What the Digging is For

Last year I posted this blog the day my son left home after high school. I thought it would be good to post it again as all of us dads have to deal with the joys and the losses that come with fatherhood.

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The day he was born, I walked outside with my tools and began to dig. I wasn’t sure why I was digging. I simply knew I must break into the hard ground to make it something it was not.

I wasn’t digging a hole. Rather I was preparing a smooth surface, free from obstacles, small and large. Daily I tore into the ground, breaking rocks into small pieces, cutting down trees, and tearing out roots that would find their way to the surface again. Sometimes my boy would work alongside me, not knowing what we were building or why, but glad to be with me and a part of the task.

I don’t remember the day I realized we were constructing some sort of path. Perhaps it was when I saw that it was not deep enough for a foundation and too long for a garden. The path was wide and never meandered. It was smooth and level.

There were difficult years, particularly when hills had to be cut through. But time and patience saw them open wide and finally welcomed the path as an old friend.

A few weeks ago, a little more than eighteen years after I began this project, I realized what it was. It was when my eldest son began to gather his things in boxes. And one by one, he placed them at spot where my work began. His belongings were all there – his instruments, his books, his trophies, his mattress – stacked up at the path’s starting point. As he stood there, tall and manly, he looked down the path beyond its end and toward the horizon, bright with the morning sun.

Then it came to me. There before us was a runway, wide and long and smooth. And he, with an eager heart and a long wingspan, was ready for takeoff.

This morning, we will load the truck and Hunter will be moving into his own apartment. For the first time in all of his years, he will be leaving to return only for visits. While my grief is profound, it is overwhelmed by gratitude for his tenure with us and with hope for all of his adventure-filled flights to come.

I can hear the pilot’s voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for liftoff.” It is a voice I have dreaded since the day he entered this world. And it is a voice that I embrace for all that will be his.

Al Andrews
Early morning
Moving day
July 1, 2012

Full Circle: Reflections on D-Day

In 1994, I accompanied my father on his second trip to France. His first was fifty years earlier as he exited a Higgins boat during the D-Day invasion. As a Tennessee boy who had previously shot only at tin cans and squirrels, he became a machine gunner. Hitting the beach at nineteen, he fought until the war’s end, witnessing horrors for which life on a farm had left him unprepared.

During my youth, he rarely mentioned those horrors. The stories he recounted had been sanitized. He told of victories and of intrigue, never mentioning the blood or the carnage. He told his stories as if he had been viewing them through the wrong end of binoculars –recognizable images, but too distant to make any real heart connection.

When we traveled to France, we went with other men who had been in the invasion force. Together, they told endless stories, their formerly bridled recollections now unleashed in the presence of one another. One man took six bullets in the first hour, while another crawled up the beach unscathed. Still another limped with pain, his feet having been frostbitten in the Hurtgen Forest.

While their stories differed, they all shared a common experience during that return trip. Each had a moment when he became still, and lost in a terrible memory, solemnly re-entered a long forgotten tragic scene. Vaguely familiar landscapes, quiet graveyards, and shared stories brought forth dark pieces of the past that had been relegated to some distant attic of their minds and hearts.

Not long into the tour, we arrived at the cliffs overlooking the crescent shaped shoreline, Omaha Beach. After D-Day, it was called “Bloody Omaha”. I thought that my father’s return there would be an emotional catharsis. Instead, he was almost giddy. “It’s great to be back!” he exclaimed, looking wide-eyed into the ocean. It was as if he saw the vast armada, the plane-filled sky, and the great guns shelling the coast. “It’s wonderful to be here again,” he said, obviously cherishing the realities he did not know fifty years earlier when the war began – that victory had been won and he had survived.

I was confused by his reaction. Why didn’t he weep? I wondered if there was a key to the grief I suspected he had, the sorrows he carried inside. My questions would be answered later in the day when we arrived at our next destination.

