Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Childhood

I recently started reading the autobiography of a man who was a teacher at a seminary I attended.  We are not really friends but I have met and talked with him on occasion.  Like many such books it begins with some reflections on his childhood.  This caused me to think about my own childhood in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  It was a different world then and very different from the world of my children and granddaughter.  The world of my childhood was a combination of "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Wonder Years".  I am the oldest child in a family of six children.  I was born in the spring of 1951.  We grew up in the suburbs.  At the time the suburbs were relatively new and had more of a country feel than a city feel.  My mother still lives in the same house where I grew up.  She has been there close to 60 years.  In my neighborhood all the dads went to work and all the moms stayed home.  Everyone knew everyone else’s parents.  Single parents were very rare.  We had no air conditioning or video games so children played outside all day in the summertime.  I can’t remember any fat children because we all played sports and rode our bikes a hundred miles a day.  In my childhood there was only one McDonald’s in Louisville and it was considered a real treat to go there.  I only remember one young mother with a job outside the home.  No one had heard of a daycare center.  My mother watched the child of the one woman that had a job.  Her job was as a secretary in a Mad Men kind of office.  I didn’t know what divorce was until high school when my aunt divorced my uncle.  It was a scandal.  My parents had been married 59 years at the time of my dad’s death in 2009.  I attended eight years of grade school with the same 20 or so kids.  Most parents of my classmates knew everyone else’s parent’s because they saw one another at church, scouting activities, and sporting events.  I realize now that my parents probably struggled quite a bit to feed and clothe six children on one blue collar salary.  I also realize now that we were probably poor but I didn’t know it.  I never missed a meal and I always felt safe.  Life wasn’t perfect but looking back it seems like a dream to me now.  In terms of material possessions and money I am now rich compared to the way I grew up.  However, despite these things I think I had a better quality of life as a child.  Today life seems stressful most of the time.  I understand that I was a child then and I am an adult now but life is too busy, too fast, and there are way too many people with way too many expectations.  My old neighborhood from a time long past now seems like Mayberry.  Come to think of it I did spend a lot of summer days fishing with my dad or my friends.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Great Parent Moments

This will be a very short work week for me.  I like short work weeks.  The only thing better than a short work week is the no work week.  My wife and I are now members of “The Priest’s Parents Club”.  On Wednesday we are having lunch with the Archbishop and a few other people in honor of my youngest son who was ordained a priest back in May.  I’m sure my son is already nervous wondering what I may say to the Archbishop.  He can relax.  I will be good and not do anything to embarrass him.  This coming Saturday my other son is getting married.  My wife and I, along with my granddaughter, will be driving to Gatlinburg to attend the wedding.  I need to spend the rest of this week pumping up my wife for the trip since her arm is still in a cast and she is also dealing with the Shingles.  In spite of the happy occasion I am sure it will be a long weekend for her so I will do my best to make it as comfortable and easy on her as possible.  One more time as parents we cross our fingers in the hope that both of our children are on a firm and straight path in their life journeys.  Many who read these notes have small children whose needs can seem overwhelming at times.  It doesn’t get any easier.  The needs just change.  My children are in their 30’s now and I am still being a parent.  I don’t mean this in a negative way.  I mean that as parents my wife and I still worry about our children.  Fortunately they are doing fine but we still worry.  If your parents are still alive I can assure you they are still worrying about you.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Contemplative Life

