Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Voices Around Us

We hear many voices in our daily lives. Hopefully, most of the voices we hear are positive, affirming, encouraging, and loving and the voices that are negative, critical, and life draining are few and far between. Unfortunately for some people this may be reversed. Sadly, the critical and negative voices can seem like a shout while the more positive voices often seem like a whisper. The voice of God and the voice of love are gentle sounds. Most of the time we may not even hear them because the negative and critical voices can seem so loud that they drown out everything else. This is why it is important to be centered and awake so that the ear of our heart can hear and listen to the gentle voices that remind us that we are loved and that we are good and that we are appreciated. Turn away from the critical and negative voices in your life. Turn your ear and your heart to the voices of those who love you and who build up your life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Elf On The Shelf

My wife and I have attended many office Christmas parties over the years. One of her previous employers always had a very nice, dress up affair at one of the better hotels in town. It would start with an open bar, followed by a sit down dinner and dancing. My wife was often the life of the party. One year the open bar lasted too long and she had one too many glasses of wine. We were seated at our table waiting to be served dinner. I wasn't paying attention to her because I was conversing with the person on my left. Denise leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Mike, this is the worst soup I have ever had!" I looked her in the eye and said, "Denise, you're eating the salad dressing!" It was oil and vinegar which can be great on salad but it makes a terrible soup. Our entire table almost fell out of their chairs laughing.

Once again my wife and I have an “Elf on the Shelf” in our home. This is a tradition that we started with our granddaughter last Christmas season. The belief is that the elf has been sent from the North Pole. You can talk to the elf but not touch it. The really fun part is moving the elf around your home when your child or grandchild is not around. This past weekend the elf appeared in my home while my granddaughter was here to spend the night. Before we went to bed she made a small bed for the elf and left it some food. When we went to bed the elf was sitting on a shelf. The next morning, prior to actual daylight, I was awakened by Chloe who immediately said, “Paw Paw, let’s go downstairs and see if the elf is in his bed”. I suggested staying in our bed a little longer but there was going to be none of that. Of course, every time my granddaughter wakes me up at the crack of dawn my wife is hugging the sheets and playing possum. When we finally got downstairs, the elf was sitting on his bed reading a small book. Chloe was freaking out. This is a fun tradition that I highly recommend if you have children in your family. As a sometimes jaded adult it’s great to observe a child who still believes in magic.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Blur Of The Holidaze

This is the time of year that often becomes a blur. Once Thanksgiving is over life becomes very hectic and often very stressful for many people. On the way to work this morning my wife and I were discussing how our personal family Christmas is already almost out of control. We’ve got too many decorations and we’ve already spent too much money. If you’re not careful Christmas becomes a job or a project instead of a time when you simply enjoy the holiday spirit. Too much is, well, too much. If Christmas is running you ragged and empting your bank account, you’re over doing it. Slow down, breathe, and remind yourself that the value of Christmas is not determined by the quantity of things you do. Having said this, my home looks beautiful. My wife is a female version of Clark Griswold although I am more like Clark's wife who finally said to their daughter, "It's Christmas, Audrey, we're all miserable. My wife puts a lot of effort into making everything beautiful. Christmas preparations at my house have gone fairly well with the exception of an outdoor mechanical Santa and a snowman. In spite of wires and rocks to hold them down, they keep flying off the porch whenever the wind blows. I’m pretty sure they will be going back to the Hobby Lobby sometime this week. Let me close this Christmas rant with one of my favorite Christmas stories about my granddaughter. When she was three or four years old she grabbed one of the Three Wise Men from my Nativity set, looked at me and asked, “Paw Paw, is this the Burger King”? How could that not make you smile?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Breaking Bread

One of the simple joys of my life is going home at the end of the work day, preparing a simple meal, sitting with my wife, eating dinner, and watching the evening news on television. In 37+ years of marriage I estimate that my wife and I have shared approximately 13,500 evening meals in our life together. This doesn’t count all the workday mornings where we each sit in our chairs with our coffee and toast. During these meals together we talk about our family, children, friends, work, world events, and many other things. Sharing a meal together is really not about the food. I know this is true because when our children were still young and living with us we had entire meals that were cooked in a Fry Daddy. Trust me, those meals weren't worth talking about. Whether a meal is shared with family or close friends, it's not usually about the food. It's about being present to one another.