Our bus driver soon pulled into a parking lot. “We’re now at the site of the German graveyard,” he said. “Would any of you like to see it?” Some of the men muttered angrily under their breath. For them, the enemy had become real again. My father, however, was the first at the door when it opened.

I followed him as he walked briskly toward the graveyard. It was a stark contrast to the American cemetery, with its pristine grounds, gleaming white crosses, and holy quiet. Instead, there were black crosses, with at least two young German soldiers buried in each grave. Located near the woods with no vista, it seemed purposely hidden, some shameful secret. But it too was as quiet as a whisper.

Just inside the cemetery, my father walked intently toward one of the crosses. He knelt down beside it, wrapping one arm around it as if he were embracing an old friend. Lifting his other hand to cover his face, he began to sob. It wasn’t a gentle weeping. It was the heaving grief of a young man whose finger had pulled the trigger of a machine gun countless times and through its crosshairs, watched many young German men slump over in death. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he said through his tears, pleading to the boys buried beneath him. “I’ve prayed for your mothers. I’ve prayed for your fathers, your brothers and sisters. I took you from them. Please forgive me. Forgive me.” And lingering among the graves, he silently addressed each cross with the same confession, standing in a quiet vigil, remembering those who had died at his hand.

Prior to that day, he had already come to terms with what the war had done to him, the scars on his body and soul. But until that moment, he’d not come to terms with what he had done, the pain he had inflicted. In that cemetery, it did not matter that the Allied forces had stopped an evil man. It didn’t concern him that the “good guys” won. At that moment, all that concerned him was that he had killed some mother’s son, many mothers’ sons.

That day, a heavy burden began to lift. From the grave of a former enemy came a gentle pardon, and he embraced the forgiveness he had sought. Since then, his stories have both color and emotion. They are real now, not sanitized. In fact, he’s written them down for my boys to read when they come of age. Nightly he prays that they will be spared from such an experience. “War was hell,” he writes, “and I was there.”

This summer, I returned once more to Europe with my father, retracing the route of his army unit. Starting in England, I followed my hero across the English Channel. We landed in Normandy and worked our way across the European landscape to the spot where the war ended for him. On this trip, he dodged neither bullets nor ghosts from the past. And while we were there, we visited two cemeteries. At each, he placed flowers at the base of a stone cross, one white and one black. For him, the war has come full circle. His fallen enemies and comrades are now at peace.

And so is he.

Give the Gift That Gives Twice This Father’s Day

Al Andrews’ beautiful picture book The Boy, the Kite, and the Wind reminds us of being a child and the adventure of flying a kite with a parent. It’s a great gift for the father in your life, and every book sold benefits a Restore Academy student on the way to college.

A note from Al:

    I remember the days when my sons and I flew kites. I remember the trip to the store to pick them out, the ride to the park, and the “easy to assemble instructions” that always tested my competency. But mostly, I remember the moment that the kites took flight, the thrill on our faces, the fist pumps, and the shrieks.

    But kite flying expeditions almost always end in great sadness. And so I was standing there, looking at this kite in the tree and I thought, Why do we do this? Why do we fly kites if they always end up in trees?

    Disturbed by my own question, I went back to the office to attempt to answer the question. I sat down at my desk and began writing. Soon I had written a poem that expressed “the reason.” As I wrote, I found that it was about more than the kite. It’s about thrill of the flight, the sorrow of the crash, but mostly it’s about the wind and something that’s bigger than us.

After Al was challenged to dream big (thanks Bob Goff!), the poem turned into a beautiful picture book called The Boy, the Kite, and the Wind. The fun part of the book is that 100% of the net profits of the book go to charities around the world. To date, $35,000 has been donated to various projects!

The current project offers college scholarships to students of Restore Leadership Academy in Gulu, Uganda. Thus far, ten scholarships have been given and for every 50 books sold, another student will get a chance to go to college.

Here’s where you come in. It’s time to buy that Father’s Day gift. Give the gift that gives twice – once to the father in your life and once to the students at Restore Academy. And as a special Father’s Day promotion, each book ordered before June 10 will be signed by the author, Al Andrews.

