each failure was heartbreaking for all who witnessed it.

When yet another assignment was issued by our Primary secretary — a kind woman with the patience of Job — the pretty, pink half-page flier with her handwritten topic was met with the requisite refusals and crocodile tears.

Speaking in church had become her dragon.

With much coaxing, and by coaxing I mean bribing, and by bribing I mean multiple trips to 7-Eleven, I convinced her to sit her on my lap mid-week, and together we drafted a three-sentence masterpiece. We printed two copies on our trusty Inkjet, one for her flower-embroidered, cloth scripture bag and one for her mother to carry as a backup — just in case.

In our pajamas we practiced the talk every night before bed. Each rehearsal ended with wild applause, hugs and tickles, and five familiar words: "You can slay this dragon!"

Sunday arrived and the drive to church featured yet another pep talk and promises of an extra Rice Krispies Treat after dinner. Though we'd seen this dragon win before, we were cautiously optimistic this was the day it fell.

Primary began on time and without incident. Gorgeous in her favorite dress, my trooper sat terrified in the chair draped with a yellow felt banner marked "TALK." To each side sat other children in the less frightening chairs marked "SCRIPTURE" and "PRAYER."

I stood in the back cradling my 1-year-old son. My older daughter, the one who'd already taken this dragon out and taught it never to return, sat in the first row with her arms folded, eyes fixed on her best friend and partner-in-crime. The increasingly fidgety children sang an opening song, followed by a rousing rendition of "You Had a Birthday, Shout Hurray!" aimed at two little blushing boys.

Cue my daughter. Cue the dragon.

My wife took her pale-faced daughter's hand and led her to the green-carpeted stool behind the pulpit. She stepped up, unfolded her 40-word talk, and looked out at the mass of curious kids and their teachers.

Before she'd scanned even half the room, she'd turned and buried her head in her mother's neck. Her gut-wrenching cries were picked up clearly by the nearby black gooseneck microphone.

My heart ached. I said a simple, short prayer and knew my other daughter was silently doing the same. I had impure thoughts about that nasty dragon lurking over her shoulder.

My angel, as we all are every day, was faced with an opportunity to bend to fear and wait for another day, or raise her head and cast all doubts and indecision out into the air around her, never to return.

The next 60 seconds are permanently archived in my mind like your favorite scene in your favorite movie. It is a unique, colorful memory like few others in my entire life.

This angel, this blessed child of God, swallowed hard, fixed her eyes squarely on the talk she'd long-ago memorized and delivered the best talk I've ever heard.

"Heavenly Father made a plan to live with him again. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad choices. I know if we make good choices we can live with him again. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

And down went the dragon! My eyes filled then and my eyes fill now reliving those sweet seconds.

After the closing prayer, my little hero ran to meet me in the back of the room. One by one teachers and classmates came to congratulate and hug the suddenly victorious public speaker. I cried, she cried, her mother beamed, and I made a note to call Toastmasters.

That night over a hot, gooey batch of Rice Krispies Treats eaten straight from the bowl, I realized that it is not life's major events that teach and build us up. It is the less ballyhooed, unexpected moments that shape our soul and can seal our future.

We read in Matthew, Chapter 18: "... Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

I can only hope to be so brave, so pure. I can only pray to be so worthy of his kingdom.

In a singular moment this tiny warrior stood up to the dragon she feared, trusted her Father in Heaven, and learned that she had the the power to slay it and never fear again.

So can the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wright Words: Failing to follow my own advice

Hello! I begin with an apology for being such a cruddy blogger of late. I wish I could blame it on the new book, travel, my family, polio, etc. But the truth is I've just been a lousy blogger. Here's to being better!

Over the next few days I'll be catching up on posting my Wright Words columns. They appear weekly in the Deseret News, on Facebook, and soon (hopefully) in a syndicated column.

Here's my most recent. It's the most personal column yet. Hope you enjoy.

Wright Words: Failing to follow my own advice

A regretful experience this week has my emotions bleeding into nearly every waking thought. By the end of this column, I'm hopeful the deep regret will begin to bloom into resolution.

Weekly readers of Wright Words know that my most recent novel, "The Seventeen Second Miracle," is about the small things we do for one another every day that make a difference. It's not the great, dramatic sacrifices of time and talent that define us. It's those precious seconds or minutes when, without making excuses or checking our calendar, we perform a mini-miracle for someone.

I wish this column were about one of those miraculous experiences. Instead, it's about the regret and pain of an opportunity missed.

A few days ago I had a classic opportunity to perform a Seventeen Second Miracle. It was precisely the kind of miracle espoused in the book with my name on the cover. It was just the kind of thing my late-father, who inspired the book, would have done. In fact, as I sit at my desk, I can close my eyes and see him doing exactly what I didn't.

On the evening of Nov. 2, a local store hosted a book signing for me. The owners are dear friends; they are people I admire for their love of life, family and God.

Nov. 2 was also Election Day across the United States, and there is no day more exciting for a political junkie like me. The book signing was scheduled to end around the time polls on the East Coast closed, and I was anxious to get home to watch the results pour in.

Then the storeowner's phone rang.

The caller, a gentleman who was a friend of the owners and lived nearby, asked if I would consider stopping by his home after the event to meet his wife, Audrey. She'd long wanted to meet me but couldn't attend. Would I be willing to make that happen? She was a big fan, he insisted, and had read all my novels.

Audrey had a lot of time to read, it turns out. Battling breast cancer does that to a person.

I looked at the clock, realized I was already running late leaving the event and asked if I could come by another time. The storeowner handed me the phone, and I arranged to visit her three days later.

The entire ride home I told my wife how bad I felt about not taking a few minutes to visit her, about being selfish with my time and over my desire to watch votes tallied on television. Not badly enough to turn the car around, mind you, just enough to give voice to the thoughts.

I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. eating snacks, drinking my favorite soda and watching a dozen cable news talking heads slowly announce results from Virginia to Alaska.

Two days later my friend called to say Audrey had been taken to the hospital, and our meeting in her living room would need to be rescheduled.

This morning I found out Audrey would never see her living room again.

There aren't words in this language or any other to describe the remorse I feel at having passed up an opportunity to sit and chat with this woman. Not because it would have been some great honor for her, but because it would have been a great honor for me.

It was a miracle moment so custom made, an opportunity so ideally presented. It was what I'd spent months writing about and promoting in churches and schools across the country. It was the no-brainer opportunity of a lifetime to perform a small act of service without hesitating.

Except that I did hesitate.

And the opportunity was missed.

Later today I will send flowers and a note.

Later tonight I will sit on the edge of my bed and wonder.

Later this week I will attend Audrey's viewing, pay my respects and apologize to her husband.

But for now, I hope this moment teaches me that pain can be a blessing if we allow it to change us for good. Regret can be useful, but only if it lingers for a moment, not a lifetime.

My hope for today and for many days to come is that I will be able to turn a deep regret into a resolution, a resolution to never pass those moments by again. It will be my simple way of honoring a woman I never got to meet.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a book to read.