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. I’ll be honest. I’m really not all that crazy about turkey and dressing. I do, however, like the fact that there is a traditional meal associated with this holiday. More importantly for me is the idea behind the holiday. Two important values in my life are gratefulness and being thankful. My life is not perfect but I have been very blessed in my life. Some of this is on a material level. Although I am not rich, I am a long way from poor. The greatest riches in my life, however, have nothing to do with wealth or possessions. I am blessed by having people in my life who love me and care about me. These people are not limited to family. My personal family and my extended family are all great even though they can sometimes make me crazy. In addition to family, though, I am also blessed with good friends, some of whom have been part of my life for most of my life. Everyday life is often a challenge and I occasionally get down in the dumps over all the stupid or mundane activities I must perform. Every day is not a walk in the park. However, I still feel blessed and besides the obvious blessings, I have also been given a sense of wonder, an appreciation for beauty, an awareness of the transcendent, and the ability to enjoy the simple things in life. I am grateful and thankful for my family, my friends, the kind of person I have turned out to be, and for all the other small and simple joys of life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Getting Older

I saw an interesting thought on Facebook the other night…

“Children, remember that as you are growing up your parents are growing older”.

I was 27 years old when my oldest son was born. He is now 33 years old. When I was 33 years old I would get on the floor and let him jump on me and beat me up. Now I am 60 years old and I get on the floor with my granddaughter. She doesn’t want to beat me up. She wants me to have tea parties and to play with stuffed animals. When I was 33 years old I would jump up from the floor. Now I must get on all fours, crawl to the sofa, and use it for balance as I slowly get up. I usually do this with some discomfort. I think it is a little disconcerting for children to realize that their parents are getting up in years. My children can’t always accept that I am not the man I used to be. I am slower, weaker, and forgetful. I tire more quickly and my energy level is much lower. Of course, it’s not all bad. I am also kinder, more patient, more tolerant, more compassionate, more understanding, and more relaxed. I have survived much and let much go. I worry less, live more in the moment, and I’m more contemplative. I take nothing for granted, enjoy life as much as possible, and I sometimes get lost in beauty. I also notice that as I am getting older, so are my children. My 82 year old mother has a sixty year old son! The poet, Robert Frost, described life in three words. He wrote that “it goes on”. Yes, it does go forward for all of us at the same pace but we didn’t all start the journey at the same time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Life Is Like A River

I am loving these windy, blustery days when millions of falling leaves are swirling in the air. I find it interesting and enjoyable anytime the seasons change. I believe our lives also have seasons. With the right attitude the changes in our lives can be just as enjoyable.

Life is like a river. When the river is calm, I float in my inner tube, unaware of the river itself, and I just enjoy all the scenery along the way. When I hit the white water rapids of life I hang on for dear life and hope I survive until the river of life calms down once again. Whether the river is calm or chaotic, it's all the same river. The irony is that it's not even about the river. It's about the journey.

A young fish was swimming along in the water one day. When he came upon an older, wiser, fish he asked, "Where is the ocean?” The older fish responded, "Are you kidding? You're in the ocean! It's all around you!" So it is with God. We are swimming in God's presence. He is all around us. Like the fish in the ocean, in God we live and breathe and have our being.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Christmas On The Horizon

I am not necessarily wild about it but Christmas started appearing at my house over the weekend. My wife is a Christmas nut and there’s no stopping her at this time of the year. We’re not decorated yet, and our fake trees are still in their boxes, but everything is out of the storage shed and laying in whatever room it will finally appear. It was all hands on deck this past weekend, including my granddaughter, so now my house looks like Santa’s workshop after a rare North Pole tornado. Fortunately for me I was excused from the heavy lifting because of my back issues. By the time my wife is done my home will look like a small version of Disneyland at Christmas. Every room on the first floor will have some kind of decoration. We will have three Christmas trees, some seasonal prints hanging on the wall, towels you can’t use in the bathroom, snowman mugs for coffee and hot chocolate, lights on the bushes, and candles in the windows. It’s all quite beautiful but unfortunately we don’t have a special crew of people like Disneyworld or the White House. I’ve learned not to fight it because I will lose. It reminds me of something my granddaughter once said to me. She said, “Paw Paw, your whole house is magic. That’s why I never get tired when I am here”.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Acedia And The True Self

Acedia is a monastic term that describes a certain kind of weariness or fatigue associated with the routine and monotony of daily living. In my life this is usually associated with the discipline of work, faithfulness to a spiritual practice, the demands of healthy living, exercising my brain, and being faithful to the demands and commitments of my life. When this feeling occurs, one needs to be creative and look for ways to renew your spirit and zest for living. It may require changing jobs, creating new routines, driving home by a different route, praying in a new way, starting a new book, doing something that you've never done before, or reflecting on why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made in your life. We all feel like this sometimes. It is part of the human condition. The important thing is to recognize it and not allow it to overwhelm you.

