Monday, November 28, 2011

The Miracle of an Ordinary Day

It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
--Theodore Roethke

I’m feeling a bit in-between today, still living in the echo of a great Thanksgiving but also knowing just how far off the holidays are, some twenty four days to be exact and counting.  Feels like a long way to go.

In-between: times in life when we have already left the station but have yet to arrive at our final destination, days filled with anticipation and wonder or anxiety and impatience.  All depends upon how we view these great chunks of time set squarely in the middle of “Been there, done that” and “I’m finally here!” 

Nature is in-between in early December. The grass is brown and lies matted down.  Plants have pulled within for a long winter’s rest.  The birds have flown south and the light of day is flat and diffuse and short. The earth waits for the first snowstorm to blow in but not just yet, not today, as fall wanes and winter has yet to knock at the door.  We’re living in-between.

In-between is actually the place humans live almost all of the time.  Pushing through school on a quiet Monday afternoon.  Driving to work on a mellow Friday morning.  Making lunches for the kids at the kitchen counter for the 1,000th time.  Gently sidling up to our spouse in bed and hearing her quiet breaths, as you have for so many evenings.  Sleepily standing in line at Dunkin Donuts and muttering for the umpteenth time: “black, two sugars, medium”.  Guess what? This is in fact our life, most of life, the overwhelming truth of our existence. In-between. But how do we see this?  Is it a miracle or is it merely mundane?

Though our mind and spirit is want to remember in sharp detail the big days of life: a joyous wedding, a happy birth, a heart breaking death, or some dramatic personal victory, the truth is that we mortals spend most of our moments in ordinary time, regular time, just normal time.  Like Thursday, December 1st at 11:35 am or February 11th at 2 pm or June 9th at 6 pm.  The temptation is to view this in-between time with impatience, to want to leap over the more ho-hum aspects of daily life, to skip our vegetables and go straight for desert. Are we there yet? Nope, still living in-between. And just maybe that’s ok, even good.

One of the disciplines of claiming a faith in God is having a belief which allows us to see each and every day as special, extraordinary even, but not for any amazing event.  No. Instead faith asks us give thanks just because one ordinary day is here for the taking and the living, all delivered as a no-strings attached gift from a generous God.  As the Psalmist wrote, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”   

Possessing such a grateful and open attitude about the in-between is not easy. We thank the Creator for a holy day and holiday, vacation, Christmas, a birthday, an anniversary. Yahoo! But can we also embrace today as sacred too?  All the other days?  Our hungry spirits may clamor for a quick fix, a jolt, or the rush of just one day like no other.  Yet the calendar never lies.  The reality is that most of the time our time is finally lived in-between.  

I like singer songwriter James Taylor’s take on the in-between.  “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it. There ain't nothing to it. Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we're on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride.”

So happy day!  There won’t be another day like this day, ever, ever again.  It’s an in-between gift. Maybe that’s the real secret of knowing an ordinary extraordinary life. Just one day at a time. 



Friday, November 18, 2011

Hooray for Real Holidays!

Holiday (noun) 1. a day fixed by law or custom on which ordinary business is suspended in commemoration of some event or in honor of some person; a religious feast day or holy day.
--Random House Dictionary

Call me crazy but I like to celebrate just one holiday at a time.  To mark holidays and holy days: the tradition in a culture to set aside time for commemoration, worship, and just plain rest. But lately holidays have gotten all kind of mashed together. Have you noticed?  Barely past Halloween and then all the Thanksgiving stuff goes up on November 1, almost one month early. Haven’t even bought the turkey yet and I’m already hearing holiday music on the radio. Holiday mash up. Holiday smash up. Holiday creep.    

The concept of “holiday” owes its roots to the words “holy day”, a time set aside by the early church, other faith traditions and even government to mark a unique day of prayer or remembrance: Christmas, Hanukah, Easter, Ramadan, etc.  At one time Sunday was a kind of holiday and holy day too, all rolled into one.  The idea of a holiday is simple and at one time this is how it worked. Few shops were open.  Youth sports took a day off.  Banks, liquor stores, almost everything else was shuttered for the day.  Most people actually got to stay home from work.  They then spent time with loved ones and visited friends and played and napped or just did nothing.  The key was the culture agreed that it needed a time reserved for Sabbath, to slow down, to stop, to pause.  To “holiday”.  That of course is going, if not almost gone.

Take this week’s holiday mash up, the crazy rush to tear right through Thanksgiving and make a mad dash for Christmas, to frantically push to meet Santa Claus even before the gravy on the table gets cold.  Name the retailer and this year they’ve pushed back the time to begin the Christmas shopping season right to the edge of Turkey Day, earlier than ever before.  This week anyone who so desires can get buying even before their holiday dinner dishes get done.  On “Black Friday” in Massachusetts Macy’s will open at 12:30 a.m., Kohl’s and Best Buy at 1 a.m. and Wal-Mart at 4 a.m., to name but a few. In other states with less restrictive holiday closing laws, many stores are actually open on Thanksgiving, including Kmart, Target, the Gap, Toys R Us, Old Navy and Wal-Mart.  Makes me wonder if next year they might start serving turkey right in the aisles, a blue light special with cranberry sauce on the side.

