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The North Carolina Keys September 13, 2013

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Emerald Isle sign

Our annual Geil family vacation was almost over. It had been a grand week at the beach. We had celebrated several birthdays, which called for regular visits to the Sweet Spot for ice cream. We had a windy late night walk on the pier, and on the way there we had occasion to introduce my youngest nieces to what they called “trespassing on people’s properties”, when you have to be very very quiet. We created a barely-floating flotilla, ambling down the intracoastal waterway when ocean riptides had closed the beach.

The beach is my favorite place. Each of my senses retains a tangible memory of that sacred place. My nose delights in that first moment when I roll down the car windows for an influx of salty air. My toes are happiest barefoot in the sand. My ears are tuned to the relentless frequency of noisy ocean waves. I listen to Jimmy Buffett songs just to make me miss the beach more when I’m back inland.

Holding a place in such esteem makes leaving it that much more difficult, and so the final clean-up and drive away day is usually more bitter than sweet. When we were little kids, we made a point of saying, “Bye, Beach House” every time we drove away toward home. But my visits were more frequent then, and each goodbye was sweetened by the promise of imminent return. Now, “Bye, Beach House” means a sad “See you next year.”

This year was worse, though. It’s bad enough to pack up from vacation and go home. It’s worse when you’ve lost your keys.

How cruel an irony it is to not want to leave a place and to spend your last moments there frantically searching for the very means to leave. And oh, did we search! I checked the usual places a dozen times. I retraced my steps from that morning, and the night before. I thought about when I had last driven. We were spread among two houses, so I went from one to the other, over and over. An hour passed. My frustration mounted.

I let a discouraged growl boil over as I drove someone else’s car, one more time, the couple of blocks from our little family house to the rental. But when I pulled in the driveway, the boiling stopped. I was deflated, released, by what I saw there beside the house.

My father and my brother were on their knees, surrounded by garbage. They were searching our trash, one bag at a time, for my keys, just in case they had accidentally been thrown away. I got out of the car and walked toward them, humbled and loved by their unsolicited act of service. I thanked them, and they both looked up with the same expression that conveyed, with no words, “No biggie. Just doing what we thought might help.”

As my eyes beheld those dear faces, my ears heard that sweet sound of ocean waves, crashing just beyond the dunes behind me. My nose caught a saline breeze. And I realized that I do not love the beach because of the sand, or the water, or the air. I love the beach because of my family.

Because my father, on his knees there before me in the filth, and my mother had decided decades ago to build a little beach house, one wall at a time, because they somehow knew their boys would love it there.

Because my brothers spent so many summers with me building sand castles and digging for clams and getting knocked over by waves. Because we grew up there, from chasing lizards to chasing girls. Because those boys did love it there, and without even trying, we loved each other there.

The beach is my favorite place because my family made it that way. While that same family, now multiplied in number, rallied around me in the search for the missing keys, I found them. They had accidentally been packed in a suitcase. Or maybe they had hidden there, because they wanted to stay a little longer.

Next time I walk on the concrete and wish it was sand, I’ll get the memory right. I used to equate images of the beach with erstwhile happiness, which is fine. Now I know that images of the beach mean a treasure chest of memories and new moments with my family, which means love.


Pomp and Circumstance May 9, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Family, Music.
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In a closet in our house hangs a funny square hat with a funny polyester gown, a strangely still pair in the midst of so much activity surrounding their imminent utility. Outside, the magnolias are finally blooming and the relative humidity inches ever higher, portending another steamy summer in the south. Springtime has yet to take her leave, but we know she will, just in time for a certain weekend at the end of May. Cue the pomp and circumstance. It’s graduation time.

Sarah Kate is 18 years old, our eldest daughter, the object of the impending festivities. As she struggles through her last papers and exams, she does so with a satisfying promise of finality, knowing these will be her last last papers and exams in high school. Nonetheless, she needs the grades as she’s leading a tight race for valedictorian. No rest for the weary, at least not yet.

Twenty three years ago, I was a senior in high school myself, pondering graduation and its manifold meanings. I had a soundtrack: a cassette tape of “Songs in the Attic” by Billy Joel. I got it by mail-order from the BMG Music Service in one of those “10 Cassettes for the Price of One” deals. I played it over and over again that Spring of 1989, thinking about the lyrics and their relevance to my evolving place in the world with a profundity that only a high school senior can muster.

My cassette tapes are long gone, most of them worn beyond usefulness, but just the other day I saw “Songs in the Attic” on CD in a bargain bin at a store. One listen, and oh, I’m that wide-eyed senior again! Here are a few words, then and now.

