5 Lollipop Moments

A few years ago, I stumbled across a 6 minute TED Talk by Canadian leadership expert Drew Dudley. If you find yourself with a spare 6 minutes, I encourage you to watch it. In it, Drew talks about the time a young lady came up to him on graduation day at the college where he works.

She tells Drew that 4 years before, she had spent the night in a hotel room with her parents, nervous about her first day at college. So nervous, in fact, that she had made the decision that college wasn’t for her and she needed to go home. She told her parents how she felt, and her parents told her that how she felt was completely okay. They convinced her to go the next day for registration, and if she still felt nervous and unsure that they could leave and come home. 

On that day, the young lady explained to Drew, she still felt nervous and overwhelmed standing in the registration line. She was just about to tell her parents that she was done with it, and ready to go home, when Drew emerged from the building with a box of lollipops, that he was joyfully sharing with everyone in the line. 

Shen he got to the nervous young lady, he looked at her for a moment and then turned to the young man standing behind her in line with his parents and held out a lollipop. “Dude,” he said, “if you don’t give this beautiful girl this lollipop you will regret it for the rest of your life.” The young man, horrified with embarrassment, meekly offered the lollipop to the young lady. Drew turned to her parents. “Would you look at that. Her first day at college and she is already taking candy from strangers.” Everyone laughed.

The young lady told Drew 4 years later that it was corny and silly, but the laughing broke the tension. She suddenly felt comfortable and knew she was doing the right thing. She decided to stay and register. Four years later she was graduating. And oh by the way, she told Drew, she and the boy had dated all 4 years of college. Two years later, Drew said, he got an invitation to their wedding.

Drew said that he searched and searched his memories for that day, and that moment. And it could not for his life recall it. For him, it had been another registration. And he had given lollipops out the way he always had. For him it was just what he did. For her it was everything, and changed the trajectory of her life. 

Drew challenged the audience to think about lollipop moments - those we experience and those we give. The small moments that make all the difference to us (or someone else) and yet to the other person are so small as to be forgettable. 

We can never underestimate the power that small moments have in our lives, and in our relationship. The text or call that comes at just the right time. The small gift of time or humanity or compassion that changes someone’s experience of the world. These moments happen all the time. We need only stop for a bit and notice. Feel them. Give them the power.

Forever lives in small moments.

For this week’s 5 Things, I shared 5 Lollipop Moments - 5 times in my life where someone did something small that changed my life for the better. The people who gave me these moments may truly have no idea what they did. Or even remember that they did it. But I remember every single one of these moments like they were yesterday. And my life is better because of them. In some cases, I am here because of them.

These moments are in no particular order. One is not more significant than the other. They were all important. All moments are.

Forever lives in moments.

#1 - Ted takes some time.

Many of you know that Barbara and I started dating as seniors in high school and then went to college together, where we continued dating. What you may not know is that we had two serious breakups. The first lasted about 6 months. It was a rough time and I did not take it well. 

My daily routine during that time became fairly predictable. I would wake up late - around noon - come downstairs (I lived in a frat house) in the t-shirt and boxers I slept in, make ramen noodles and then wrap myself in a blanket, lay on the couch in front of the frat house TV and watch Matlock reruns. They aired all afternoon, every day. Thanks TBS. Matlock. Every day. I may be the only person alive that has seen every episode of Matlock at least twice. After Matlock, I would start drinking. Sometimes during Matlock. I would then go upstairs, and drink until I went to sleep. The next day I did it again. No classes. No social life. Just Matlock and whatever was the cheapest beer available.

After a few weeks of this, a couple of my fraternity brothers staged an intervention. You have to go do something they said. It doesn’t have to be class. But at least take a shower. Do some laundry. There is a party at the Chi Phi house tonight. Maybe go to that. At least interact with people. It is so weird for you to be like this. 

So I went to that party. I had very low expectations. I wasn’t really in a party mood. I chatted with some people. I listened to some music, and I was about to leave when I saw Ted. 