Too bad for the workers because they have to go in, leave or even forego the holiday table and set up all the tinsel and the bells and stock the shelves and man the registers. Retailers argue that Black Friday is “good” for shoppers.  Target corporate spokesperson Molly Snyder insists, “We have heard from our guests that they want to shop Target following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night.’’ Wouldn’t want to let down those “guests”, would we? 

Me? I’m a freak I suppose, because I actually love to do my Christmas shopping, celebrating and anticipating the week just before Christmas when it actually feels like the season, you know snow, carols, the cold. The thing I’ve always loved about both holy days and holidays is the lack of a need to do anything other than celebrate in my tradition and with my friends and family.  I love the sense that this one day is somehow special, precious, quiet. All is calm, all is bright.        

So it was with a sense of surprise and delight I learned of one retailer who bucks this trend of erasing a holiday, the Nordstrom’s Department store chain.  They are a rare institution in the retailing world.  Headquartered in Seattle, Nordstrom’s is an upscale retailer. I’ve never shopped there. I’m more of a Sears guy. But I may just check them out to support a most unusual holiday opening policy at all of their stores.  This is the message Nordstrom’s shoppers saw in stores in the days leading up to “Black Friday”.

 “We won’t be decking our halls until Friday, November 25. Why? We just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. Our stores will be closed on Thursday for Thanksgiving festivities. On Friday, our doors will open to ring the new season in style. From our family to yours, HAPPY THANKSGIVING.”   So in Massachusetts, if you want to go to Nordstrom’s you’ll be forced to wait until the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. in Peabody, on Friday.  OH NO!  8 a.m. in Natick and Burlington.  HOW WILL WE SURVIVE! 7 a.m. in Braintree.  BUT I WANTED TO WAIT IN LINE IN A DARK PARKING LOT!

I know in expressing frustration about the cultural downgrading of holidays and holy days, I risk sounding like a dinosaur, a cranky old guy.  I know that the ideal of Sabbath and holiday is fast fading away in a societal wave of 24/7 life.  Yet I can’t help but lament.  I’m human. I work hard.  When a holiday comes along I need that time to rest.  I need to stop. I need to recharge my spiritual batteries. I need to suspend all the wacky energy of modern life and just breathe.  Holidays give all of us these amazing opportunities.

Thank you Nordstrom’s.  You offer a small but important witness to the world about the need to take holidays seriously. So please pass the gravy and another roll too. I’m staying put at the Thanksgiving table as long as I can. How about you?



Monday, November 14, 2011

Self-Discipline: No More Kicking the Can Down the Road

“Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want 
to do.”     --Mark Twain

Tomorrow.  Yea…that’s when I’ll get it done.  Rake the lawn. Start the diet.  Clean the house.  Go to the gym.  Visit the dentist.  Do the homework.  Reign in my credit card spending.  But tomorrow, ok?  No rush, right?

It’s the oldest of human temptations: to put off to the future what could be done, even should be done, in the present.  To procrastinate.  Kick the can down the road. Avoid a hard decision. Delay a painful or onerous choice.  Punt. Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?

That’s the conundrum Uncle Sam faces with a huge deadline just six days away, November 23rd.  To recap: last summer as a part of raising the federal government’s debt ceiling, Congress and the President created a 12 member bi-partisan Congressional Super Committee and charged it with agreeing upon a formula of spending cuts and tax increases to slice $1.2 trillion from the federal budget.  If no agreement is reached automatic cuts of the same amount will be triggered, in everything from national security and defense to a wide array of domestic programs. Entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) will be spared, at least for now.  

And guess what?  After working for almost three and half months the group seems no closer to agreement than when it began.  In a CNN article, Republican panel co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, “…acknowledged the committee may be forced to punt its most difficult decisions on tax and entitlement reform into next year.”

We live in times when our leaders seem frozen in their ability to make hard political choices in the now.  To do something today in order to save tomorrow.  The European Union dawdles on making difficult fiscal choices, to bail out Greece and Italy, and the markets rock. President Obama puts off until after the 2012 elections a decision on a controversial tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. and angers both the left and the right.  If the feds do nothing, Medicare will run out of money by 2024 and Social Security by 2036. 

What’s missing in this equation is the old fashioned virtue of self-discipline, doing a hard and right thing today for a greater good tomorrow.  Facing into short term pain for long term gain.  Sucking it up and just doing what needs to be done.  A sobering word, “discipline”.  It can mean punishment but it also denotes training, regimen, rigor and behavior in accord with certain rules and a code of conduct.  Discipline is hard, yes, but almost always it pays off.  