I have sometimes referred to myself as a contemplative.  What is a contemplative?  I am not an expert on contemplation but here's my perspective.  Keep in mind, however, that this is only one approach to the contemplative life.  People who know me well know I am very introverted and introspective.  I think you can learn to be contemplative but some personality types seem to be naturally contemplative.  I hesitate to call it a skill but as a behavior and a way of being one can practice it even if it does seem to go against your nature.  In all the major religions there are contemplative traditions but I also think you can be a contemplative person without necessarily being a religious person or one who goes to church every Sunday.  In my mind a contemplative person is one who takes the time to stand back or step away from the fast pace of life to simply breathe.  The contemplative is someone who likes life in the slow lane.  It's about being awake enough and present enough to not only notice the flowers but also be willing to stop and smell them.  It's being present to life in all its details.  Some call this mindfulness.  For those who are spiritually inclined it can also be about awareness of God's presence in life.  Perhaps you have read the story of the prophet Elijah in the Book of Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He had challenged the prophets of the false god Baal to a duel.  To make a long story short, Elijah’s God won so the guys that lost ran Elijah out of town.  He hid in a cave on a mountain.  There was thunder and lightning and earthquakes and all that kind of scary stuff but God was not present in these things.  Finally, there was a small whispering sound like a gentle breeze.  Elijah hid his face for in the gentle breeze God was present.  The contemplative person is one who has achieved an interior quiet that allows him to notice the small whispering sounds in life where God is often present.  If you are constantly running through life, busy all the time, stressed out, and meeting yourself coming and going, you will miss such opportunities.  I don't think you can truly be a contemplative person if you are running through your life like your hair is on fire.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Education And Wisdom

Education gives you knowledge but life gives you wisdom.  Many of the people I have interviewed for jobs and some of the people who work with me now are better educated than I am.   Their education, however, is just a starting point.  It is the foundation on which their life experience will build.  I am a strong advocate of education.  I think it separates people more than anything, including race or gender.  I wish now that I had given my education more attention when I was younger.  The experience of life hopefully makes us wiser but that is not guaranteed.  Not all older people are wise and not all younger people naive.  Wisdom chooses its home.  In the Rule of St Benedict, a 1500 year old guidebook for monasteries, the old are told to listen to the young for God often speaks through them.  Likewise, the young are told to treat their elders with respect.  Those of us who are a little older can learn from the young.  It happens to me almost every day at work.  Those who are younger should realize that their parents and other older people…including co-workers…are not clueless.  We've been down many roads in our lives and we have experienced many things that might prove helpful for those who have not yet had these experiences.  The bottom line is that you should never should stop learning.  To be a truly educated person, you must be open to everything that books and life teaches you and you must remember that education is also more than just having a skill.  An educated person is a thinking person who can see the connectedness of life and knowledge and be able to apply that knowledge and wisdom to the continued unfolding of life.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Simple Zen

Zen is doing what you are doing and being where you are.  It sounds simple but in reality is quite challenging.  Zen is also about balance.  This is also very challenging.  Keeping the different parts of our lives in balance is like spinning five or six plates on the end of long sticks all at the same time.  Getting enough rest, doing enough but not too much work, being with others and being with self, being active and being still, enjoying life and being present to the sacred, knowing when to go and when to stop, when to speak and when to be silent, is a daily challenge.  If your life feels out of balance, it probably is.  Life moves fast.  Sometimes you must slow down to keep it all from spinning out of control.  You can't be present to the moment if you meeting yourself coming and going.  Stop now, close your eyes and simply breathe for a moment.  Refresh yourself.  Do this throughout your day.  Go home at the end of this work day (if you are not already there) and practice slowing down.  Pay attention to your own breath and remember it is the source of your life.

Be where you are....

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Living Without Purpose Or Meaning

A month or so ago I wrote a piece about finding purpose and meaning in our lives.  One of my readers sent me a message along the lines of “I no longer look for purpose or meaning in my life because I found it stressful.  I simply live my life.  It is much more enjoyable to simply live each day without trying to make it seem significant by assigning purpose or meaning to every activity”.  As a person who is sometimes obsessed with finding purpose and meaning in life I found this refreshing.  Sometimes I stress myself out being me.  Consciously and unconsciously I have created an image that I feel I must live up to everyday.  Other people also have an image of me that they expect me to be.  I think we all do this and we all have expectations of how we think we should be and how other people should be.  Wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped acting and just be who we really are?  Wouldn’t it be great if we all could just relax and live?  I’m sure I am not alone when I say it can be exhausting to be me.  Sometimes I wear myself out trying to be who I think I am or who I think I want to be.  It will take some concentrated effort for me to simply live each day without trying to assign purpose or meaning to everything I say or do.  Even writing these daily thoughts is sometimes a burden because there are a lot of people who expect me to do it and who tell me how meaningful they are to them.  This is why I generally never write on weekends.  I need a break from trying to be deep and meaningful.  Living without a specific purpose, or living without every action having some deep meaning, is not necessarily a meaningless life.  Maybe all we need to do is what’s required of us but doing it with love, kindness, and compassion.    

