Monday, February 24, 2014

Winter Blues or Winter Cheer? The Choice Is Up to Us.

“Cheerfulness, it would appear, is a matter which depends fully as much on the state of things within, as on the state of things without and around us.”       --Charlotte Bronte

“Since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” 

Before you throw a snowball my way to get me to stop singing, you have to admit this song perfectly captures the reality around here this winter.  We are six weeks into an unrelenting mix of sub-zero temperatures and snowfall, day after day after day after day. Even last weekend’s thaw created a different set of challenges: sagging roofs, flooding basements and tumbling icicles. Almost sixty inches of the white stuff has fallen and we’ve been buffeted by ultra-frigid temperatures and yes, there is more to come.

So thanks polar vortex. Thanks Weather Channel and hyperbolic TV weather folks for so gleefully pumping up all these now named storms—HERCULES! ION! ELECTRA! LEON! (Ok: maybe that last one isn’t so scary but you get the point.)

Many of us?  Most of us? We are done with winter. I know I am. In keeping with my “cranky Yankee” nature I claim my absolute right to complain to any and all who’ll listen.  Let me kvetch, moan, whine, and yell about winter. Wave a white flag and surrender, though given the snow drifts no one will see me. 

Admit it. Such wintry whining has been a main topic of conversations, or in a status update on Facebook, or an email or text to a friend.  You’ve snapped off a string of “expletive deletives” when your ice scraper broke in half or the kids got another snow day and they tore the house apart or the town plow guy ruined your just shoveled driveway.

There’s nothing like such righteous weather anger.  But then one recent snowbound night, I came across a Facebook post by my mid-western friend, Jen. She’s a fellow newspaper columnist and lives in chilly Rochester, Minnesota. Along with being home to the world famous Mayo Clinic, Rochester is also known for some of the coldest and snowiest weather in the United States. 

Last week, as she and her family hunkered down for yet another blizzard, Jen wrote, “Whatta night! Lost power at about 8 p.m. and didn't come back until about 4 a.m. As soon as it popped back on, I thought about those poor Rochester Public Utilities employees who were out in the blizzard so I could have heat again. Heroes!”

Was that cheerfulness I detected?  Gratitude even?  A positive vibe in the midst of howling winds and blowing snow and a blackout? Investigating deeper I could find nary a complaint or whine anywhere on her page.  Heck, one night when the temps there hovered in the single digits, she reports her family played something called “ice bowling” in their arctic backyard!      

Where’s the outrage?

Maybe it’s Jen’s “Minnesota Nice”. Visit the North Star state as a stereotypical negative northeasterner, and you quickly encounter people there who are actually nice! Polite.  Helpful. But I think with Jen it goes much deeper. She’s cheerful.  Really cheerful.  One of the most upbeat folks I know. Always looks for the best, even in a bad situation. Knows just what to say to pick other people up.  Has a mile wide smile that’s catchy. Has a good heart.

After seeing how she deals with winter and life, it made me reconsider why I couldn’t be more cheerful too, and not just in February, but all year long.  If we are blessed, we do know cheerful people like Jen who make life better by being a bright light, who simply cheer us up.

Like the kid who joyfully insists on building yet another snowman. The neighbor who, unasked, helps push our car out of the snow bank.  The plow operator who shows up and does a great job faithfully.  The spouse who has dinner waiting for us, after we’ve sat for hours in an epic traffic jam.  Smiles. Good cheer. Small acts of kindness, but so powerful.

As humans we often have little or no control over what happens in our world. The weather, work, relationships? Unpredictable. What we can seek to control is the attitude we bring to each day, the “frame” through which we see life. We can choose to see the good or the bad.  Choose to honor the best in people or cynically expect the worst from folks.  Choose to focus on what we do have rather than what we lack. Choose to build up people or tear them down, all by the power of our speech. Choose to smile or to frown. 

Not easy.  Not for us sharp edged New Englanders, especially in February.  But I’m willing to give it a try, to be more cheerful. 

“Massachusetts Nice”? Hey: since spring is coming in just four weeks, anything is possible. Thanks Jen.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

When It Comes to Legalizing Marijuana, Is Massachusetts the Next Colorado?

Drug (noun) 1. any article, other than food, intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of humans  2. a habit-forming medicinal or illicit substance
--Random House Dictionary

“Rocky Mountain High” has an all new meaning these days, beyond the old John Denver song. Starting January 1st it became legal in Colorado to smoke, exchange and sell (in state licensed dispensaries) marijuana, for anyone 21 or older.  You can buy up to an ounce of pot at a time and give that much away too. You can grow up to six plants in the privacy of your own home.  In Denver, you can even light up in public, on the front porch or in the back yard. 

Washington also passed a law legalizing pot. Sixteen states have decriminalized marijuana use, including Massachusetts.  Medical marijuana is now available to the sick in twenty states.  The United States has come a very long way in its views towards marijuana use since pot was first classified in 1970 as a Section 1 drug, having a: “high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and no accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment.” Uncle Sam still enforces laws prohibiting marijuana use but more and more states are going the other way and very fast. 

Is Massachusetts now poised to become the next Colorado in the increasing cultural acceptance of recreational marijuana use as a seemingly harmless high? What is the problem with puffing away in Peabody or rolling some joints in Jamaica Plain?  After all it’s only pot, right? It’s only for personal use. It’s no worse than two martinis after a long day at work.  Why wouldn’t we want to legalize marijuana?

