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Father reflects on the first snow, and the second

January 12, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 18, 2019

Living in New England suits me well. I savor the unfolding of each new season, though I could do without the month when winter sloppily transitions to spring.

With spring’s arrival, tree buds emerge, then blossom, over the course of many weeks, along with flowering shrubs and plants, too. In the summer, the longest day of the year arrives following six months of imperceptible, daily increases – on the order of two minutes per day – of sunlight. Hints of autumn color can be found starting in late August, long before their October peak.

But, winter – more importantly, the first snow – is more abrupt. It unmistakably blankets the ground with softness, clings to pine boughs and deciduous branches in our yard, lines the rails of the backyard fence, hides the wood pile, pens the chickens in their coop where they wait patiently for the ground to be scraped clean, blocks the entrance to our drive after the plow has cleared the street, and sparkles – when the sun finally reemerges.

Snow balls, sledding, skiing, snowboarding, fort building – even shoveling – are more exciting after the first snow, than in March, when we have had our fill.

The fact that the first snow arrived this year on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, in such spectacular fashion that school was cancelled on Monday, made it extra special for our 7th grade Zoe and 5th grade Adam, not to mention every other child in town.

Monday, after learning that the nine inches of freshly fallen snow meant a 5th day in a row of no school, Adam customarily consumed two waffles and an ample supply of butter and maple syrup, then headed out the door at 7:30 a.m. Aside from brief mid-day lunch and mid-afternoon hot chocolate breaks, he came in for dinner after 5:30 p.m., having spent more time in the snow than he would have spent inside during a regular day of school.  Zoe enjoyed inside activities as well as a vigorous ski along the bike path with her Mama (Lori), who enjoyed an unexpected day home from work since her scheduled patients all cancelled.

I was less enthused, however, because the virtual nature of my work meant that conference calls and computer related projects beckoned my attention. So, I worked from my home office, situated in our basement, sulking and irritable for much of the day. By late afternoon, Adam and I headed to a hill behind the local middle school where he carved some turns on his snowboard and I ran up and down the hill and did a few laps in the adjoining field, both for daily exercise and in an attempt to elevate my mood.

As I retired that evening, I conceded that while the first snow had arrived, I was not quite ready to fully enjoy it. Much to my surprise, though, I awoke the next morning to an additional nine inches of snow, and another school cancellation. Adam and Zoe were thrilled with a 6th consecutive day of no school, but I felt I was playing the role of Bill Murray in the classic, comedy film Groundhog Day.

In the film, a blizzard arrives on the heels of Groundhog Day and while others seize the opportunity to celebrate, Murray’s character sours on the turn of events. The next day he awakens to learn he is stuck in a recurring cycle, forced to relive the same day, again and again. Only when he learns to embrace life and commit to being a force for good in the world does Murray’s character breakout of the recurring cycle, and onward with his new lease on life.

So, I was relieved to awaken on Wednesday and find that no additional snow fell while I slept, that schools were indeed open, and that I was saved from a perpetual state of snowy, Groundhog-Day-like-existence. And while I can’t say that I fully embraced this year’s first snow – or the second – the winter solstice is still two weeks away, which means I have plenty of opportunities ahead to try again.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Family finds fitness and much more at YMCA

January 12, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 27, 2019

Healthy living is a core value in our family. When we relocated, from Boulder, Colorado, we considered a number of communities in New England, before deciding to move to Northampton, MA. We were attracted by the extensive network of bike paths, abundance of local food production, access to forests and trails, a culture of higher learning, and a multitude of resources for raising a family.

Still, during our early years in Northampton, Lori and I struggled with the reality that raising two young children, Zoe and Adam, in the absence of local friendships or family, was challenging. In particular, finding ways to remain physically active – something Lori and I had come to take for granted while living in the outdoor recreational mecca of Boulder – was essential to our well-being and sanity.

Fortunately, Northampton is home to the Hampshire Regional YMCA. Once we learned that Y membership included access to free child care – through the Child Watch program and its experienced, well-trained providers – we quickly decided the cost of membership was a worthy addition to our frugal, family budget.