They say that these are not the best of times,

But they’re the only times I’ve ever known

And I believe there is a time for meditation

In cathedrals of our own

I discovered Charles Dickens in high school, my imagination lit with the opening words of “A Tale of Two Cities”: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn’t that true of the teenage years? Life is the see-saw that will never balance in the middle, forever swinging radically from one extreme to another. Like me, Sarah would testify that the best of times have outweighed the worst; we have been blessed. I still believe, though, that it’s that “time for meditation” that is so important. One cannot comprehend the 18 year old’s perspective on the world unless one is 18. I don’t think I can fully remember it; there was too much depth in that present reality. I think it must be captured, and that cannot happen without some time to pause in one’s own cathedral. I kept a journal in high school, to do just that. I typed it on an IBM PC, and stored it on a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk, since that computer didn’t even have a hard drive. Finally, my senior year, I printed the whole thing on a noisy dot matrix printer. It’s all gone now. The floppy failed, so the paper was all I had, and I don’t know what became of it. It would be an amusing read now, full of pretentious vocabulary and overblown sentiment. I would enjoy it, I think, and be embarrassed by it, I know, but it’s no great tragedy that it’s gone. It was catharsis at the time, so it served its purpose, and I think it was all very good writing practice for me. Granted, I’m still pretentious and overly sentimental, but I’d like to think I’m not quite as effusive as I was back then.

And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives

With our respective similarities,

It’s either sadness or euphoria

A ledge, indeed! We never moved when I was a kid. In fact, my folks still live in the same house in which I grew up. I had the room at the end of the hall upstairs. It had red shag carpet and a metal desk we obtained from an IBM surplus sale, where I did hours and hours of homework, even that senior year. It also held my prized possession, a Pioneer rack stereo system with a pair of 110-Watt speakers and a 5-disk CD changer that finally enabled me to cast those accursed cassette tapes aside. Since we never moved, the end of high school was probably the first major transition in my life. Now, here in Georgia, we’ve lived in the same house for over a dozen years, so Sarah has known similar stability. She, like me, stands upon a ledge. As I thought about the fates of my classmates, I liked Billy Joel’s polysyllabic wisdom about our “respective similarities”, the tenuous threads that ran through all of our stories. Sure, we had our cliques, our groups that grew into whatever label or stereotype they chose to define them. I knew it should be the other way around, but I had a cynical notion that there were few among us who really acted as individuals. We were not as different from one another as we though, I realized. Some peered over that ledge and felt the sadness associated with departure, with the closing of so rich a season. The same felt the euphoria of new opportunities, their first real independence, and a coming adventure. Others, I’m sure, flipped the emotions. High school had been euphoric, at times, but the future looked bleak. Regardless, I realize now how difficult it is to have any comprehension, as an 18-year-old, of what really lies ahead. And that’s great! What a joy to make your own way in the world, to test the faith that you hope will guide you, without the weight of preconceived notions.

So, before we end

And then begin

We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been

A few more hours to be complete

A few more nights in satin sheets

A few more times that I can say,

I’ve loved these days

I was a good kid in high school, and I did not drink any toasts or spend bon vivant nights on satin sheets. But I often thought myself older and more worldly than I was, so I pretended to identify with these lyrics. I would hear the lilting piano on my massive Pioneer speakers and nod, knowingly, picturing myself indulging in “things refined”. What a punk. I could, however, look back on my halcyon high school days and say with confidence that I loved them. I had the sorts of friends who would sit with me in the dark and listen to a Dire Straits album and ponder the meaning of life. I had a family who loved and supported me. I had summers at the beach, and a car with a sunroof. (Maybe I did indulge in things refined after all. I was still a punk, though.) And I had a girlfriend who would become my wife.

As a father who has fond memories of childhood, I want to engineer the same fond memories into my children’s lives. But I can’t. I can love and support, but I cannot get inside their heads and affect their sadnesses and euphorias. Thank goodness. What a responsibility that would be! All I can do, and all I hope I’ve done, is to be there, praying and encouraging and providing. Sarah’s off to college in August. It’s so soon! But, it’s time. It’s time for her to transition, to step into a great unknown and trust that her faith will guide her. I have every confidence that her future will be a success. However, that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. I’m thinking about what my life was like at her age, and what she must be thinking and feeling. And most of all I’m thinking about how I’m pretty sure she will find time in the next couple of weeks, before the funny square hat leaves the closet, to pause, and reflect, and declare, “I’ve loved these days.”