Monday, August 19, 2013

Get Out Of The Cave

On Friday I drove to the monastery and spent a few hours there.  I was unusually restless and felt a little lost while I was there.  It was almost like I didn’t know where I was.  I finally decided that the balance of my day could be better spent at home.  My wife is still moving kind of slow so most of the weekend was spent at home.  By Sunday afternoon I was stir crazy so we decided to go out for a meal.  We met my oldest son, his girlfriend, and Chloe at a restaurant on the river.  The weather was beautiful so we ate outside.  There were lots of people there, music was playing, boats were all around us, and the food was good.  It was an enjoyable experience and another life lesson re-learned.  Sometimes you just have to get out of your chair, join the rest of the world, get over yourself, and live.  One of the negative aspects of my personality is that I am typically a withdrawn and solitary person.  Sometimes this is a good thing but if I am feeling down it’s a bad thing.  I need people who stand at the entrance to my cave calling my name and beckoning me out into the open.  Unfortunately there are few people who do this.  I am sometimes too withdrawn and too solitary for my own good.  I often avoid people and social activity but when I am with people and I am involved in a social activity, I often enjoy myself.  When  you are depressed, or feeling blue as my grandmother used to say, being alone is not the best solution.  Get out of your your cave and be with some people.  This is not to devalue solitude.  I still believe we all need some quality time alone once in a while.  Some will need more than others.  Whether you need more solitude or more social interaction, balance is the key.  This weekend I needed some social interaction.  By the end of this workday I will need some solitude. 8-)          

Friday, August 16, 2013

Feeling A Little Lost

I got up early today as I normally do on a Friday.  After having some coffee and toast with my wife I drove to the Abbey of Gethsemani.  My goal was to visit the grave of my friend, Father Dennis, and to spend a few hours enjoying the silence and solitude of the monastery.  After a visit to Dennis's grave, which was little more than a patch of dirt, I went into the retreat house.  I was sitting in the dining room quietly minding my own business when a lady working in the kitchen asked if I was on retreat.  When I shook my head no, she gave me a look that made me feel like I was trespassing.  Perhaps I misinterpreted her body language or she was simply wondering why I was there at a time when some guests are leaving and new guests are arriving.  I couldn't help but think to myself, "Lady, I used to be a member of this monastic community and I have been visiting here for over 40 years.  I don't think anyone would have a problem with me sitting in here".  Maybe it was just my mood.  On the way to the monastery I drove past Father Dennis's home and his truck is still parked in the driveway.  It made me a little sad.  While I was at the monastery I felt restless and a little lost, to say nothing of the tug of war that seemed to be going on in my intestinal track.  I climbed up St. Joseph's Hill and took in the panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.  I sat in the Abbey church for a while but it was humid and stuffy.  I felt like I was just wandering around and that I couldn't find a spot where I could relax and be.  My last stop was the Gift Shop where I purchased my favorite raspberry jam made by monks at another monastery as well as an excellent jazz CD by local musician Dick Sisto.  He has a connection with Gethsemani and was a friend of Thomas Merton.  He's also a wonderful vibraphonist.  I decided the rest of my day would be better spent at home which is where I am as I write these notes.  On a positive note, today's weather is picture perfect and I had a very pleasant drive home through the countryside.       