It was not long before Lori and I came to appreciate that the Y focused more broadly on healthy living, including spirit, mind and body, and was not just a place to exercise. So, over the years, in addition to regular cardio workouts in the gym and laps in the pool, we have enjoyed yoga and meditation classes, family mindfulness retreats at the Y’s summer camp facility, and blissful sits in the steam room during long New England winters. As a bonus, since Y memberships include reciprocal benefits with many YMCA’s in the U.S., Lori and I have exercised – for no additional cost – at other Y’s in Massachusetts as well as in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois, when traveling for work or visiting family.

As Zoe and Adam, teen and tween respectively, have aged, they have increasingly benefitted from the Y’s focus on youth develop, including swim lessons, open gym, open swim, the youth lounge and gymnastics program. These activities have offered a positive, social setting to develop their growing bodies, build friendships, and be part of a larger community committed to wellness.

One of the greatest – and unexpected – benefits of the Y, for Lori and I, is the way the center acts as a hub for social connection. Every visit to the Y offers an opportunity for brief yet enriching connection with friends, kids of all ages, other parents, professional colleagues, and acquaintances, reminding us that we are part of a larger community committed to healthy living. And for many years, Lori has taught Pilates classes at the Y, offering her both a circle of colleagues and connection to many throughout the community.

Recently our family participated in the Y’s 8th Annual 5k Run. The weather was glorious, mid-40’s and sunshine, with colorful, fallen leaves underfoot as we paced our way along the bike path and looped around picturesque Look Park. Lori and Zoe helped set-up for the event. Zoe, along with friends from the Y gymnastics team stationed themselves on the course to cheer runners and walkers. Lori, who has recently returned to running, logged her best 5k time in decades. Adam and I ran together, and he out sprinted me at the end to log a personal best time.

After the course cleared, we gathered inside to hear race results. More importantly, the race director shared words about the Y community and the importance of the event. I was astonished to learn that in the prior year, the Y had devoted over $270,000 toward scholarships and discounted memberships, in order to help make the Y accessible to even more children and families.

I left the event with even greater appreciation for all the Y has to offer. Initially we joined the Y as a place to workout, but we’ve chosen to stay for the many ways it helps us sustain a healthy lifestyle, including connection to the community we now call home.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Father bids farewell to kind neighbor

October 24, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 23, 2019

For more than eight years our family has called Sumner Avenue home. Located a short walk from the many conveniences of Florence Center, and along the bike path, which our family uses daily, this one-block neighborhood is a gem. More than 20 kids from this block and nearby houses have buzzed about the street and adjoining yards these past years, offering a steady stream of activity and laughter, leaving my wife Lori and I delighted to be raising our Zoe and Adam in such a tight knit neighborhood.

Throughout our time here — and long before — our immediate neighbor, Mike Ryan, has been an anchor for this little community. Mike grew up on this street, eventually moved out of the house and then, more than a decade ago, returned to his childhood home to live with his aging parents, where he remained after their passing. Now, a week after Mike’s abrupt and untimely death, we are all feeling the absence of his soft and kind presence.

With great pride, Mike maintained his property impeccably. His garage was a well-kept, orderly workshop, functioning as a base of operations for maintaining his house and completing minor car repairs. Year-round, he was visible to all as he mowed his lawn, trimmed the bushes, gathered fall leaves and cleared snow off his drive. He seemed to find purpose and joy in these activities — perhaps, in honor to his parents or to help maintain the appearance of the neighborhood or to keep physically active — maybe all three.

But it was much more than a well-kept yard and house that endeared our family to Mike. Rather, he became an extended family member — an uncle next door — who generously supported us, in countless little ways, making our lives a bit easier and richer.