50 Reasons December 16, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Awana, Family.
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Last week at Awana, Rebekah frantically scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper, vigilant to keep it from her parents’ prying eyes. “Don’t look!” she kept reminding us, and I tried to recall which Awana assignment would require such secretive effort. Finally, she produced the finished product: “50 Reasons Why I Love You”, with the word love replaced by a heart. It looks like it was originally going to be 25 reasons why she hearts us, but at some point she got ambitious and changed it to 50. The list is a beautiful Christmas gift for Amy and me, containing some very perceptive and thoughtful insight about this sweet 10-year-old and our family. Here are a few of the 50 Reasons:

1. You’re Awesome

‘Nuff said. A nice, overarching complement. I would have been fine if that was the only one.

5. You take me to church
5. You take me to AWANA(s)  🙂

This is excellent for two reasons. First, Bek accidentally put two #5’s in, so it’s really 51 reasons she hearts us! Second, she made me laugh by sticking an “s” on the end of Awana, knowing it secretly bugs me when people say “Awanas”, since it’s an acronym with no “s”.

9. You let me choose for myself
27. You let me have my own world
28. You don’t force things on me.

Here’s where Bek started getting a little philosophical. She’s the third child, and I know from personal experience that third children get assimilated into a lot of their older siblings’ activities and expectations. With these reasons, Bek notes that we’ve somehow managed to let her forge some of her own identity. I didn’t really know we did it, but I’m glad she feels a bit empowered.  She deserves it.

24. You cuddle with me

Oh, this might be my favorite! I do love to snuggle with Bek. She calls these times our “cuddle sessions”, and I know their days are numbered, so I cherish each one.

35. You taught me my sight words

Here’s where Bek probably realized that any list of 50 items is long! So, she might have been stretching, but she does make me laugh. I think “laugh” might be a sight word!

38. You fight with mean teachers
39. You praise nice teachers

I love this recognition. Bek knows that we’ve got her back, and that her Mommy in particular will gladly take up her cause in the face of some school injustice. But she’s also learning a balance. Yes, there are times when we must fight for ourselves, but that can’t be our only mission. There’s also a place for praise.

41. You take pictures of me

This one really resonates with me as a youngest child myself. I like to joke that while my older brothers had all sorts of professional portraits with matching monogrammed suits and cute little hats, there is no photographic record of my childhood. Not true, of course, but I’m nonetheless determined to photograph my youngest child often. And apparently she notices.

46. You buy me sock-monkey notebooks

Okay, now she’s really stretching!

49. You thank me for helping in the smallest ways

She’s the smallest, so perhaps she doesn’t always feel like she makes the largest contributions, but I’m glad she knows that everything she offers, big or small, is appreciated and valued.

And finally,

50. You’re willing to do just about anything for me

My goodness, after reading a list like this, who wouldn’t be?

50 Years August 10, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Family, People.
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Sunday evening I had the distinct privilege of attending a party for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. They were married on July 21st at 7:00 in a small Church of the Brethren in Virginia back in 1961. Here’s the happy couple:


They were teenagers, 18 and 19 years old, with the sparkle of young love in their eyes and unsuspecting of the future ahead of them. They were two hours away from buying a farm, in keeping with their lineage and the typical expectations of the area, before someone else got a loan before them because he had a cosigner. They would have been a good farming couple, but God had different plans. Dad has always been good with his hands, with an aptitude for engineering and building stuff, so he landed an apprenticeship at General Electric. Then they really ventured out into the unknown when he got a job at IBM and they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I was born, and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in.

My brothers and I were called upon to give speeches at the party. Here’s mine:


Hi, my name is Mark.

Most of you don’t know me because, well, I’m the third child.

There is no photographic record of my childhood.

My birth was an inconvenience because I apparently interrupted one of my brothers’ little league games.

Steve used to call me “the tax deduction”.

Mine was a life of hand-me-downs and also-rans. Of patches sewn on top of patches on the knees of old blue jeans. Of used Nerf footballs that already had little chunks of foam torn out.

Yes, my brothers got all kinds of attention, what with Steve running into his brick walls and Eric choking on his chicken bones. Was I jealous? No, of course not. Well, I’ll admit I was insanely jealous of Steve’s authentic Batmobile, complete with Batman costume and cape.


 And I was a little jealous of the pictures. Steve and Eric, in their cute little monogrammed sweaters and caps, in a professional portrait studio. Me, naked in the back yard by the swing set.


 [I’m the one on the horse, with the curiously elliptical head.]