Ted was a little bit older than me, and when I had gotten to campus people had told me I looked like a junior version of him. Mainly because we both wore glasses and ball caps. Ted had been the President of the Interfraternity Council before I held that same job and he and I had been instant friends. We had talked before, but never really *talked.* And I hadn’t really talked to anyone about Barb or the breakup or the guilt I felt for some of the ways I had treated her.

That night, Ted listened. We went to a room upstairs away from the party and he just... let me talk. He asked questions and paid attention. He didn’t try to solve my problems and he didn’t judge me for mistakes. He just said “tell me more about that” and “that’s sounds hard.” It was the first time I had really had a conversation like that. And it helped me feel better. 

And I took a shower. I went to a few more classes. I watched a little bit less Matlock. Although not THAT much less - Andy Griffith is an American treasure. 

All because Ted took some time. 

PS. To this day Ted is one of a handful of people from college that I stay in regular contact with and he is just as amazing now as he was then and I love him very much. Thanks Tedward.

#2 - Kelly lends a hand.

On May 31, 2013 I walked into the McKimmon Center at North Carolina State University. It was the location of that year’s North Carolina Parent Teacher Association annual state convention. I had no idea what to expect.

I had been the PTA Council President for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools for about 2 weeks. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had gotten myself into. The outgoing Council President suggested that I attend the convention. “There are some great presentations and classes,” she assured me. “I think it will help you better think about what you want to do in this job.”

And so I went, completely unsure of what I was doing. Walking in to the conference left me feeling even more unsure. Everyone seemed to know each other. I scanned in vain for a familiar face. Here I was, this former soldier suddenly adrift in what seemed like an ocean of moms. 

I tried to give myself a pep talk. “C’mon, Jeff,” I said, “You survived Iraq and Afghanistan. You can survive the North Carolina PTA. You got this.” It didn’t really help. I was just kind of standing there. Confused.

“Hey, welcome. Can I help you get settled?” I turned and saw this energetic woman standing before me. She was literally bubbling with enthusiasm, competence, and kindness. I felt immediately comforted.

“Oh God yes,” I said. She laughed. “First convention, huh?” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“Well, come on, let’s get you registered and let me orient you a little bit.”

She spent the next few minutes helping me get checked in and giving me a run down of what would happen when. She was knowledgeable, friendly and genuine. I felt immediately more confident and ready. Later that morning I realized in all the excitement and nerves I hadn’t thanked her. I hadn’t even looked at her name tag. I didn’t know who she was.

Later in the day at one of the sessions I found out. It was Kelly Langston. The (at the time) President-elect of the North Carolina PTA. 

We tend to think that leadership is something that we do. It is our role, our job. It is a calling, a sacred trust, something that only some people do, and even fewer do well. And while it is all those things, true leadership is something deeper. It is who we are. It is how we navigate the world and interact with those around us.

Kelly didn’t stop to help me because it was her job as a senior leader of the NCPTA. She did it because helping others is part of her DNA. It is who she is.

Who you are is who you will be as a leader. If leadership is something you “do” then you will consistently fail to get the results you want or need, or that the people you lead want or need. Genuine leadership starts by being genuine – authentically who you are. Your influence is as expansive as your network. You are constantly leading because you are constantly being you.

I challenge you to embrace the best of who you are, to amplify the amazing things that you give to others already. Do not see leadership as a job for a few people, understand that it is who you are. Don’t shy away from that challenge. Embrace the possibilities that can create for you and the things you care about.

A 5 minute conversation 7 years ago changed the trajectory of my relationship with the NCPTA. It made me a better leader. And while it was impactful for me, I would be shocked if Kelly even remembers it. Because she wasn’t doing it to “be” a leader.

She was just being herself.

And that is a lollipop moment.

#3 - Catching a wild goose.

4 years ago this week, I went to the Wild Goose Festival - an eclectic progressive Christian gathering in western NC with my friend Micah. 

It was not completely sure about doing it. It was only a couple of months after my suicide attempt, and it was the first aggressively public thing I had done since then. I wasn’t sure about being around people. I still felt completely fragile. 