When we traveled, Mike often made sure that our backyard chickens had fresh water and plenty of food. After nor’easters pummeled us, Mike would employ his snow blower to clear the mounds of hardened snow left by city plows at the ends of neighboring driveways. Often, when one of our cars required repair, he shuttled Lori or I to or from our mechanic’s garage. He delighted in walking Zoe and Adam, in their younger years, to the school bus stop and back when, on occasion, work schedules interfered with our parenting duties. He generously loaned me use of his tools whenever I was in need, including a standing agreement that I could grab the extension ladder, lawn mower, snow blower or other items without asking, going so far as to give me a key to his garage to make this all the easier.

Over the years, though, Mike’s chronic ailments slowed him down. A neighbor boy, Rohin, began to mow his lawn. Our son, Adam, shoveled his snow this past season, and recently knocked on Mike’s door asking permission to rake his leaves this fall. We routinely brought him homemade baked goods, produce from our garden and fresh eggs, both in gratitude for his generosity, and as a way to stay connected, keeping a watchful eye, along with other neighbors, on his health, especially since he lived alone.

This past summer, while routinely chatting over the picket fence that separates his drive and our garden, Mike confided to me that he was considering selling his home and moving to an apartment. He said it was becoming more difficult to maintain his house and yard and that he did not want to wait until it was too much for him to handle, but at the same time, he noted, “I love this neighborhood, and don’t want to leave it.”

Days before we found Mike lying on his front porch, clinging to life in the chilly morning air, I picked the final tomatoes of the season and knocked on his door. He thanked me, promising to put the tomatoes to good use. We briefly chatted about the weather and seasonal changes, as we have so often done, then I was on my way, unaware that it was to be our final conversation.

Now his house is empty, his car sits unmoved in the drive, and we miss him. Struggling with the knowledge that he will not return home, we cling to memories of his daily presence on Sumner Avenue. At the dinner table our family shared stories about the many ways that Mike was a special person in the life of our family and neighborhood. Lori recalled that a few years ago she met a woman, who upon learning where we live, asked, “Does Mikey Ryan still live over there?” The woman was Mike’s kindergarten teacher, who fondly recalled that in her class — more than 50 years ago — he was a sweet, kind boy. Now, and for years to come, we too — our family and neighborhood — will recall Mike as sweet and kind.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Choosing joy of life over fear of mortality

September 25, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 25, 2019

Our kids are getting older. Now 10 and 13, our Adam and Zoe fill our lives with more joy than I ever imagined could be true before I became a father. As my wife Lori and I watch them mature and widen both their experiences and horizons, it’s a breath-taking honor to be their father.

Of course, we too are getting older. I confess to having thought more about mortality — my mortality — in the few years since reaching the age of 50, than in the previous half-century. At times I feel profound sadness and grief, not just at the thought of my own death (which is hopefully far away) but, even more, from acknowledging that one day I will no longer be physically part of Zoe’s and Adam’s life, nor they part of mine.

We deeply and genuinely enjoy being together as a family. When we are apart, which is not often, we all feel that something is amiss, and when we reunite, whether at the end of the day or when one of us returns from an outing or travel, we are delighted to be together once again. As a family, we have come to accept this being together, being apart and being together, as the natural rhythm of our lives. But, ultimately, it’s the overwhelming fear of not being together again that hurts me the most.

Increasingly, I have been wrestling with these inner tensions, as Zoe and Adam rapidly age, and as I listen to Lori, with feelings of helplessness, as she experiences similar angst. So, it was a blessing to have recently heard thoughtful words from a family elder, which have provided me fresh insight. At a family gathering, following the lively energy of Happy Hour, replete with much wine and nosh, and the excitement which accompanies a Labor Day barbeque, when New Englander’s cling to denial about summer’s end, I sat in the growing quiet of the evening.

Next to me was a family member, nearly my father’s age, who was recovering from complicated and painful surgery to remove cancerous tumors from this body. I have come to know and respect him as a private man, publicly reserved with his thoughts and emotions, and with whom, therefore, our conversations have tended to be matter of fact.

I noticed a softness in his eyes and a gentleness in his demeanor. Following my curiosity, I asked him, “How have you dealt with the difficulty of your recovery?” Without hesitation he said, “It is what it is. And, I’m getting better.”