How is it possible, then, that I have grown up to become at least marginally well-adjusted? It’s safe to say that Mom and Dad had a lot to do with that. I suppose I’ve exaggerated a bit, and they did give me some attention during my childhood. In fact, as Sarah was putting together the slide show, I even noticed actual pictures of myself! One in particular made me smile.

It’s a picture of Steve about to shoot his beloved younger brothers.


 It was taken at an old Pony Express Station in Nebraska when I was 5 years old. We were passing through on a trip to California, in a mini-Midas RV with a big orange stripe on the outside, following our Triple-A TripTik. The Pony Express station wasn’t on our route, but I really wanted to go. And Mom and Dad said, “Sure”, and we left the TripTik route behind.

I had a great time at that Pony Express station, dreaming of cowboys and galloping horses on wide open plains. I bought a little wooden model of a fort, I think, and spent several quality days putting it together.

Here’s what this picture symbolizes for me. First, let’s not miss the point that our dear mother consented to a five-week trip across the country crammed into a mini-motor home with our whole rambunctious family of five! And then, seven years later, she did it again, and this time the majority of the occupants of the RV were teenage boys!

And let’s not forget that Dad saved up vacation for years on end so we could take those trips. And that he, from such humble beginnings, was able to establish such a wonderful career that afforded us so much.

They’ve both taught me so much about sacrifice and selflessness. About priorities. And about the kind of love that will say, even to an oft-forgotten third child, “Sure, let’s go to the Pony Express Station.” I make decisions now with my own children, and sometimes, when they’re good decisions, I stop and realize, “That’s exactly what Mom and Dad would have done with me.”

In reality, my childhood was grand. We had the run of the neighborhood, a fertile landscape for games of Cowboys and Indians or football on that knee-scraping cul de sac we simply called
“the circle”. We had adventures, like lowering each other into the storm drain to chase a wayward ball. We chopped wood and made forts, and rode our bikes down hills that looked impossibly steep to 8-year-old eyes.

And all through it, we had a Mom and Dad: to keep us in line when we needed it, to bandage the scrapes and pull out the ticks. To encourage the creativity and freedom, and to make sure there was always a safe refuge in that dear little house on Woodlea Drive.

Mom and Dad, you loved us like Christ first loved both of you. You taught us what a good marriage is all about, and what it means to be a good parent, and the beautiful flock of grandchildren here tonight is your legacy. Thank you for everything. God bless you, and happy anniversary!


I could have gone on and on about what great parents Mom and Dad were, and are, and about how many lives they’ve touched in their own simple way, but I didn’t need to. The room full of family and friends were a living testimony. Following our speeches Dad said a few words, though tears, and went back to his seat to join his beloved bride when applause turned into one of those spontaneous and completely sincere standing ovations that are so rare. Mom and Dad sat and held hands, and though she heard the applause she had not noticed the standing. Dad prompted her to turn around, and her look of appreciation and surprise is one I’ll long treasure.

Here’s that flock of grandchildren I mentioned, nine great kids who love their “Ge-Ge” and “G-Dad”. May we be so highly favored that, like my mom and dad, our lives and our marriages impact generations.


The Christmas Letter, Page 3 December 15, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family.

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On Monday nights, after we eat dinner and clean up Rebekah’s crumbs, we all head to Bible studies. Amy, Hannah, and Bek head out to Bible Study Fellowship, where they are undertaking an in-depth study of Isaiah. I’m wildly impressed by the insight they’re gaining and their vigor in tackling a difficult book. Meanwhile, Sarah and I head to our own basement where a dozen-or-so folks gather from church for High School Bible Study. We’re studying Psalms. It’s a wonderful time.

It was a goal of ours to finish at least one big room in the basement so we could host the group. We’ve only been finishing the basement for a decade, but apparently I needed this impetus to get me really cooking. Within a month or so, the remaining walls were framed, drywall was hung, mudded (not by me!), and painted, and carpet was placed. I’ve acquired new skills in the process along with a few new tools, including one of those cool Hilti guns that shoots nails into concrete. The comingled smells of sawdust and gunpowder? That’s manly stuff, I tell you. I’ve learned just how difficult it can be to cut a little opening for an outlet in just the right spot on a sheet of drywall, and how valuable a rental lift can be when you’re hanging drywall on the ceiling. And I’m still amazed it’s actually done. Well, mostly. One room left. Give me another decade or so.