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mental Health Days

Tomorrow I am taking a day off from my day job.  For many years I have jokingly called these “Mental Health Days”.  Sometimes I take them because life has been demanding and I simply need a break.  Other times I take them for no other reason than preventative maintenance.  On a spiritual level they are retreat days.  I am going to get up early tomorrow as I normally do on workdays.  I will make my wife breakfast and get her settled as I have done every day for the last month.  When she’s good I am going to drive to the monastery and spend the morning there.  I haven’t been there since the funeral of my friend, Father Dennis.  The first thing I will do when I get there is visit his grave.  After that I will likely have a cup of coffee in the retreat house garden.  I will also spend some time sitting in the large Abbey church bathing in the silence.  I hope to also spend some time with one of the monks who is a good friend of mine.  I have always been a person who needs some space and time alone.  I probably have a personality that needs this more than some.  I actually get kind of cranky if I don't spend some time just being with myself.  However, even if you are a social butterfly I believe you would benefit from such time.  You don’t have to run off to a monastery.  A local park would give you much of what I experience when I go to the monastery.  The important thing is to occasionally step away from your life.  Take some time to breathe and chill out.  Recharge your batteries.  Remember what is truly important in life.  Put things into proper perspective.  In the crazy lives that many of us live it is easy for priorities to get out of whack.    

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Middle Path

I love three lane highways.  I think they are a metaphor for life.  When traffic is heavy I stay in the middle lane.  If I am going too slow for someone they can move to the left.  If I am going too fast for someone they can move to the right.  The middle lane for me also represents the middle path and this is the path I attempt to walk in my life.  If traffic is light or non-existent I move into the slow lane so I can truly enjoy the drive.  Most people don’t enjoy the drive.  They are totally focused on the destination.  If I drive to Gatlinburg it takes me approximately five hours.  About half way there I stop for a big breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Corbin, Kentucky.  When my oldest son drives to Gatlinburg he gets there in approximately three hours without the experience of a nice breakfast.  His breakfast is a three hour energy drink.  I believe in life, and on road trips, the journey is the destination.  Another reason I like the middle path is that it represents for me the contemplative way.  Most people think there are only two options for dealing with life.  You can either fight it or run away from it.  The middle path is the path of simply being present.  Whatever is going on, you don’t have to always fight it or run away from it.  Instead, be present to it.  Deal with it.  Learn from it.  Get over it.  Life has a way of always pulling you or pushing you.  Stand firm and strong on the middle path.  Do not be intimidated by life.  Be present to it.  I know many of you love the fast but as Gandhi once said, “There’s more to life than increasing its speed”.  I highly recommend the slow lane.  There’s much to see there and it’s a lot less stressful than always living your life in the fast lane.   

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Living On Auto Pilot

I was deep in thought while driving to work this morning trying to come up with an idea for a daily thought.  The next thing I know I am at my wife’s office.  The bad news is that my wife wasn't with me since she is still home recuperating from her broken arm.  I was supposed to be at my office.  Apparently I was totally on auto-pilot.  I think many of us are on auto-pilot much of the time.  We get into our routines and they guide us through our daily responsibilities and tasks.  For many of us it is difficult to be spontaneous because we are so locked in to our daily schedules, especially during the work week, that we rarely break free of them.  I think this is why many of us love weekends.  Even if we have a good life and decent jobs we feel like birds let out of a cage when the weekend arrives.  The freedom makes us giddy even if our weekend is jammed with activities.  As an older person I like routine because it keeps me on track at a time in my life when memory occasionally fails me.  Sometimes I look for opportunities to break out of my routines and do things differently.  It’s easier said than done.  It is a daily challenge to live in such a way that life seems new and exciting.  I know from experience that life is hard and it can be demanding.  The unexpected is always right around the corner.  In spite of this I want to enjoy my life and I want to look forward to each new day.  I don’t want to dread life or be fearful of what it might bring me.  If every day can’t be exciting, then I hope it is at least interesting.  I don’t want to just get through life.  I want to live life.    

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Busy Morning

I generally enjoy any time that I am not working in my office.  This morning, however, even though I was out of the office, I felt like I was working.  I took my wife to the doctor, stopped at IHOP to satisfy her craving for pancakes, went to the Post Office, took my wife back home and got her settled, gassed up the car, and dropped a new prescription off at the pharmacy.  I was also a little surprised at the traffic when I finally drove downtown to work.  It was much heavier than it usually is in the early morning hours when I am normally on the road.  My real work day hadn't even started and I already felt the need for a nap.  Life can sometimes seem like a never ending to do list.  It seems like there is always something that needs to be done.  Even when one spends a day at home there is laundry to wash, dry, and fold, dishes to be loaded into the dishwasher, messes to be cleaned up, and trash to be taken out.  If you are a recycle nut like me there are always cans, bottles, and plastic to be put in the recycle bins.  I once lived under the illusion that life would slow down as I got older.  It hasn’t.  Many of the activities that made me busy in my youth have continued and in some cases new activities have been added to the list.  As much as I like to just be, I guess life is about movement and as long as you are moving you are living.  When you stop moving you are dead.   