I had been to Wild Goose once before, a few years before during only the second year of the festival’s existence. That Wild Goose had happened at Shakori Hills and was very small. It had kind of a backyard gathering vibe. In the years since the festival had grown exponentially. It had moved to western NC, where it had a more permanent home. There were vendors galore, speakers and musicians from around the country, and lodgings ranging from parking lot tents to full on glamping tents with AC and in town AirBnBs. 

Right up until I got in the car with Micah I was thinking about cancelling the whole thing. But something kept telling me I had to go. 

We arrived on site and got the tent set up. Micah, who had been to Wild Goose several times and had many friends that were coming set off to go and connect with folks. I just kind of wandered for a while, taking in the festival grounds and wondering what would happen that week. 

Many religious organizations - from denominations to advocacy groups to nonprofits - come to the festival. They were scattered in open tents all around. I saw the tent for the United Church of Christ (the national denomination that our church is part of) and went over to see what was up. 

That’s when I met Chris Davies.

Chris was the national rep staffing the UCC tent at Wild Goose. Chris IS many things. She is a national staff member. She is a pastor, speaker, writer, artist, farmer, advocate, feminist, femme, queer, badass. She is one of the most throughly 360 degree beautiful people I have ever met. She radiates kindness and generosity and exuberant joy. And it is the kind of joy that comes from somewhere deep inside. The kind of joy that has looked at the terrible things that the world is capable of and said “you know what, fuck it. I am gonna find good anyway.” It is genuine. She is genuine.

Over the next few days I found myself spending most of my days (and even my nights) at the UCC tent. One of the amazing things about that was that Chris was so well known and so beloved that people just wandered over to talk to her. I got to have a wonderful conversation about race and racism in the progressive church with Lisa Sharon Harper. I spent hours talking to Reverend Gwen Fry, who had been removed from her pulpit in Arkansas when she had come out as a trans woman just a few years before. And Chris and I talked about everything from queer theology to art to beer.

Through it all, I began to feel a little less adrift. I began to see that despite what had happened a few weeks before that I still had value. I could still engage the world. That despite my brokenness, I might still have a path to connection and meaning.

Chris was *literally* just doing her job that week. She handed out stickers and represented the United Church of Christ.

And.

She showed me that a path to healing was possible. That my attempt to kill myself hadn’t killed the light inside me. And that I could shine again. That joy was a thing that I could have too.

To this day I am grateful to Chris, and I am happy to say that she has become a friend, and someone who I still ask for advice and I still look to for inspiration. 

All because she was there, and she was.... Chris. 

And that week remains one of my all time favorite lollipops.

#4 - Sam and Cicy save the day.

My suicide attempt in 2016 was the most impactful of the times I felt suicidal. It certainly wasn’t the first time. I had another serious depression in late 2008 / early 2009 as well. In fact, at one point it was so bad that I drove to the VA and went to the ER to get an emergency psych consult. And Lizzie (who was 4 at the time) was with me. The doctors wanted me to go to the 9th floor. I took meds and made a promise to come to therapy instead because I didn’t want to not be there for Elizabeth.

It was a hard time. I hadn’t yet starting receiving *any* treatment for my PTSD, depression, brain injury, or addictions. I was a mess. I had horrific nightmares every night, constant flashbacks, and was basically a walking pathology. I needed help. And I was just starting to realize that.

Mental illness has lots of pernicious effects. For me, it has the effect of taking my personality away. You might not know it, but I am by nature a pretty gregarious person. I like to laugh, and make jokes. I like talking and meeting new people. I am caring, and emotional. 

And when I am really struggling with my mental illness, I am exactly none of those things. I am quiet and withdrawn. I ignore and avoid people. I can be a real asshole. I say hurtful things. Sometimes I will say things that I know will hurt someone, and I will know they aren’t true, and I know that I shouldn’t say them, and I will do it anyway. Especially when I drink. Then I am a different kind of asshole. And in 2008/09 I drank a LOT. And I said hurtful, stupid, dumb shit a lot too. Mainly to myself. Also to other people.

