My Year in Review

So, here I am at the end of 43, about to turn 44 tomorrow. And looking back, this year has had by far some of the most interesting and unexpected turns. As the last couple of hours’ worth of sand trickle through the hourglass, I would like to take a moment to reflect on all the wonders I was able to experience.

When I wished for a fun and exciting year, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. Who knew where a simple audition for a game show would lead me? A visit to New York for the first time in almost 20 years, an appearance on national television, a perfect trip to Europe, and getting a brand new car for the first time in my life! Not to mention this was also the year that I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree and gave the valedictorian speech, That alone would be enough to make anyone’s year. But that’s only the surface of my life.

It had been less than a year before that my wife had passed when I hit my 43rd birthday, and the last thing I wanted to do was anything. I was mad at the world for continuing to carry on as if nothing happened. I was mad at myself for not doing more to prevent my wife’s death (not that there really was anything I could have done), and, I hate to admit it, mad at God for taking her away and leaving me alone again. When my birthday was approaching, I knew I needed to move forward or I would never move at all, and so I forced myself, one step at a time, to take a step out of that box, or that box would become my coffin. And so, I took a step. And another step. And I began to see the sun again. I began to live again. I still missed, and still miss, Heather terribly, but knowing her, the last thing she’d want me to do is wallow in misery and self-pity. I know she’d be happy for the joys in my life and it would have been so good to share those with her. But I’ll have plenty of time to tell her all about it when I see her again in heaven.

One major change this year is my finally moving closer to God again. I don’t know why He does the things He does, but it’s enough for me to know that HE knows why He does the things He does. I realize that, as much as I hate to admit it, it’s not all about me, and one goal for my 44th year is to get more involved with helping others, volunteering where I can. I’ve gotten back into reading my Bible and praying and I am finally ready to get back to church.

I intended to make the theme of this coming year “Dreams Come True.” Last week, a dream I’d been waiting on for eighteen years seemed to finally come true. Saturday, I followed a tradition and went to the Disney Magic Kingdom. I was supposed to go with my best friend for lunch, but he fell ill, so it was just me. I got my birthday button and strolled down Main Street. A barbershop quartet started singing, “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.” I stayed and listened to that song, thinking he had indeed brought me that dream. As I headed toward the Cinderella castle, I saw the characters were performing. I get to the castle in time to hear Mickey shout, “Dreams come true!” Then the princes and princesses came out and Princess Aurora (who I’ve taken pictures with – twice!) sang, “I walked with you once upon a dream.” Somebody was trying to tell me something!

I told my friend this and he pooh-poohed (pun intended) the idea, saying it’s Disney, what else would I expect but stuff about dreams? The point I made to him was that I spent all of twenty minutes there. If I had shown up later, I would have only heard the quartet sing Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, and the characters at the castle would have been singing about being pirates. I don’t believe in coincidences, so I still believe that my theme should be “Dreams Come True”.

Ironically enough, I found out today that the eighteen-year long dream turned out to be just a dream, after all, so the day before my birthday, it seems that my theme is already falling apart. But then I realized that dream was shattered before my birthday in order to make room for the dreams that WILL come true! So, hang on to your hats, true believers, and prepare for Jax out of the Box: Year Two – Living the Dream!

Barcelona Babble

It’s been a while since I posted, and I am going to try to make the hiatuses (hiaiti?) less frequent. I promised I would blog about my European trip, so, without further ado, here are the journal entries I wrote during my trip. First stop – Barcelona!

March 2, 2012
12:00 PM Eastern Standard Time

I’m sitting on the plane just minutes from takeoff on the first leg of my international trip. Who could have imagined that an impulsive decision to try out for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” seven months ago would have resulted in my traveling to Europe today? Not me, that’s for sure. I find it humorous and appropriate that my first leg, to JFK, is almost an echo of the trip that got me to the show, although that one was to LaGuardia and not JFK. I am nervous, thrilled, and scared all at the same time. I love to travel. It’s something I got from my dad, probably both genetically and through example. My father was a tour guide when I was growing up, so I got to see a lot of places. Virginia, Washington, D. C., Canada, Dominican Republic. Once I was old enough to travel on my own, I did. I’ve lived in Arizona, Texas, and Florida, and I’ve traveled almost every state on the Eastern coast, and all the states on the Southern border. I also have been to Illinois, South Dakota, and Minnesota. In other words, I’ve traveled a LOT. But this is a completely different experience. This is a whole new country. A whole new continent! Talk about loving outside the box. I can’t wait to see what this adventure holds for me.

March 3, 2012
7:00AM Eastern Standard Time – 1:00PM Barcelona Time

Here I am, in a completely different continent. I am still in amazement that I’m actually here.
The flight from Orlando to JFK was uneventful, but the flight from JFK was a different matter. I knew it was going to be a good flight when I got a first class seat. Then when a beautiful woman took the seat next to me, I really knew this would be a good flight. We had a great time talking throughout the flight. The dinner was okay, but nothing spectacular. The seat was comfortable, and I did get some rest on the way here. But there’s one moment that is quite vivid and will probably not be forgotten for a long time. At one point during the night, I looked out the window, and the sky was full of stars. It felt like we were in space. The beauty of that moment is indescribable.
After landing, I grabbed a bus to Barcelona, and then I wandered around while I waited for my room to be ready. Then I checked in, showered, and am now ready to head back out there!