Friday, August 09, 2013


Last night I read an article that began as a commencement speech at a college graduation.  Much of the article was the traditional type of message that older people who have lived some life say to those that are beginning their lives.  This speech was a little different.  The speaker said his biggest regrets in life were all the times he was not kind.  He went on to say that people tend to get kinder the older they get.  He then challenged the graduates by asked “Why wait till you are old?  Start being kind now”!  Being kind is probably more of a motivating force in my life than being loving.  I try to be kind to everyone even if they are strangers or people that I don’t necessarily love.  Maybe at the sub atomic level love can’t be separated from kindness.  Perhaps all kindness is rooted in a deep love.  Regardless, what a wonderful world it would be if everyone was kind to everyone else.  I believe if I can do this one thing, and do it well, it’s all I have to do to be a good person.  St. Augustine, a 5th century bishop, had a slightly different take when he said, “Love and do what you will”.  One could also say, “Be kind and do what you will”.  I know some people can try our patience but I still don’t know why it is so difficult for some people to be kind.  I’ve known people who seem to do the exact opposite on purpose.  What’s up with that?  I challenge all of you to practice kindness today with everyone you meet.  It can be a co-worker, the tired waitress at the Waffle House, a store clerk who is surly, or the people with whom you live.  Just be nice!  Karma will return these acts of kindness to you when you need them the most.  

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hasn't This Been A Great Day?

When I used to make monthly visits to my friend, Father Dennis, I would arrive at his home early in the morning.  Shortly thereafter we would go out for breakfast at some mom and pop restaurant.  Sometimes we would drive around Nelson County and visit historical churches.  At some point we would return to his home and just talk.  More often than not these talks were serious, personal, and reflective conversations.  When it was time for me to leave and go home he would usually hug me and say “Hasn’t this been a great day”?  When was the last time you made such a statement?  There are too many days in my life where I am simply trying to get through the day.  Who among us doesn’t live for the weekends because it seems unlikely that our Monday through Friday working life has the potential to “be a great day”?  When Dennis and I spent a day together we did nothing special.  It was mostly the stuff of everyday life.  Why did it seem so special?  What would it take for the ordinary days of our lives to feel like great days?  Why do we wish our lives away and dream of tomorrow?  Isn’t today yesterday’s tomorrow?  As you go through your day today, look for greatness.  What makes you happy?  What gives the day meaning?  What parts are you enjoying?  At the same time make note of what doesn’t seem so great.  What parts are you not enjoying?  What makes you unhappy?  What parts are meaningless?  When you’ve done all that, take some time and reflect on it?  What do you need to change?  

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

For Everything There Is A Season

I got up late this morning.  When I finally woke up the alarm clock had been ringing for about 15 minutes and my wife was missing.  In our culture there is no such thing as oversleeping.  No one in a sleep deprived culture can oversleep.  All you can do is wake up late.  After two weeks of sleeping in a chair my wife has been attempting to sleep in our bed.  Apparently last night was a rough night so she ended up back downstairs in her chair.  I continue to earn credits towards my nursing degree and caretaker license.  Each morning after I get myself together I prepare my wife’s breakfast and coffee, make sure she has all of her meds, and I  make her as comfortable as possible before I leave home.  Last night on the way home I stopped at Kroger and did our grocery shopping.  After I put everything away and made some dinner, I helped my wife take a bath.  When I got her settled again, I got into a horizontal position on my couch and went into a deep coma.  Several hours later I woke up in the Twilight Zone.  When it was finally bed time I had little trouble falling back asleep.  This is the part of marriage that isn’t covered in the honeymoon brochures.  In the wedding vows where they mention “in sickness and in health”, this is the sickness part.  I can’t complain because I have been on the other side several times in my marriage.  More than once I was the receiver of the caregiving.  For everything there is a season. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Age And A Meaningful Life