I was, as a result, pretty lonely. I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t go out much, and when I did it was just to find a fight. I didn’t love myself, so I went around constantly trying to prove to others how unlovable I was.

I tell you all this so you know the context for my birthday in May of 2009. I was in a terrible place. May is not a good month for me, even now when I am much much healthier. There are a lot of memories, and Memorial Day, and it all gets capped off with a birthday. It never feels celebratory. More like the finish line of a tough month.

So my birthday in 2009 was exceptionally hard. And I was really lonely. And struggling. And wondering if anyone cared. This was before Facebook was really a widely used thing, and I remember that on that day there weren’t any cards. There weren’t any texts. It was all confirmation to me that my life hadn’t really been about much. 

And then the phone rang.

And it was my friends Sam and Cicy from college. They were having dinner together in Atlanta and had talked about the fact that it was my birthday and decided to call me. Not text. Not send a card. No status update. An honest to goodness call to talk to me.

We spent 15 minutes or so talking and catching up. It was all very light and friendly. Sam isn’t the overly emotional type. And that really wasn’t what I needed then anyway. I just needed confirmation that I was still alive, that I was still important to someone.

Sam and Cicy did that. And in many ways it helped save my life. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. For them it was a 15 minute phone call to a wiseass from college. To me it was a lifeline.

Small things matter. Small moments are the biggest moments. 

Sometimes picking up the phone and calling someone is a lollipop moment. For the last couple of years, every week I call or text someone I haven’t talked to in a while. I tell them that I love them. I tell them that they matter to me. I remind them that I am here and I care about them. Many of you who are reading this have gotten one of those calls or texts. 

And it is because of Sam and Cicy and a simple call on my birthday in 2009. 

#5 - Pete and Amy make court almost fun.

This past February, our family had to go to a probate court hearing in South Carolina. It was pretty awful all things considered. A really hard day, with lots of complicated things going on emotionally and even just physically - it’s not easy to coordinate large scale movements with a family as big as ours. You can read all about it here.

The one thing that helped keep us sane was the homemade gift basket we got from our friends Pete and Amy before we hit the road. We left town after church, and that Sunday Pete and Amy brought us a whole bunch of road snacks, some Paw Patrol toys, and an activity bag for Justin that included a homemade coloring book lovingly created by their son Frankie.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift. And useful too. Justin and I ended up spending almost the entire next day in a courthouse waiting room, with no devices. Had we not had the toys and activities that our friends packed it would have been.... challenging.

As with so many lollipop moments what made it special is that it wasn’t a big thing. It was just Pete and Amy being Pete and Amy. They are two of the very best friends we have made in Chapel Hill. Barb has friends here. I have friends here. We don’t have a lot of couple friends. Pete and Amy are at the top of that list.

One of the things that has been really hard about “corona time” has been not seeing our friends. Today is day 117 since our family first went on lockdown. And for nearly 4 months we haven’t been to school or church or been able to hang out with people. There have been a few driveway visits, and some drive BY visits, but nothing like before. We saw Pete and Amy literally every week. I saw my friends at church (Anitra and Ian and Cameron and MEH and Kati) *multiple* times a week. Sometimes multiple times a day. It’s been weeks since I saw them.

And it fucking sucks. And I miss my friends. And I hope that the distance doesn’t make them feel like we love them less, or appreciate them less. 

This is a hard time. And it is okay to say that. And it is important to remember the lollipop moments that came before and the lollipop moments that can STILL happen.

Amy and Pete made a really bad day suck substantially less. We all have people in our lives that can make even THIS time suck less.

As this series of 5 Things comes to an end, I encourage you to think about all the ways that people help make this time better for you. Reach out to them. TELL THEM. Say thank you, I appreciate you. My world is better because you are in it. 

And find ways to let YOUR light shine. Be you. Be your best you. 

You never know. A small moment that you don’t even remember can change someone’s life. Embrace that.

Enjoy a lollipop or two. 

For ever lives in small moments.

May it ever be so.