I’ve not warmed to this trending phrase, “It is what it is,” another cliché that crowds our daily conversation and covers over opportunities for genuine connection. But, in this case, seamlessly paired with the phrase, “And, I’m getting better,” I heard both acceptance and empowerment, not the helpless resignation I tend to associate with “It is what it is.”

Moved by these simple words and his genuine sentiment, I sense in myself growing acceptance with an uncomfortable truth of fatherhood. I cannot control that Zoe and Adam are aging, that one day they will take flight and then soar high and far, nor that Lori and I are growing older — it is what it is. But I can practice redirecting my attention to the joy of fatherhood, marriage and family, and to the realization that, in so many ways — it keeps getting better.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Parents create new ritual, for connection

August 29, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 28, 2019

As parents, finding time to connect with each other is challenging. With our children, Zoe and Adam, rising 7th and 5th graders, it seems that my wife, Lori, and I spent more quality time together — alone, just the two of us — in the first three years of our relationship, than in the nearly 13 years since the birth of our Zoe.

We know we’re not alone. For many, the parenting journey in our highly-mobile culture where parents with young children, ours included, are geographically distant from family support systems where cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents can support each other in the important, daily work of raising children.

And so, for many, child care gaps are filled with a mosaic of paid support, in the form of baby sitters and nannies, as well as after-school, school vacation and summer camp programs, all adding to the cost of running a household. In the bustle of this lifestyle, Lori and I have worked hard, and struggled, to maintain quality connection, often too drained by the workday, ever-present commitment to Zoe and Adam, basic household operations and steadfast commitment to individual health and well-being.

Along the way, our sense of quality-time has evolved. Now, 15-minutes sipping morning tea on the breezeway before the kids awake, a quick trip to the YMCA to share a single lane to swim laps, and a 30-minute after dinner walk on the bike path serve as essential moments for being together — for connecting, sharing and listening to each other, without interruption.

While these moments of connection help sustain our relationship, we have yearned for longer periods of time, a full day or weekend, to enjoy our favorite outdoor activities, explore a new place, and simply be together as a couple. And while we have enjoyed a half-day or day together on a few occasions — even a weekend for our 10th wedding anniversary — extended time together has been a relatively unfulfilled aspiration.

So recently we decided to take a weekend trip together, while Zoe and Adam enjoyed time with their Granny and Pops, Lori’s parents, who during the summer months live less than two hours from our home. The trip was to visit Lori’s brother and family, in Charleston, South Carolina — to which a direct flight was non-existent, the heat index was over 100 degrees, and the woods and waterways around their home were inhabited by rattle snakes and alligators, two of my least favorite creatures.

But we were on a mission, determined to create a new ritual — a getaway weekend around the time of our August wedding anniversary — something we can plan and look forward to each year. So, we focused on the positive; and it was fun! We enjoyed rare time with Lori’s brother and family, tasty cuisine, uninterrupted adult conversation, and local sites, including Charleston College (where Lori’s brother and sister-in-law teach), an amazing 400-year-old Oak tree, and the only commercial Tea growing operation in the United States, which, as daily tea drinkers, we found especially interesting.

Throughout our trip we missed Zoe and Adam, and tearful FaceTime calls made it obvious that they missed us, too. Still, we believe that nurturing our relationship — day to day and with occasional trips — is essential to not only sustaining our relationship, but to thriving as a family too. So, while our family of four most enjoys being together — at home and for adventures — Lori and I are already creating a list of possibilities for next year’s getaway weekend, for just the two of us, where the weather is moderate, without snakes and gators.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Enjoying family vacations, and post-vacations too

July 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 24, 2019

Family vacations can be wonderful. Of course, there’s no guarantee, but time away from home and daily routines can foster closer connection, a sense of adventure and a refreshed outlook on life. Vacations can also be exhausting – including planning, packing, travel time, adjusting to new settings and returning to regular schedules after the trip.