Last Monday night was an interesting snapshot of Sarah. Ever studious and helpful, she had friends coming over for homework help in both AP Environmental Science and AP Calculus before and after Bible Study. Then while I was setting up the chairs in the basement, she called down, asking, “Can I bring five Bibles tonight?” How else would she be able to look up study notes, translate the words from the original Hebrew, place the relevant Psalm in its historical and chronological context, and read it in four different versions?

Wednesday nights mean Awana. Amy and I have officially announced that this will be our last year in charge of the program. It’s going strong, with hundreds of kids each week, and it’s still a blast, but we believe some fresh leadership could invigorate the program. Amy is remarkably good with the many details needed to make it run smoothly, and she will be difficult to replace, but we look forward to seeing who God calls for this amazing ministry.

Finally on Fridays, the week winds down with a deserved break. Sarah, who almost always deserves a break, is so disciplined she often dives into her weekend homework on Friday afternoons. The poor child has extraordinary amounts of homework. She’s taking all these AP classes, which are supposed to be college-level, and I think the teachers overshoot the mark quite a bit. Sarah’s hard work paid off earlier this year when she got her scores for her first four AP exams. Five is the best possible score, and she got a five on every single exam! That’s already about a semester of college she’s placed out of.

Mind you, we did have our share of big events this year too. One marathon trip took us from the Spanish moss of Savannah to the stingrays of Clearwater Beach, with a bunch of Colonial history in between. June brought Kids Camp and a delightful theme: Campalot! I produced a series of promotional videos starring the girls. Our friend Dan was Sir Galahad, accompanied by Sarah as Patsy, who pretended to be a horse but instead banged coconut halves together. Patsy tragically died in every episode. Oh, Rebekah died also, when she couldn’t answer a question about a swallow’s air speed velocity. Only Hannah survived as one of the Knights Who Say “Tea!”. 

 Later that month we took a day trip to Cloudland Canyon for a nice long hike. We seem to have raised “off the beaten path” children, even when all the posted signs say Never Ever Leave the Beaten Path. I don’t know where they get it. Anyway, we ventured off the path and through one lovely waterfall when the warnings took on new meaning. My right foot slid on a particular rock so slick I think BP placed it there, jammed in a crevice, and down I went. I happened to be holding Rebekah’s hand, so down she went, too. Did I mention we were barefoot? Oops. Bloodied Rebekah started crying, and I, the shamed father who had dragged her down, felt horrible. The rest of the kids turned into Rescue Heroes and launched into a complex exfiltration mission to get the injured Bek back up to the trail. Turns out I fractured the index and middle fingers of my right hand. After months of rehab the fingers are still crooked but mostly functional.

 Several of our other weekends have been occupied by the Geil Family World Tour of Colleges and Universities. Amy has been a fantastic tour director as we visit colleges that might be of interest to Sarah Kate. Hannah tags along and asks questions about the music departments. Rebekah discovered they let you eat in the dining hall, and she’s all about that. So far Sarah’s seen 11 schools and somewhere around 9 of them are currently her favorite.

 So the embers of routine, and the occasional flame of event, keep us warm through a frosty winter. Through all that living we tend to learn something new about each other every day. I have pictures of all my girls in my head, and these little bits of life keep filling in the detail on those pictures. I’m so grateful for Amy’s quiet faith as it undergirds the constant thoughts that dance in her eyes. Sarah doesn’t realize how beautiful she is, and that makes her more beautiful. Hannah is life embodied, but her zeal does not compromise her desire to do what is right. And Rebekah is so wonderfully even-keeled we sometimes don’t know she has a big solo in some performance until we’re sitting in the audience watching.

 This Christmas, when I see the presents under the first real Christmas tree we’ve had in a decade, I smile about the recipients of those gifts and I marvel at what a gift each of them is to me. Like the star above the manger, they point me to Christ. And we, all together, tarry and play and live, basking in the abundant love that came to Earth on Christmas.

 May God bless you this Christmas,

 The Geil family

The Christmas Letter, Page 2 December 15, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family.

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Actually, our weekly routines say a lot about what we’ve all been up to this year. Weekday mornings almost always involve some kid having to go to school early for something. The girls are at three different schools with three different start times, so that complicates things. Rebekah, age 9, 4th grade, is in her school chorus and this year made the school drum team. They both practice before school. Hannah, age 13, 8th grade, is also part of chorus and jazz band and student council and FCA, which also all meet before school. Sarah, age 16, 11th grade, leads her school’s FCA, so she has the regular weekly morning meeting plus a separate planning meeting. She also meets with the Magnet Advisory Board and frequents her teachers’ offices early for study sessions.