We get this as individuals.  How does the marathoner run 26.2 miles? By getting up every morning and running in the rain and snow and cold with self-discipline, knowledge that victory is won by daily facing into the hard things.  How does an addict stay sober?  By going to AA regularly and saying “no” to substances one day at a time.  How are some folks successful in this life while others seem to perpetually tread water? Through discipline, by each day forging ahead and having courage when it comes time to make the difficult decisions and doing what needs to be done in order to move ahead. How does a person of faith stay connected to God? Through the discipline of daily prayer, reaching out when God is answering and when God is silent. It’s not rocket science. Self-discipline is simply about grit and not finesse, determination instead of instant gratification. 

So Uncle Sam, if I may be so blunt: it is time for some self-discipline, time to suck it up.  Time to be less focused on re-election this year and more focused on what’s best for the whole country in the potentially perilous or prosperous years ahead.  It is time to confront us, the citizenry and tell us about the hard choices all of us have to make together.  It is time for a little pain in the now, yes, but gains in the future, one which will only be bright if we all have the courage to not procrastinate anymore. Decisions must be made now.

No more kicking the can down the road.  We can’t afford to play that childhood game anymore.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Enough with the Weather!!!

Weather (noun) 1.the state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, cloudiness, moisture, pressure, etc.; (verb) to bear up against and come safely through (as in a storm, danger, trouble)   --Random House Dictionary

That’s it. I’m moving to San Diego.  

Packing up my suitcase with shorts and sunscreen, my golf clubs and my bike.  I’m leaving behind all my bulky sweaters and clunky snow boots and well worn snow shovels, all my flashlights and candles for power failures too, my long johns as well. I’m done with weather in New England. 

And oh San Diego…with an average daily temperature of 72 degrees, more than 250 days of sunshine and only 12 inches of rain per year, San Diego is weather nirvana, one of the ten best weather cities in the United States according to the Farmer’s Almanac.  Can you hear it calling, a sultry song of sweet breezy warm days and clear cool nights?  Afternoons spent on a sunny veranda, sipping a cool drink watching the whitecaps break on the Pacific. 

And no hurricanes.  No tornadoes.  No floods. No wacky October snowstorms.  And no snow.  Not a flake.  The last time any measurable snow fell in San Diego was 1967.  I’m told people there actually love their weather, brag about it.  San Diego meteorologists have the most boring of jobs: “Sunny and seventy!” day after day.  Yes, I’ll have to change my ways as a longtime New Englander.  Give up my pasty white mid-winter complexion for a tanned and toned California grin.  I’ll have to root for the Padres rather than the Red Sox, wear those silly Hawaiian shirts and even drop the occasional “dude!” into daily conversation. I’ll make that sacrifice.

I’m just not sure I can take one more weather whack in this year of freakish storms and atmospheric anomalies here in New England.  First there was “THE WINTER”, this year’s unrelenting pummeling by Mother Nature in our coldest months.  Eighty point one inches of the white stuff dumped from the skies, double our average amount.  The storms were doozies: five major events alone in December and January, with an especially cruel blizzard hitting on the day after Christmas, stranding thousands of folks with their ruined holiday plans.  Merry Christmas…ugh.  

Driving around my neighborhood last February I was Nanook of the North, navigating my pathetically skidding compact car around 15 foot high snow drifts that framed the street like ice cold prison walls.  Three times last winter the snow in my driveway was so deep I had to park at the bottom of the hill and trek on up, praying, hoping that the snow plow would come soon and rescue me.  Remember?

So no more. I give up. Uncle. Game over. I surrender.

The tornadoes in June.  Hurricane Irene in August. Floods of biblical proportions.  A record breaking Halloween storm, which weirdly was only two weeks removed from ninety degree temperatures Columbus Day weekend, another record.  Fall foliage which never seemed to show up.  Power outages, hundreds of thousands of folks living in the dark for days and even weeks at a time. 

With only seven weeks left in 2011, I’m getting nervous.  What’s next? Hail?  Drought? Pestilence—I have no idea what that last word means but hey we’re on a roll, right and anything is possible?

Mark Twain, who called Hartford his home, nailed it when he said, “I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather…The weather is always doing something there…always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go…I could speak volumes about the inhuman perversity of the New England weather…”   

But in the end Twain stayed here and called New England his home and I suppose I will too, and we will too. The cliché is that we New Englanders are a hardy bunch and the weather certainly tests our mettle and sanity.  At its best it brings us together and reminds us that as neighbors we need each other.  The stranger who shows up to clear the driveway, no charge.  The young Mom who checks up on her elderly friend.  Family who invited family to bunk with them because the lights are out.

Weather always gives us something to talk about, that’s for sure.  Our one of a kind sometimes crazy but never boring weather certainly makes this place our unique place in all of God’s Creation.  And I couldn’t take all that California cheeriness after all.   I’ll stay. 

So winter: bring it on. Give us your best shot.  We can take it.  We’ve weathered your worst and will do so again. But just in case, I’m booking a mid-winter vacation to San Diego.  Can anyone lend me a Hawaiian shirt?