Fortunately, as our kids, Zoe and Adam, (almost 13 and 10, respectively) have aged, our family vacations have been more wonderful and less exhausting, though our quest for adventure often produces some of both. Our recent four-day weekend at the family beach house, near the Connecticut shore on the Long Island Sound, offered a welcome balance that has often eluded us during our get-aways.

Amidst the warm sunny skies, cool evenings and great beach conditions, the highlights, for me, included a number of family one-on-one moments.

Lori and I enjoyed an early morning paddle (in kayaks), with the water calm and conversation easy; our bodies were refreshed by the exertion, our souls nurtured by the connection. Zoe and I walked to the lighthouse, where we sat alone, watching boats navigate in and out of the harbor, talking about features of the shoreline and fishing. I waded out to the sandbar with Adam, at low-tide, where I watched him skim board, together noticing snails, seagulls and the setting sun. And, I enjoyed a solo paddle – one-on-one time with myself – tracing the same route Lori and I followed; my mind’s inner dialogue rich and random as I traversed choppy seas.

For all the simplicity and slow pace of the weekend, though, back at work on Monday morning my brain was moving slowly, very slowly. I struggled to regain the momentum I had before our trip. After a mid-day run and lunch I was still low-energy. Instead of caffinating myself or forcing myself to work, I lay down on the floor of my office, on my back, and relaxed for a few minutes, before returning to an afternoon of computer work and phone calls. For the rest of the day, my mind and body were still moving at a slower rate than before our travels, not slow-motion, but rather a very calm, thoughtful pace.

The next day, Tuesday, while leading a team meeting at work, missed deadlines and disappointing progress on a major project left me irritated. Instead of blurting statements that likely would have been hurtful to others and counter-productive to our team’s efforts, I was able to able to voice my frustration in a clear and reasonable manner, which, in turn, created space for others to share their disappointments as well and, ultimately, a renewed focus on next steps.

At home on Wednesday, I made an unpopular decision, that led to great disappoint for one of our children, whose name is withheld upon request. I was confident in my decision, listened carefully to the repeated objections, and was able to remain calm until the situation was resolved, which took less time and energy than usual, for both of us.

So, while it was the ideal mix of rest, activity and connection with others that led to a wonderful vacation, it was a decidedly gentle return that has, so far, helped ensure a wonderful post-vacation too. And while this is more reminder than revelation, I am inspired to think carefully about the post-vacation that will follow our annual family camping trip in late August. I am envisioning a recovery day, or two, at home, so we can land, unpack and prepare for a smooth return to work and school. And, I’ve already scheduled a 30-minute post-vacation rest, during my lunch break, on the first day back in the office.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


A Father’s Fishing Tale

June 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 26, 2019

I remember when my father brought home my first fishing pole, an offering that led to my earliest and fondest memories of both wild spaces and my father. The casing on the reel was a deep red and the pole was white, with thread matching the color of the reel wrapped around it, holding in place the eyelets, through which the fishing line extended.

Tied to the end of the line was a rubber weight, which I cast across the front lawn of my childhood home hundreds of times, reeling it back in while pretending it was a big one. Weeks went by and I recall asking my father, again and again, “When can we go fishing?” One evening after dinner he surprised me and we ventured to a local forest preserve where we briefly dipped our lines, catching more mosquito bites than fish. But brief as it was, the quiet time at the lake, the ease of connection with my father felt reassuring.

It was the first of many fishing tales for the two of us. Others were set in the sleepy backwaters of the Mississippi River where we cast our lines for crappies and stripers, while bald eagles soared, whitetail deer meandered and turtles sunned themselves. My father wistfully refers to this era as the golden years; the joy and sadness I hear in his voice when he speaks of those times is palpable, for me too.

After years of summer trips to the river, which started when I was an infant, my father launched a charter fishing business on Lake Michigan, off the shores of Illinois and Wisconsin, when I was 10-years old. For a couple of summers, I worked as his first mate, piloting the boat when he was working the fishing lines and swabbing the deck after the customers went home. Other times, with family or friends, we enjoyed the excitement of catching big fish — coho salmon, lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout — some weighing as much as 20 pounds, or more.