 The morning routine was helped mightily in March when Sarah turned 16 and got her Driver’s License! She was horribly nervous about the road test, and I was horribly nervous too, standing there in a cloud of second-hand smoke at the DMV, watching her parallel park. How a kid is supposed to avoid hitting cones she cannot even see is beyond me, but, oh, the anguish as one cone leaned, and leaned some more, and finally tipped over. Fortunately, Sarah did splendidly on the rest of the test and is now an officially licensed driver! She’s a very cautious, deliberate, and slow driver, and we like it that way! One day soon we’re going to let her venture beyond the driveway. (Just kidding.)

Weekday evening often find us heading in multiple directions. Hannah and Rebekah have Girl Scouts every couple of weeks. Hannah’s been at it so long she’s now considering going for the GS equivalent to Eagle Scout. Amy and our neighbor Kim lead Bek’s troop. Now, I’m not a girl scout or anything, but it sure seems like they’re the coolest leaders ever. The girls are constantly doing wild stuff, like smearing theater paint on each other’s faces or learning to ice skate or jumping in the pool with their clothes on. The girls also have piano lessons once a week with Mr. Jimmy. Hannah is working on a long piece by Chopin, and she’s mastering the surprisingly difficult art of playing and singing at the same time. Her solos in church are a wonderful ministry. I love to hear their practicing fill our house with music, and Hannah enjoys hearing Bek learn some of the songs she played years ago.

Rebekah manages fairly well as the third child. In fact, she’s really easygoing. We were hanging ornaments on the tree, and her two older sisters pointed out their “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments and photos. Realizing there was none for her (bad parents!), Rebekah just shrugged it off, saying, “I guess those things weren’t in style when I was a baby.”

During the season the younger girls also have soccer practice. I coached both their teams and Hannah’s once again wound up in the championship game. She’s a rock-solid defender. We love our little neighborhood league. It’s not the most competitive, but that’s sometimes a good thing. I also get to play with the grown-ups and come away with different random musculoskeletal injuries each week. Turns out I’m getting old.

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The Christmas Letter, Page 1 December 15, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family.

We have a tradition in our family in which I write a really long letter every Christmas. I suppose it’s not too unique, but our letter is perhaps unusual for its astonishing lack of brevity. This year’s edition weighs in at almost 2,300 words. People have gone missing for days after they start reading it. In fact, this introduction to the Christmas letter is even the longest introduction ever. I’m not sure how long a single post can be, so here’s the letter, one page at a time.

Merry Christmas, 2010! Glad tidings of comfort and joy.

I raked a big pile of leaves in the back yard on a recent Saturday afternoon. By “raked”, I mean “got a long extension cord and fired up the leaf blower”. It was one of those resplendent Autumn days in Atlanta, where you get falling leaves in 70 degree weather. Rebekah called a couple of friends and they took turns jumping in the leaf pile, then raking it back up for the next jumper. After some time, Hannah dashed through with her own posse of friends. They were in the middle of a church food drive competition, canvassing our neighborhood at a breakneck pace. While Amy gathered contributions from the pantry they stopped long enough to get in the leaf pile and smile for a picture before they were off again. Meanwhile, Sarah was at a park just down the road, marching around with a sheet cake and shouting “Free cake!” as part of an effort to convert $10 into $100 for a charity. They managed $210.

I pitched in during an effort to stack the leaf pile taller than Rebekah, and as I turned over the leaves it struck me that the scene was a pretty good glimpse of life in the Geil family these days. There’s usually a lot of activity, but not quite too much. There’s Rebekah, with a jolly smile, enjoying childhood. There’s Hannah, running, friends in tow. There’s Sarah, using her profound gifts to change the world. There are Amy and me, sometimes bemused bystanders, sometimes facilitators. And always, there’s abundant love.

As I reflect on the 2010 that was, I’m not really struck by the big events that happened or the grand places we visited, or even the significant life changes that occurred. It’s the small stuff that makes me smile, the little bits of routine or normalcy that, like embers, provide us a steady glow and warmth.

