Lighting Fires

By Mark E. Smith

Our 20-year-old is home for the weekend from college, work, and her own apartment in another state.

She and I are arranging logs in the fireplace. They’re not real logs, but ceramic ones.

“There’s a science to this,” I tell her, as she sits on her knees in front of our 19th-century fieldstone fireplace, first log in hand. “How the logs are positioned dictates gas flow, flame characteristics and heat efficiency.”

For almost 200 years, the fireplace in our farmhouse burned wood, but has been converted to a more-practical, modern gas set up. I push a button and it ignites. Not unlike what might happen with real wood, the ceramic logs fell out of place over the summer and now must be reset. My wife wanted to reset them weeks ago, with the fall chill, then the first dusting of snow. But, I asked to await the help of our daughter.

At her age, our daughter sees time as infinite. We all did. It’s like the stones in our fireplace that transcend mortality. How many fires have they seen come and go over generations? Yet, life is different – we learn that.

I, too, was once 20, with nothing but time. Then, I realized that time shifts as we age, becoming tangible. Life brings the abruptness of change and loss, and we awake one day with an intimate understanding of time – gone.

My daughter and I study the log installation guide and talk about her schooling as she carefully, methodically aligns each log in a lifelike but scripted pattern.

This all began when she was 10, helping me wash our van. It started as a chore, but as she moved into her adolescence and teenage years, the van was lost in the background to our father-daughter conversations, safety for all to come out, a bucket and water hose a ruse as to what it was truly going on, the talks and emotions. Those years, like the cornerstones they were, seemed like they would last forever. Time, though, found its way into our life, a meandering of wonderful events, that took us from the present to the future to new presents that showed me that time wasn’t as it once seemed, that it does pass, that it’s not infinite – and that’s the way it should be. Children grow up, fathers age, time passes, change occurs. But, like the mortar of life, we still cling to the memories of what’s passed.

My daughter sets the last log and I press the button, igniting the flames. The fireplace flickers with authenticity and timelessness, another winter is here.

“Resetting these logs might be a new annual tradition, “ I say and she smiles.

Living By The Hour

By Mark E. Smith

As an undergraduate, I had a philosophy professor who was a former Catholic priest who’d gone on to marry and have five children, followed by a bunch of grandchildren. He taught via the Socratic method and promoted self-cultivation among his students, so I should have known that I was in for it, so to speak, when I showed up for class late one spring morning.

“Mr. Smith, how nice of you to finally grace our presence,” he proclaimed in front of the class. “What was more important than our class this morning?”

“I just got a puppy and I had trouble getting him squared away because he wanted to play outside rather than go in his kennel,” I replied.

“What kind of puppy is it?” he asked.

“A golden retriever,” I answered.

“So, rather than staying home on this beautiful spring day and playing with your golden retriever puppy, you came to class?” he questioned.

I just looked at him. He walked over to the classroom door and held it open.

“Mr. Smith, you shouldn’t be in class today,” he asserted. “Clearly you have a lot to learn about life. When you have the opportunity to play with a puppy on a beautiful spring day, you should be wise enough to seize such moments. Go play with your puppy. We’ll see you Thursday.”

On that note, I went home and spent the day with my puppy. In the process, my professor taught me a lesson that I’ve carried throughout life: Let us use our time in the most meaningful, fulfilling ways, rather than simply letting it pass or our arbitrarily following a routine.

Now, I’m not saying that, as adults, we should disregard responsibilities and engage in such activities as playing with a puppy all day. That would be over-indulgent. However, how many of us have lost sight of the invaluable nature and opportunity of time? How many of us aren’t realizing that how we spend our time directly dictates the quality of our lives and the way we impact others?

Among the greatest equalizers in all of humanity is time. With the exception of varied lifespans, time is universal to all of us, with no distinction. For example, from the richest to the poorest, we each have from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM each day. What we do with that single hour is completely up to us. Do we use it for the better or do we squander it? Do we use it to help or to hurt? It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from – we each have the same hour, with the same potential. The only difference is, how we choose to use it.

I practice what I’ve coined the “one-hour concept” because it’s so achievable toward not just bettering our lives, but also those of others. We all have routines we logically follow – I had to go to that philosophy class to graduate college. However, we all can find an hour or more each day to lead more fulfilling, impacting lives.

My wife and I have been in a routine for several years where she picks me up from work, we go home, I turn on the news and go through the mail while she works on dinner. Our routine is normal and responsible, but hardly life-affirming.

On a recent Monday after work, I suggested to my wife that rather than go home, let’s take an hour and go try a new, hip bar and bistro. We felt like kids sneaking around, as it was so far outside of our weekday routine. Yet, as we sat in the funky joint having a hotdog and a shrimp sandwich with chips, listening to David Bowie, it was one of the best dates we’ve had. And, we were home by 6:00 PM!

I practice the one-hour rule in my professional life, as well. I always help whoever is in need, whenever. Yet, separate from all of my areas of responsibility, I set aside one hour per day to solely focus on resolving consumers’ mobility issues. It’s on my company’s public calendar, so colleagues know to book my meetings around it. Often, I shut my office door, silence my phones, and go through the steps to meet each consumer’s needs, one by one. I’m constantly amazed at how one focused hour allows me to serve so many in such meaningful ways.

We typically don’t give a lot of thought toward time – that is, until it’s too late. A doctor once told me that the most common wish among the dying is to have more time to spend with loved ones. I’ve wondered if the tense of that statement is true? Could it be that what many mean is, I wish I had spent more time with my loved ones? It’s tragic if that’s the case, but for you and me, it’s not too late. We can make our hours about creating cherished memories, and say at the end of our lives, I’m glad I lived life as I did, connected and engaged.

There can be a lot of drudgery in our lives. Yet, every hour provides us with an amazing opportunity to not just pass time, but to create life-affirming moments of fulfillment and impact. Make the most of your time, doing what you love and positively impacting others, for the gift of time is just that – a gift.