Buy a Book Now

If you live in Franklin, TN or Nashville, TN, you can purchase books at our featured retailers:

Parnassus Books in Green Hills
East Side Story in East Nashville
Franklin Booksellers in Franklin

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Learn more about The Restore Project here:

A video of the book, narrated by Al:

New Zealand Prayer Book: Prayers of the People

For the hungry and the overfed
May we have enough.

For the mourners and the mockers
May we laugh together.

For the peacemakers and the warmongers
May clear truth and stern love lead us to harmony.

For the silenced and the propagandists
May we speak our own words in truth.

For the unemployed and the overworked
May our impress on the earth be kindly and creative.

For the troubled and the sleek
May we live together as wounded healers.

For the homeless and the cosseted
May our homes be simple, warm and welcoming.

For the vibrant and the dying
May we all die to live.

The Man Watching

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
So many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
That a storm is coming,
And I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
Across the woods and across time,
And the world looks as if it had no age:
The landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
Is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
As things do by some immense storm,
We would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win, it’s with small things,
And the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
Does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
To the wrestlers of the Old Testament;
When the wrestler’s sinews
Grew long like metal strings,
He felt them under his fingers
Like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
Went away proud and strengthened
And great from that harsh hand,
That kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.

*Photo by Carolyn Conner, Creative Commons
*Copyrighted material. Do not duplicate. For therapeutic or educational purposes only.

A Poem for Easter Morning

Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart,
Rent wide by Love.
Never again
The tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl,
Or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity,
For Easter Love
Has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us
From God’s desire —
Not flesh, not sky,
Not stars, not even sin.
Now Glory waits
So He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.

Elizabeth Rooney

A Plant that Whispers Hope

In late February, I took a walk in the wooded area behind our home. I went to check on the daffodils whose buds started peeking out due to the unseasonably warm winter. I’m not really sure why I checked on them, as there was little help I could provide them against the impending cold. While on my walk, I noticed that my Lenten Rose bush was in full bloom. My eyes welled with tears.

The Lenten Rose is this small bush that can’t really figure out it’s place in the rhythm of things. I relate to it. It almost dies back in the winter, but not fully. While its green leaves are muted, they never quite submit to brown. It’s not particularly flashy and isn’t chosen often for yards and landscapes. If plants could tease one another, I think it would be the butt of the plant jokesters. While it’s often seen as nothing special, every year it stirs deep emotion in me. I have two of them in my yard.

In late winter/early spring, long before the daffodils and crocuses peek from the ground, blooms quietly emerge from this little plant. While other plants show off their blossoms, the Lenten Rose is demure about it. Bowing its head, the blooms gently fold themselves against the leafy foliage. Sometimes one has to look for it, as it tries to conceal its several shades of purple and pink against a white background.

Truth be told, the winter is always hard for me. I don’t do well with the sun going down early, dark cloudy days, and the lack of green. It’s also the season of my darkest hours in years past, and the reminder of it all sometimes settles in like a heavy fog. As the winter progresses, something in me always needs a sign, begs for a sign, of hope.

And so that morning, this dear little shrub greeted me, full of blossoms, showing up several weeks earlier than usual. It declared, “Spring will come. That which has descended to the earth will emerge again. Winter will not win.” And within a month or so, the Lenten Rose will be proved right.

I think that’s why Easter is my favorite day of the year. The signs of hope are proved to be true! Lent will be over, the stone will be rolled away, and as Wendell Berry says, I can “practice resurrection.”

Al Andrews
March 28, 2013

The Restore Scholarship Project

In late October of this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Gulu, Uganda where I attended the graduation ceremony of Restore Leadership Academy. Twenty-five students, in blue caps and gowns, received their high school diplomas. It was an amazing and inspiring day. I wish you could have seen their faces – full of hope for the future.