I believe my favorite time of the week is one of those routine times, when we’re gathered around our rickety antique table for dinner. We share stories about the day and talk about Amy’s delicious cooking. Rebekah makes more crumbs and mess than a baby in a high chair, and so we tease her and she mocks offense. Sarah cuts all her food in half. No one knows why. If we’re passing the mashed potatoes for a second helping, Sarah will take half a mashed potatoes. You can’t even eat “half a mashed potatoes”, but she somehow manages. And Hannah provides play-by-play of a certain event as only she can. Something might have happened during the day, like, say, there was a math test at school. Most people would share that news by saying, “There was a math test at school.” Not Hannah. Hannah starts her stories thusly: “Okay. Well. So,” and then launches into an epic fable of inimitable detail. By the end we know the name of every kid in the class, what they all thought about the test, and somehow we learn how this one kid has a sister who goes to Sarah’s school and where they went on vacation last year. Inevitably, though, we all laugh during dinner. Usually enough to make Rebekah choke. Sweet Rebekah. She’s even taken on a new nickname this year. We used to call her “Chicken”, since she had scrawny chicken legs when she was born. That wasn’t entirely flattering, so this year Hannah decided to call her Nugget. See, she’s really cute and little, more like a chicken nugget than a chicken. Nugget got abbreviated to Nuggie along the way, and lately she’s just been “The Nug”.   

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How I Broke My Finger July 6, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family, Travel.

I had a small orange sticker in the center of my forehead with a single word: “awesome”. On the way to Cloudland Canyon, we found a Mad Libs-like game that came with a sticker sheet of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. We had passed the 2-hour drive labeling things. Hannah’s ear lobe got a sticker that said, well:

 My ball cap got a sticker that said, “cap”. And naturally, I chose for myself the sticker that said “awesome”.

We arrived in good order, visited a lovely overlook, and tossed a Frisbee while we waited for one more family to arrive. Soon all were present and accounted for: 4 grown-ups, 4 girls, and 3 boys. It’s unusual for our outings to feature so many of my gender, so I looked forward to a lively hike. 

The trailheads at Cloudland are all on the rim, so the way in is downhill and easy. Sturdy steps and wide paths speak to a well-maintained park. When we reached the first fork we noticed our energetic passel of young “leaders” had ventured off on the wrong path. After redirecting the wayward youths we completed the short trek to the first waterfall.

Our kids have this habit of ignoring the warning signs at state (and national) parks and leaving the marked trails for a little adventure. The base of the first waterfall didn’t really have a marked trail, so they scattered right away with nary a glance over the shoulder. The temptation here was to swim in the pool under the falls, despite the numerous large signs stating NO SWIMMING. We might have let them wade in a little, but there was another family there and we wanted to set a good example and look like responsible parents. So, we perched on some boulders and ate lunch while watching the fish swim in the pool instead of us.

The next waterfall landed on a rock base instead of a pool, and there weren’t really any nearby signs cautioning us to stay on the trail, and we were the only group in sight, so, well, you get the idea. There seemed to be two approaches to the falls, and as the boys headed down and around the rocky path, I scouted a much more direct route down a muddy hill. Since we didn’t care to finish the day with wet shoes and socks, we doffed our footwear and the girls and I began our descent, only slightly motivated by the chance to beat the boys to the falls.

Beat the boys we did, and soon I was the first to stand under the falls. The water was pleasantly cool but certainly powerful.

The falls pelted us as we posed for pictures and then crossed to the other side, where the canyon dug deep under a rock face. The boys joined the wet photo op while Rebekah and I watched.

Bek, our 9 year old, was my constant hiking companion, holding my hand tightly on the rugged rocks. The rocks were really quite interesting, hewn in sharp geometric patterns, almost like a haphazardly tiled mosaic. That mosaic would soon be my undoing.

Bek and I decided to explore the open-air cavern a bit, navigating the rocks fairly nimbly in our bare feet. The footing had been sure, enough to make me a bit complacent, apparently, until I stepped on a wet, sloping rock that was so slick it could have been placed there by BP. My foot slid down the face of the rock until my toes jammed into a waiting crevice, and down I went.

A fall  on a rock would not be too memorable were it not for the fact that I was still holding Rebekah’s hand as I fell. I would like to say I was alert enough to release her little fingers on the way down and avoid her completely. Instead, I must hang my head in shame and report that, indeed, I pulled my daughter down with me! I can’t recall the mechanics of the fall, but the aftermath is vivid. Rebekah somehow fell across an adjacent rock, landing on her knee and thigh. We were somehow still holding hands when she started wailing, saw the blood on her knee, and amped up the screams even more as my guilt descended.

I managed to pull Rebekah over onto my lap as my hand and knee throbbed. I glanced at my five bloodied toes and then saw Bek’s bloody knee quivering. Really, the whole leg was just shaking. It took some time and TLC, but the tremors stopped along with the sobs, and we realized we had still had to find our way out of there.

I did not relish the idea of climbing back up a muddy hill, especially with all the open wounds, so we decided to hike back to the trail using the boys’ route. The going was slow and painful, but Bek was a trooper and we managed.