March 4, 2012
12:10PM Barcelona Time

My first full day in Barcelona was one of mixed emotions. It was, and is, amazing being in another country, heck, another continent, and the sights are fantastic. On the flip side of the coin, though, is a deep, overwhelming sense of loneliness. I am thousands of miles away from everyone I care about, and if something were to happen to me here, I would have no one to turn to. I used to consider myself a lone wolf, a wanderer with no ties to anything. After all, in 2003, I took off for Texas without knowing anyone. And that wasn’t for a visit, but to live there. This is for a week, but I guess it’s different because it feels so foreign.
I did have fun, though. I got to see the Picasso Museum. I strolled through the Parc de la Ciutadella. I got to see the Arc de Triomphe, which is funny because, in a few days, I’ll be seeing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Another interesting tidbit is that Picasso also went to Paris after Barcelona. I wandered La Rambla last night and it reminded me of Times Square, if the buildings were older and everyone spoke Catalan. There was an energy to this city that was probably what brought NYC to mind. Performers are everywhere, street vendors hawking their wares on every corner. Like I said, this trip is one filling me with mixed emotions. I love it, but I wish I were sharing it with someone.

The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe

March 5, 2012
11:40PM Barcelona Time

It has been a jam-packed couple of days. Yesterday, I took the bus tour which took me just about everywhere. Halfway through, I stopped at Mount Tibidabo. After a tram and a funicular ride, I reached the top. Tibidabo is like Barcelona’s answer to Disney. Rides, food, even a roller coaster. The atmosphere is pure fun and the vista is breathtaking. When I left there, it started to rain, and it rained for at least a half hour, if not longer. I toughed it out on the bus and, eventually, the sun came out. After another hour or so, I got off the bus and headed back to the hotel.
After a couple of hours I headed out again, this time to see about the karaoke bar I’d seen advertised. It prove to be just as much fun as I expected. After wandering around Port Olimpic some more, I called it a day.
Today was another full day. I rode the Metro to La Sagrada Familia and all I can say is…wow. That is the place the biblical term awesome was made for. That is a beautiful, amazing piece of architecture. From there I rode the Metro again and headed for the beach. I got to touch the Mediterranean Sea, and it was cold! From there I headed back to the hotel.
I next spent an hour at a Laundromat. How utterly normal and unremarkable, doing laundry, you would think. But even that proved unique. Two girls were in there doing laundry as well, and one had a guitar. She just started playing right there. This place is so beautiful and amazing. I will miss it.
Tomorrow, I check out and fly to Rome. I will only have one full day, so I will need to make the most of it!

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

March 6, 2012
10:00PM Barcelona Time

I am just a few hours away from flying to Rome. It’s funny how I never would have imagined being able to say that. And yet, here I am, about to hit the second of three European countries on my whirlwind tour.
Barcelona has been strange and familiar all at the same time. The architecture and the language have been the strange part, while the flow of life here reminds me so much of New York. It’s almost like my whole life had prepared me for international travel. I manage to get a pretty good sense of the area within a day or so, to the point where I went from constantly consulting the map to only having to check it occasionally. I’m sure if I had more time than one day in Rome, I’d be able to do the same. Although, that may not be so.
One advantage I have here is knowing Spanish and a smattering of French. Some signs take me a moment to decipher, because Catalan is a mixture of both languages, but more often than not, I can figure them out. I may not fare as well in Rome. While Italian and Spanish are similar, they have a lot of differences as well. We shall see shortly how I do. See you in Rome!

To be continued…

The Missing Peace Meets the Big G-O-D

After a long week’s absence, I have finally returned. It seems I needed the week to recuperate from everything that has happened in the last couple of months. When I started my out of the box experiment, I would never have imagined how far it would take me. And it’s only been two months! Anyway, I have recovered and I am ready to jump back out of that box. And now, we can return to our regularly scheduled programming. Here is my blog on peace:

That song has been running through my head almost non-stop since I went back to New York. It’s not the lyrics in particular that I’ve been focusing on as much as the chorus. I’m not who I was. That’s what this trip has really proven to me.

One of the tasks I had set myself for my week in New York was to revisit my old haunts and try to see how much of my past I can recall. Unlike some people who can remember every moment from the moment they popped out of the womb, my memories of my past are hazy at best, nonexistent at worst. I figured maybe a trip through the neighborhoods might trigger something and send memories flooding back.

My first stop early in the week was a neighborhood that brought back bad memories. I suffered one of my most humiliating moments as a kid there. Mind you, I’ve had plenty of humiliating moments as an adult, but an adult can laugh it off. For a child, humiliation can cause deep wounds. As I walked through the neighborhood, I realized that I could not remember the details of my humiliation. All I remembered was really liking a girl but being too shy to tell her. The rest of the neighborhood kids got wind of my attraction and set up a prank, leading me to believe she was into me too. The worst part, the most humiliating part, was when I found out she was in on the prank.