But the lake is big, stretching 360 miles long and 90 miles wide at points, and with that comes wind, cold, fog, rain, violent storms and for some — including me — sea sickness. So, while my father was drawn to the lake each spring and summer, I gradually spent less time fishing, and less time with him, too.

Decades passed, and I became a father, first to Zoe and then Adam. As they aged, my father yearned for them to catch a fish on his boat, but I was reluctant, especially since Zoe and my wife, Lori, are prone to motion sickness, too.

This year, with Zoe and Adam fast-approaching 13 and 10 respectively, I was finally ready for us to attempt a fishing adventure on the big lake. But, after more than four decades as captain of his own ship; earning a living through long, hard hours and playing a central role in the fishing tales of countless others, he sold the boat and retired, months before we arrived for our annual visit.

At first, I was saddened at the thought that Zoe and Adam would not have the experience of fishing on Grandpa’s big boat, though I felt some relief, too. Instead, we planned a trip to a small, quiet lake less than an hour’s drive from my childhood home. Traveling through towns with names like Sandwich and Big Rock, where livestock outnumber people, we arrived with great anticipation for our fishing adventure.

Under cloudy but dry skies, the four of us floated peacefully on a pontoon boat. For three hours, we cast our lines and watched our bobbers while snacking on a cooler full of food. Zoe and Adam took turns steering the boat, and they practiced dropping and pulling up the anchors as we ventured to different locations near the lake’s shoreline, in search of hungry fish. They grabbed minnows from a bucket and nightcrawlers from a small plastic container, which we used to bait our hooks. Thankfully, they each caught a fish, Adam a 12-inch smallmouth bass and Zoe a 10-inch muskie, their faces radiating pure joy.

I suspect the adventure will provide a lasting memory for Zoe and Adam, a fishing tale with their father and Grandpa, and in this way, it will serve as one of my fondest fishing tales, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

A father’s reflections on an AA meeting

May 24, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette May 21, 2019

I recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting. I had been invited by a friend who was being recognized for 28 years of sobriety. I felt honored by the invitation and humbled by the experience.

When I arrived on the second floor of a former elementary school, the room was filled with approximately 60 people, seated in three concentric circles of folding chairs, a tall coffee dispenser and cups positioned by the door.

My friend, seated across the room, nodded with a smile at my presence, and I unfolded a chair that was passed to me by a woman who had entered the room just before me. Those present were taking turns sharing personal reflections about the significance of a passage that had apparently been read before my arrival, and their challenges and triumphs with a life committed to sobriety.

While I had never attended an AA meeting before, I was familiar with the purpose, practices and fellowship of AA, and the 12-Steps, or principles, of daily practice pursued by those who attend AA meetings. My understanding of AA is partly informed by my direct experience with Al-Anon, a fellowship for people who are concerned about and affected by someone with a drinking problem, which I attended a few times, nearly 25 years ago.

Now, as a father to Zoe and Adam, fast approaching 13 and 10 years of age, I am mindful of the impact of alcohol on both those who choose to drink and their family members, especially children. My wife Lori and I enjoy a glass of wine before dinner most weekends, and we openly share with Zoe and Adam that enjoying an adult drink is one way to celebrate the week’s end or a special event, as they often witness during summer gatherings at the family beach house. We also openly discuss the effect of alcohol on one’s body, the reason to limit consumption and the importance of not driving while under the influence of alcohol.

While recently attending an AA Meeting reaffirmed my commitment to both responsible drinking and parenting, I also began to think more deeply about what I had witnessed.

The gathering served as a safe space for those committed to the 12-Steps, a set of spiritual principles whose daily practice helps resist the compulsion to drink alcohol and, in turn, leads to a happier and fuller life. The first step reads, “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol-that our lives have become unmanageable,” and serves as the starting point in AA for the road to sobriety.