The boys had ascended another small waterfall to get to the big one, and it became a great challenge to figure out how to get Bek down this 5 foot drop. The hike then turned into a rather exciting rescue mission for all the kids. Two tried out possible routes over the ledge. Two stayed with us, one just ahead and one trailing behind, offering encouragement. After much pondering, we figured out a way to get me down the falls, then move Bek to a little landing from which I could carry her down the rest of the way.

The plan worked, and I think we even washed a lot of the blood off along the way. With our rescue mission accomplished, we snapped some “war wound” photos:



… used up all the Band Aids we’d carried in with us, and finished the hike. Ironically, it was my only non-bleeding injury that hurt the most. I guess I had tried to break the fall with my one available hand, and the first two fingers promptly swelled up like sausages.

Sausage number one looked awfully crooked, so after we got home and grabbed a bite to eat I went to an urgent care place. Turns out the index finger is fractured right at one of the joints. It should heal fine, but I’ll know for sure on Friday. Of course, the splint has been a nuisance, and there’s all kinds of pain shooting through the finger even as I type this, and I have a renewed appreciation of all the things I use my right hand for. More importantly, though, Rebekah is healing up quite well and quite quickly.

Time for the moral of the story, if you’ll indulge me. Despite the stumble, I was really struck by the canyon‘s beauty. It felt like more than a few of the ferns and wildflowers and shafts of sunlight were placed by God in just the right spot for me to enjoy that day. After the fall on the falls, I was doubly grateful that I can call this God my Father, and that He’s infinitely more dependable than me. Here’s what’s funny. Even after standing under a torrential waterfall, after failing to negotiate the rocks, after unwittingly inflicting harm on my dear child, one of the kids noticed that I still had that funny little “awesome” sticker on my forehead! And there, in a place that really did inspire awe in me, created by a Father with the strongest of arms who faithfully holds my hand and guides my way, I chuckled. No, I’m not awesome. Far from it, in fact. But God knows that, and He loves me anyway.

Mothers and Sisters May 7, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Family, Uncategorized.
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Every day I wake in a foreign land. Foreign, not by geography, nor by citizenship, but by something far more fundamental: gender.

I grew up in a home of rambunctious boys. We wore the knees out of our blue jeans, my brothers and I. We got the house awfully dirty, I’m sure, though I didn’t notice at the time. We hit each other a lot, because that’s what boys do. Our dogs used to wrestle, biting at one another and rolling around the yard. I remember being alarmed, thinking they were fighting. “No, that’s how they play,” I was told. Now I realize, that’s how boys play too.

My dear mother – and here permit me to add a hearty Southern “Bless her heart” – was the sole female in our house, and she handled her lot magnificently.

Today, though, Mother’s Day has got me thinking about daughters.

I now have much in common with my mother, being the lone representative of my gender in a family of five. In the beginning, I was completely clueless about this mysterious female gender. My dear wife – bless her heart – has handled her own lot magnificently. She helped me understand that females are wired quite differently than males. She taught me volumes about communication, and expectations, and gift-giving, and sacrifice. And then we had these three daughters. And so my education continued.

They’ve taught me much, to be sure, but they still baffle me sometimes. On second thought, maybe “baffle” is too strong a word. There are things about them I don’t understand, but I’m so accustomed to living in this foreign land that I shrug them off and keep on about my business. That’s where Mommy comes in.

There are conversations in our home between sister and sister, between mother and daughter. Sometimes there are lots of words, and sometimes words aren’t even necessary, because there is some strange female understanding at work. “How was your day” elicits an entirely different response when Amy asks than when I ask. That’s fine with me, but it makes me so grateful for Amy. On this Mother’s Day, I’m so glad all these strange females have someone of their own kind to talk to!

I read some lines of poetry today by Christina Rossetti, and they made me realize something. Part of Amy’s role in our home is to teach the girls the value of a confidant, to model for them that unique and everlasting place each of them can have in the others’ lives. She’s teaching them the value of sisterhood.

I love my brothers, and I completely understand our relationships. I will never pretend to understand what sisters can mean to each other, but I see it happening in our home, and I am so glad. Thanks in no small part to their wonderful mother, I think our daughters will be able to live out Rossetti’s words for the rest of their lives:

Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
‘For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.’

Happy Easter April 4, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Church, Family, Music.
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A stirring reminder that we cannot celebrate the resurrection without understanding the sacrifice. This is our 12-year-old singing in church today. We love this kid.