I walked down that street and I felt nothing. It was so long ago, and I had come so far that, while I remembered the terrible event, the scars had all healed.

Later in the week, I revisited another old neighborhood and, even though things felt vaguely familiar, I had no feelings towards anything I saw. Ditto for revisiting my old junior high school and high school. It was then that I realized that none of that was me any longer. I’m not who I was. There was pain and loneliness growing up, but I managed to grow in spite of, or maybe because of, that pain. There was never a steady, stable place I could call home, but I have since learned what home really is. I was shy, awkward and withdrawn – those of you who know me are shaking your heads in disbelief right now, but it’s true! – but I have since learned how to open up and let people in.

I have now spent more time away from New York than in it. Can I still call myself a New Yorker? I don’t think I can. I was born and raised there, true, but I don’t think I really started discovering who I was until I moved away. And, honestly, I’m still working on figuring out who I am. But I know this. I’m not who I was.

What does all this have to do with peace? To put it simply, revisiting my past made me realize how little peace I had in my early life. Constant moving, no friends to rely on, pressure at school. I tried to find peace by moving, but no matter where I moved to, my problems came with me. I tried to find peace in relationships, but, if anything, they provided more stress. I tried to find peace in many things, but any peace they may have provided was temporary. It wasn’t until I found my way to the Prince of Peace that this hole within me, this missing piece, was finally filled. And now, no matter what life throws at me, no matter what upheavals may come, I can be at peace. Not the temporary, worldly peace, but the eternal peace, knowing that my God is in control.

Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!

As promised, here is my blog on joy.
But before I do that, just a little update for those who are interested. I have arrived safely in New York, and have already experienced memories of why I loved it here and also why I had to move. I’d forgotten how noisy is can be to be surrounded by people, but I’d also forgotten how beautiful the skyline is. I’d forgotten how many homeless people there are all over, but I’d also forgotten the palpable energy that pervades this city. I am so excited at the opportunity to spend this week rediscovering New York. That being said, let’s talk about joy.
This has been a very happy week for me, for obvious reasons. As i said, I am in New York, a couple of days away from playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I get to see my dad, albeit for only a day. I get to spend time back in my hometown. Everything seems perfect. Happiness is easy for me this week.
But we all know how quickly things can change from one day to the next, from one moment to the next. We all know that happiness is fleeting, and tomorrow could bring deep sorrow and pain. We’ve all faced those changes in circumstance at one time or another. And we’ve experienced the reverse as well. Sorrow today, and happiness tomorrow.
Joy, on the other hand, is present despite our circumstances. The Bible tells us to rejoice in all things. We all say, “How is that possible when (insert your trouble here) is going on in my life?” And the reason we ask that is because we confuse happiness with joy.
I’m going to use a story Ray Comfort tells when he talks about how to best approach people with the Gospel. I think it could also be used to distinguish between happiness and joy.
There is a man on an airplane that is told by the flight attendant to put on a parachute. When he asks why, the attendant says it will make the flight more enjoyable. He puts it on, and it’s uncomfortable. People laugh at him for wearing it. The more things go wrong on the flight, the more he blames the parachute until, finally, he takes it off.
Another man on another flight is told by the flight attendant to put on a parachute. When he asks why, the attendant says because, when the plane hits 30,000 feet, he’s going to have to jump out of the plane. He puts it on and it’s uncomfortable. People laugh at him for wearing it. But, here’s the difference. He knows that parachute is his salvation and nothing can convince him to remove it. As a matter of fact, the worse things get on the flight, the more he’ll look forward to jumping out.
As I mentioned, Ray Comfort uses that story to illustrate the difference between telling someone becoming a Christian will make them feel good or telling someone becoming a Christian will save them from hell. But I think it might be a decent contrast between joy and happiness. Happiness comes from events in our lives; births, graduations, weddings, etc. Sometimes a brief happiness can come from things we buy. Sometimes we look to others to make us happy. But events pass, things break and people disappoint. And we are left with unhappiness. Joy, true joy, can only come from knowing that, no matter what happens in our lives, we are wearing that parachute that will save us when the time comes for us to “jump out.” and we all eventually jump out of this “plane of existence” and into the next, where we will land before God’s judgment seat. If we have not accepted Jesus as our savior and Lord, our “parachute”, we will be judged on our own works. And none of us, myself included, has lived a perfect, sinless life. We will not be good enough for heaven.  But if we have accepted Jesus as our savior and Lord, Jesus will cover our sins and we will appear spotless and without sin before God. We will be made good enough for heaven.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the things of this world can only make you happy. Joy only comes in the safety of knowing your eternal soul is in the hands of Jesus.
My happiness may come and go, but my joy is a permanent resident in my life. Are you happy? Or joyful? There’s a world of difference between the two.