It was the combination of spiritual practice and fellowship, in particular, that left me reflecting on family and fatherhood. Lori, Zoe, Adam and I have identified a set of family values — Health, Kindness, Friendship, Love and Respect (oneself, others and Earth), which are written on the whiteboard hanging on our kitchen wall. We occasionally weave discussion of these values into conversations at mealtime and we lift up these values through other rituals and practices throughout the year. These practices include Friday Family Night when we pause to celebrate the week, enjoy a meal and watch an inspiring movie. We recently started Family Meeting Night on Sunday evenings, where we preview the week ahead during supper.

Inspired by the commitment I witnessed at the AA meeting, I am newly appreciating the importance of our own family rituals and the opportunity for us to deepen family conversations about our values, spiritual beliefs and the triumphs and challenges of navigating daily life.

So as I honor my friend’s 28 years of sobriety — and all those who strive to become, and remain, sober — I am also grateful for his invitation and for the positive influence the experience will have for me and our family.

For more resources about AA, visit and for Al-Anon visit

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Admiring a son’s love of digging

April 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 24, 2019

Digging a hole is fun. For our son, Adam, the bigger the hole, the better. This is perhaps more true today than when he proudly dug his first hole at the beach when he was just 2-years-old.

Hole digging, then and now, has also been a source of conflict for Adam. On that sunny day at the beach, when he first demonstrated his great enthusiasm for digging, he and his big sister, Zoe, clashed. As soon as he finished, she audaciously jumped into his hole. “No, my hole, my hole, my hole,” he screamed.

At home in our yard, each spring when the ground softens, Adam’s zest for digging reemerges. A plot in the front yard, encircled with curved cinder blocks, where a flowering shrub once bloomed, became the center of Adam’s shoveling in his early years. A collection of toy trucks, bulldozers, and other earth moving devices were prominent features in Adam’s circle.

His hole was in plain view — on a one-block, dead-end street — where up to a dozen and a half kids range freely. At times, Adam and his hole became a spectacle, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that other parents on the street, rather sensibly, seemed to disallow front yard hole digging.

Adam, the youngest kid of the clan, beamed at the positive attention. But when other kids inevitably wanted to jump into his hole, push dirt back into his hole or throw objects into his hole, his territorial instincts flared.

So it went, each spring Adam loved digging a hole in the front yard, and conflict would soon follow. Eventually, the novelty of the hole would subside, for Adam and the other kids, and by Memorial Day, each year, we would plant flowers in the plot. Peace would return, until the next spring.

A few years ago, when his hole digging had produced unbearable frustration and tears, Adam successfully helped my wife Lori and I understand that digging a hole meant something special to him. He deeply wanted to have his own space to dig, where he could occasionally invite others to join him, but could also just be by himself, without the need to defend his turf, or self.

Adam and I filled the front yard hole for the last time, under the watchful and bewildered gaze of his peers. Then, we easily agreed on a place in the backyard, where, surrounded by a fence, Adam was free to dig privately and peacefully. And dig he did.

Each year since, his hole has become bigger. This year, fast-approaching age 10, he stretched himself on the ground, arms fully beyond his head, marking the four corners of a 5-foot-by-5-foot square. Using a full-sized spade, he dug the perimeter one afternoon, piling the earth to the side. Over the course of 3 weeks, he ventured to the backyard to dig, often after school, sometimes before, and always on the weekend. The spring rains halted operations from time to time, but mostly they just made his shoes and clothes muddy as he continued to dig, undeterred.

At times he was joined by his friends, who either watched and chatted or, as the hole became deeper, assisted by pulling up loads of earth using a rope Adam had tied to a bucket. Occasionally, excitement would spike when a large rock was found, requiring all manner of engineering skills to extract the find. When getting out of the hole became a challenge, Adam tied a rope to the adjacent fence and dropped it in for a hand-line, toeing his way up the wall using footholds he etched with the back of the shovel.

By the opening weekend of April school vacation week, the hole was complete, having reached a maximum depth of 4-feet, which Lori and I imposed to guard against the risk of a cave, as there is no telling how deep Adam would dig otherwise.