We are not our personalities. Whatever personality we have, whatever Enneagram number or Myers-Briggs type we are, these are masks covering up our true selves. Our personalities are part of the false self so eloquently written about by the Christian monk, Thomas Merton. The personality that each of us has is a shell we have created since early childhood to protect ourselves from the world around us. We appear different because we have created different false selves depending on our personal experiences of life. The purpose of the spiritual journey is not only to find God but to find ourselves as well. It is the inward journey to our own essence. Merton calls this the True Self. Buddhists call it "Finding the face you had before you were born". Each of us is like an onion and our many false selves must be peeled away one layer at a time until the true self is revealed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Challenge Of Mindfulness, Middle Age, and Speaking

Multi-tasking does not lend itself to mindfulness. Multi-tasking implies doing more than one thing at a time and thus having a divided mind. Mindfulness is having one mind, focused on one task, absorbed in the moment, a mind fully present to what it is doing. The fact that we need to multi-task is a curse of our age and culture for it promotes a disunity of the mind and spirit.

I think the difference between youth and middle age is this. When you are young, your body seems to be in charge and your mind simply follows along. When you are middle aged, you mind must drag your body along where it does not want to go. When you are young, your body wants to go everywhere. When you are middle aged, your body doesn't want to go anywhere.

Many of the mistakes I have made in my life have been due to things I've said or failed to say. Words and speech are powerful things. Choose them wisely. Learn when to speak and when to remain silent. Do not speak unless your words are an improvement on the silence.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Zen And Detachment

You cannot be happy unless you are grateful. Count your blessings. Live with a grateful heart.

Zen is simply doing whatever you are doing. If you are walking, walk. If you are eating, eat. If you are working, work. If you are playing, play. Be where you are and do what you are doing. It's that simple and it's that hard.

Sometimes I get angry or upset about things that happen. There are occasions when this is a good thing. There are situations in our world that should generate more anger in people. Many times, however, it is just an unnecessary emotional reaction. When I realize this, I am reminded how far I still have to go to be a truly detached person. Detachment is a Buddhist philosophy where one learns to not judge events and to see things as neither good nor bad. They simply are. Our opinions are not necessarily reality. Our opinions are simply our opinions. When we are asked to do something new, or to change the way we do something, we often react negatively because we have made a judgment based on our personal bias. When we are detached, we remove our bias and see things more clearly. This is what it means to practice Zen. By becoming more aware of our own emotional reactions to things, we begin to see more clearly, and to be more present to reality and not to our own illusions.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Life Is Not That Complicated

Life is not that complicated. People only want three things. They want to be loved, to be appreciated, and to be happy. Love those around you. If you can't love them, at least care about them as human beings. Let people know that you appreciate who they are and what they do for you. Choose to be happy and work to bring happiness to those around you. Our unhappiness usually centers on the misdirected pursuit of power, prestige, and possessions. It's really all about people.

Young people are often sad because they have not yet learned to be grateful.

Everyone you meet and everything you do is either life giving or life taking. Look at your relationships, the things you do, and how you spend your time. Do these people and activities build up your life, give it energy and meaning, or do they tear down your life and leave you depleted of any zest for living? Choose wisely!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Appreciating Wellness

I got up early on Saturday morning and was enjoying the peace and quiet of my early morning solitude. At some point I stood up and decided to refill my coffee mug. In an instant I felt a very severe pain and it seemed like the top half of my body had dis-connected from the bottom half. I nearly went to my knees and it actually kind of scared me. The rest of the weekend I was down and out, moving around as little as possible. Today I went to work but I was moving very slow. One of those wrap around themo heating pads, along with lots of aspirins, got me through the day. Now I am home and very happy to be here. Last week it was a cold. This week it's a severly strained back. My everyday medical conditions are enough of a trial without these added burdens. I try not to complain and it has made me more mindful of those who suffer through everyday with chronic health conditions. As soon as I feel my "normal" self, I will certainly have a new appreciation for wellness.