    Question: So what’s next for these students?
    Answer: College.
    Question: How are they going to pay for college?
    Answer: With Improbable Philanthropy Scholarships!

If we sell 1000 books, we’ll give each of these graduates a scholarship toward their first year in college, and we’ll award a special scholarship to Samuel Obomo, the class valedictorian.

And here’s the great part – the Restore students see this as a loan and upon graduation, they’ll pay it back, not to me, but to another new graduate in need of a scholarship!

Started in 2007 by Bob Goff with just 30 students and a couple of teachers, today Restore Leadership Academy has grown to 19 teachers and over 260 students in the Ugandan equivalent of middle and high school. The school is rapidly rising to the top in countrywide test scores.

These students have been through so much as a result of growing up and living in a country impacted by war. While the backgrounds of the students vary, nearly all of them grew up in northern Uganda during the civil war. An overwhelming percentage of them have had one or both of their parents die due to either the war or disease.

In spite of these tragedies, you’ll never meet a happier, energetic, and ambitious bunch! Their resilience and hope for the future is an inspiration to see. Let’s help them with that future as they grow up to lead a country in need of what they can uniquely offer.

Be a part of The Restore Scholarship Project today by purchasing a book here.

Coming Home: A Thanksgiving Blog

It was the first Thanksgiving after World War II, and their sons were coming home. The war was finally over and Andy and Margaret Andrews of Signal Mountain, Tennessee waited for their boys to walk up to their front door.

One was a paratrooper, one was a Navy man, and the other three, including my father, had enlisted in the Army. My grandmother was named Tennessee Mother of the Year, having sent all five of her sons off to war. I’m sure it was an award she would have gladly given up to keep them out of harm’s way.

Against all odds, they made it out alive and their reunion was on Thanksgiving Day. My father told me what that day was like. He particularly remembered when they all gathered around the table with their parents and their little sister. The usually boisterous boys were quiet. The war had made them men who now recognized the solemn moment engulfing the room.

My grandfather rose to pray, as he always had. Everyone’s head was bowed. And then there was silence. After a while they looked up and saw tears streaming down his face. His mouth was open, but he couldn’t speak. His gratitude was too intense, his relief was so great, and his heart was as full as it could be. There was no need for prayer. His heart had prayed where his voice could not. He and his family were blessed beyond measure.

Today, I wonder what would happen if we paused before saying grace over our meal and thought for a minute. What if we remembered the times that we survived. The moments we were spared. The day we were rescued. The decision to come home again.

My hunch is that if we let our hearts linger on this for a while, we too would be silenced and our thankful tears would be our prayer.

Al Andrews
Thanksgiving Day, 2012

A Community of Dreamers

My friend Bob Goff says that when you have a dream and you share it with other people, one by one, they join you in that dream. “It’s like a pick up basketball game,” he says. “People just want to play!

In the last few years, I’ve found his words to be true. My dream of becoming a philanthropist by writing a selling a book has been joined by friends and by those who saw the game being played and wanted to be a part.

When I started Improbable Philanthropy, I had NO idea how much was required to do it. Becoming a publisher and a marketer was something for which I was unprepared.

And then, one by one, people would say, “I’d like to help with that!” or “Can I do this for you?” Soon, we’d gathered what I call Team Improbable. Their help and support has been invaluable. We’re thinking about getting jerseys with numbers on them for members of the team.

Among the things I’ve learned in this journey, the importance of comrades coming alongside is top on the list. To have friends, old and new, join a dream is both a gift and a necessity. Without them, the dream won’t take flight.

Here’s what people have brought to my dream/pick-up game:

Mailing and Shipping
Publishing and Printing Advice
Art Direction
Website Design and social media
A Film
Legal Counsel
Blogging Advice
Framing the original art
Original scores for the book
Book launch party
Everyone who’s bought a book

I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of a community who dreams and who have become a part of mine.

And the latest member of Team Improbable is Jason Germain, who wrote a score and created the following video. Enjoy:

Al Andrews
November 15, 2012