Yesterday I took my annual Vitality Health Assessment.  The good news is that I am getting younger.  According to the test I am now 66 years old.  The bad news is that I am really only 62 years old.  However, last year I was 69 years old.  Since my Vitality age is 66 I wonder if I can go ahead and retire?  Although it wasn’t tested, my mental age is approximately 25 years old.  My question to you, in the words of Satchel Paige, is “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was”?
Young people often have existential angst about their future.  They sometimes ponder, “What do I want to be when I grow up”?  Older people like me have less angst about the future because the future is running out of time.  My angst tends to be more along the lines of “What kind of life have I lived”?  I wonder less about what impact I will have and more about what impact I have had.  Young people wonder if their life will have meaning.  Older people wonder if their life has had meaning.  I find myself wondering what my legacy will be.  When I am gone from this place, whether through retirement or moving on to the next level of existence, will my being here have made a difference?  I don’t care much about success in traditional terms.  Titles and paychecks don’t mean as much to me as whether or not I am living a meaningful life where I make a difference and people notice my absence when I am gone.  Are you living a meaning life?  Do you make a difference?      

Monday, August 05, 2013


This past Saturday was my 39th wedding anniversary.  I made a note of it on Facebook and one person took me to task over the way I did it.  They basically said, “Michael, you’re supposed to say how wonderful it’s been, not how long it’s been”.  I am not saying there haven’t been some wonderful moments.  Marriage, however, is an experience that differs from one couple to another couple in as many ways as there are couples.  I was 23 years old when I got married and I realize now that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at the time.  With all due respect to my wife, I have found marriage and family life very difficult.  This is more about me than about them.  Marriage is hard and it takes a lot of work.  In many ways a marriage and a family is like running a business.  The wife is usually the CEO and the CFO and the husband is the maintenance man.  However, marriage has been a good thing for me in many ways.  It has given me a stability in my life that I needed.  It has provided a level of comfort that is more than acceptable.  It has caused me, and sometimes demanded me, to put others ahead of myself.  I wish I could tell all the young people I know that marriage is not a Romeo and Juliet experience where you hold hands and spend your whole life walking in the park.  This certainly has not been my experience.  I am married to a very good person and I try to be a good husband.  Some days I do this better than other days.  Even with all its challenges, I think marriage can be a good thing and I believe the decline of marriage is the source of many of society’s problems.  I am not sure what kind of grade I will get as a husband or as a father but as difficult as its been for me I have tried to do my best.   

Friday, August 02, 2013

Living In The Present

Earlier this week I received an email with the following question.
“So what exactly does it mean to you to live in the present”? 
The simplest answer I could give was that I try to have my mind and my body in the same place at the same time.  This is very hard.  I can sit here and do my work but my mind is often miles away and days ahead.  When I received the question on Wednesday, also known as “hump day”, I wondered, “Who isn’t already thinking of the weekend”?  Another part of being in the moment is to not spend time regretting the past or dreaming of the future.  Try to be open to the possibilities of the present and to notice the extraordinary within the ordinary as it unfolds each day.  It is difficult to live in the moment and to practice mindfulness.  Our culture inundates us with images, commercials, temptations, and data.  Our lives pull us in many different directions that are often in conflict with one another.  It can sometimes feel like we are trying to stay balanced in the middle of a tornado or hurricane.  It takes a lot of practice, discipline, and fortitude.  I think this is why it is called practicing mindfulness.  It’s like anything else.  You get better at it the more you do it.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  Take a step today.  None of this is simple and it does take a conscious effort.   
I could not believe it.  On Wednesday I was walking down Main Street on my way to a meeting.  In front of the Yum Center I stumbled and hit the deck.  I landed on my hands and knees.  Fortunately nothing was hurt but my ego.  Part of my shock was that I fell exactly like my wife did when she broke her arm.  I am feeling sore today but grateful that no bones were broken.