Andy Rooney died over the weekend at the age of 92. He was my favorite part of the “60 Minutes” news show. I loved his commentaries. I could be the Andy Rooney of my generation. There is much to complain about, the world is full of absurdity, and I have a warehouse of sarcasm that I have never expressed. However, in all the things I have written, I have avoided complaining. There are enough people complaining about almost everything. What people need most is hope and encouragement. That’s why I have always tried to put a positive spin on everything I write. I have agreed with most of Andy’s diatribes, and, in his defense, he also wrote and presented many thoughtful and sensitive pieces. More often than not he hit the nail on the head. I like to give people hope and encouragement instead of constantly reminding them how crazy and stupid life can be. In addition I hope I can remind people how wonderful life can be and how much there is to be grateful for in spite of colds and strained backs.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Coming Out Of The Haze

I take some pride in the fact that I rarely call in sick to my employer. Many years I have perfect attendance. However, almost every time I say, “I can’t remember the last time I called in sick”, I get sick. A little over a week ago I had that moment of awareness when I knew it was coming. You know what I am talking about. It's that moment when you know you are getting sick. I went to work last Friday because it was a going to be a short day for me. It was a short day for me because I had to spent two hours in my dentist’s chair having a tooth drilled and a cavity filled. I spent all day on Saturday with my family on a planned trip to visit my youngest son at the seminary where he attends school. My granddaughter came home with me and spent the night. On Sunday she kept me very busy while her Dad painted my outdoor shed. In other words I got no rest at all last weekend. By Monday morning I was shot and had to take a sick day. The next day I was no better so I stayed home again. When I did return to work on Wednesday I was little improved and did not function at full capacity. Full capacity for me means functioning at 100% of my normal 85% ability. While I was home I slept most of the time and now I probably need to enter a rehab facility for a Nyquil addiction. I’m not sure that Nyquil does anything for a cold but it works wonders on insomnia. After I returned to work I did take advantage of my employer's generosity and I got a free flu shot to avoid other potential illnesses. Winter is coming in my part of the world. Take care of yourselves.

As a married man I spend much of my time waiting for my wife. I have spent many happy hours waiting in my car or sitting on a bench at the Mall while she worked on her never ending list of things to do. While I am waiting for her I usually spend my time watching other people. Last evening I was sitting in my car outside of Kroger. I saw an elderly man and a middle aged woman, who I assumed was the man’s daughter, pushing a grocery cart together. It was obvious the man needed assistance and the woman had the look of a caring daughter. Whenever I see an elderly person I have a number of thoughts. One thought is that in another 10-20 years I will be that elderly man. Since I don’t have a daughter, maybe my granddaughter will be helping me to push my grocery car. Another thought I have is wondering what kind of life the elderly person has had. Although they may look helpless and needy they may have been a powerful person in their younger years. Maybe they were the CEO of a company or a leader in their church or community. Maybe they weren't a powerful person and their whole life has been a struggle. Maybe they are just one of the countless millions of ordinary people to trying to survive in a hostile world. Although they may look compliant now, maybe they were a rebellious social activist, reformer, or someone who always fought against injustice. If we are lucky we will all grow old. When people see us they may wonder about what kind of lives we had when we were young. When I am 90 will people remember that I was once one heck of a rock and roller? Will people find this blog and wonder about the author long after I have stopped writing? Will all the people who have known me remember me in positive ways? When they think of me, assuming they do, how will they describe me? Have I made a difference or am I just one more ordinary person who struggles to survive in a hostile world?

I can’t say that I am unhappy that it’s the end of the work week. Last weekend I began getting sick and then I missed two days of work. The days I worked were very busy. Now my wife is sick and she blames me. Although she essentially has the same illness as me her experience will be totally different from mine. I took Nyquil and slept a lot. With her we had to go to the Walgreen’s clinic for an exam and prescription. This weekend our home will take on the feel of an ICU. The good news is that it will be a very low key weekend. My granddaughter will not be visiting or staying the night. There’s nothing that must be done and nowhere to go. It’s the kind of weekend we both need. There is a good side to routine illnesses. They kind of bring life to a halt if only for a few days. Most of us spend much of our life running from one task to another. There’s never enough time to do everything we think we should be doing. Sooner or later our bodies will take control by breaking down a little and forcing us to rest.