Much to my amusement, following a raucous but amicable couple hours of scootering, skateboarding and capture the flag in the street and front yards of our neighborhood, Adam and a handful of kids converged in our backyard. Soon they began taking turns running across the yard and jumping into the hole, which was much safer than when Adam, days before, had placed a mini-trampoline next to the hole so that he could bound over it. Still, a sprained ankle, or worse, seemed inevitable. I bided my time, as the group gravitated toward relatively safe play. Throughout the afternoon they returned to the hole — jumping in and climbing out, throwing balls in and out, digging, chatting and laughing — lots of laughing.

Adam seems as proud of his latest hole as he was with his first at the beach so many years ago. And, for countless hours, he has found peace, quietly digging alone. But today, Adam freely shared his hole, and it served as a great source of community. He seemed content, never outwardly demonstrating a need to defend his hole, feeling, it appeared, to relish the connection more than the hole itself.

Later, as the evening rains approached, I gazed at the backyard. The hole and mounds of surrounding earth occupied a 10-foot-by-10-foot section of our modestly sized yard. I smiled at the realization that the spot in the yard will probably remain bare until after Adam heads off to college. But then, Lori and I are less interested in grass than we are in growing healthy, active kids — and community.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Food service, waste management – one father’s mantra

March 28, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 26, 2019

Spring has arrived, again. Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of jasmine tea as pink hues reached upward from the horizon and the sun peeked through our window, I witnessed this annual truth.

Here in New England, as I imagine is so in other northern climes, our response is muted, knowing, from experience, that spring’s early days are tentative, the prospect of additional snow and ice more likely than not.

Still, for me, the arrival and end of each season offer an opportunity — a moment to look inward, asking myself — what do I endeavor?

As a father to Zoe and Adam, fast approaching 13 and 10, and a husband to their mother, Lori, for almost 14 years, life has revealed that answers to this question is both elusive and evolving.

Early on, I fathered with the zeal of a mountain climber and distance runner, yearning and enduring as I raced toward the summit and finish line of my own making. While the pace was both exhilarating and exhausting, I never quite reached my destinations. I was on a mission, seeking to prove to myself, no doubt others as well, that I could father in just the right way — any day, anytime and anywhere.

This approach helped me maintain my focused devotion to family. It has also proved limiting, a lesson I have slowly come to accept. The day-to-day experience of fatherhood, marriage and work — of life — have ground me down, softening my edges as running water patiently and skillfully turns jagged rock into smooth stone.

But now, fatherhood — especially as Zoe and Adam seemingly defy the laws of physics by aging more rapidly than Lori and I do — has become more about mantra than mission. Aspirations of notable status in my one wild and precious life have been subsumed by a more humbling calling –  food service and waste management.

The well-known Zen Buddhist proverb, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” for centuries has intoned that to become successful at anything one must tend to the basics, and after achieving success one must still tend to the basics. The message is that how we do one thing (the simple things) is how we do everything (all the rest).

Enlightenment aside, I do hold high expectations of myself — as a father, and in general. It has been particularly useful, therefore, to realize and consistently remind myself, that success comes from, and is sustained by, tending to the basic elements that nurture our family — food service, waste management.

Of course, some days things fall apart for our family. One kid has the stomach flu, the other has a friend conflict. The toilet is clogged, the pantry is bare, the trash can is overflowing, the laundry is piling up, the car needs new breaks and work deadlines abound. In these moments, it’s grounding to remember that my role as a father includes tending to the essentials – food service, waste management.

And while Lori and I work effectively as a team, together tending to our family’s basic needs, food service, waste management — like chop wood, carry water — is simple in concept but difficult in practice.

Still, this mantra has come to repetitiously guide the daily meditation of my fatherhood experience. And so, as the earth softens, green life reemerges and birdsongs abound once more, I continue to endeavor, ever so gratefully, for success in my highest calling — fatherhood — through food service and waste management.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website