Well…here’s the problem. Marijuana is a drug. A drug. No sugarcoating or denying this fact. Drugs exist for these simple reasons: to alter behavior and feelings, to transform body chemistry and to change perceptions of reality. In pot’s case the purpose is to get high and therefore, to be removed, in a way, from life, to be above it all, hence that apt description: “high”.

Marijuana is a drug. We can dress up it up, rationalize it, minimize its potential harm to people and society, but we cannot deny why folks are drawn to drugs like pot.  Folks use the drug marijuana to get stoned. People sometimes drink alcohol just to get drunk.  Pop pills to get high. Shoot heroin to get wasted. Snort coke to feel exhilaration.

A drug is a drug is a drug, and when not taken for medical purposes, humans use drugs to escape life, in large and small ways. That’s a truth which can’t be ignored, no matter what the drug of choice is, even when a drug, like pot, is now being slowly but surely brought into the social mainstream.

Pot is a drug and users use drugs to change how they feel at any given moment. To take the edge off.  To forget. To be happy if depressed, mellow if stressed out, relaxed if anxious. Some use drugs to silence inner demons or numb haunting memories. Drugs are attractive because they allow us at a basic level to shift our experience of life, to step away from life.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a double Manhattan in a glass or a joint in the ashtray.

I fully own my bias. As I wrote in this blog in my piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose death two weeks ago, I know addiction and substance abuse first hand, right up close. I work as a pastor with drug addicts and alcoholics who use and abuse drugs and in doing so ruin their lives, destroy families, and threaten communities.  I’ve buried too many folks who died from their addictions. I’ve loved addicts with all my heart and soul and prayed for their recovery, and worked to help them to stop and then watched as everything that matters to them, even life itself, was taken away by their obsessions.

And yes, lots of folks, most folks, can use alcohol or pot and not become addicted. I get that. But still I wonder…why in this beautiful and amazing gift of real life from our Creator, would we want to put something potentially harmful, even addictive, into our bodies, all to avoid or soften or warp what it means to be fully alive?  Why with all the present wreckage we already experience as a world from drug use gone crazy, would we want to legalize and give social cachet to another drug?  Why do we “need” to use mind and life altering substances in the first place? 

We as a state and a nation need to vigorously and fully debate whether or not to legalize pot. Maybe even someday soon “Rocky Mountain High” will be joined by the “Bay State Buzz”. But let’s be clear about one truth before we make that choice: marijuana is a drug.

I’ll pass. Real life is enough of a high already.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When We Experience Loss In Life...What Now?

Loss (noun) 1. the state of being deprived of or of being without something that one has had; an ending

In the scheme of my one little life, it is not that big a loss.

But it is still sad.  That is how it feels when we lose something, when we lose some one, when that which was in life, is not anymore. Loss.

Two folks I’ve become good friends with told me last week that they are moving to New York City this spring, for a new job, an exciting promotion and a brand new life. I met them through a community choir three and a half years ago, and in that time we’ve sung together, hung out together and shared lives together in community. I’m very fond of them. But come May, our weekly connections will end, as they move 211 miles away. No more every Wednesday night practices or Sunday night trivia or nerve wracking but joyful concerts.     

And yes I trust through Facebook and occasional visits we’ll stay connected, the friendship won’t end, and yet: that which was, is now lost. That’s life, right? All things change eventually. People come in and then go out of our lives. Kids grow up and go away to school.  Jobs end.  Families come together and families fall apart.  What we depend upon today, or count on as a given, the status quo: it shifts. The familiar departs and it is hard.  Loss.

In the scheme of my life, it was a big loss, very big.  One year ago I lost two loved ones within the span of three days. On a Thursday, Valentine’s Day 2013, Sue, my lifelong mentor, died of cancer.  Then two days later on the 16th, I lost my cousin Kathy, also to cancer.  Seventy two hours. Two of the biggest losses I’ve ever known.

And yes I am so thankful to God for the gift of these two women. Sue: who taught me how to be a person of faith and minister for more than 35 years.  Kathy: whom I grew up with, shared precious childhood memories with, holidays and weddings and family. But the tough reality is that while how they loved and made this world a better place will always live on--they did not. They are gone, for a whole year now.

Hard to believe. Loss is like that. We may prepare for it, steel our hearts for it, even expect it and yet, it still hurts.  Loss in life.

Maybe loss is life. Maybe part of what it means to be alive is to figure out how to accept loss as a given, even a natural part of what it is to be a human being.  True: we are children of God, all made with a bit of the eternal within us that I believe lasts forever. Yet we are also contained within mortal, even fragile containers.  We all live in a world with a multiplicity of powers and people and events far beyond our human control.  Loss just happens.

I’m not saying all this loss stuff is easy to embrace. Not suggesting a simplistic theology of “when God closes one door God opens another door!”.  No. Loss stinks.  Loss hurts.  Loss is scary. Loss may teach us, even give us new life opportunities, but it is often a heartbreaking instructor.  

And I like the status quo. I like life to be dependable.  I can even imagine at times things just carrying on as they are: people not changing or leaving, work not changing, the old town always being the old town. Yet is this how to live life in our dynamic universe?  I don’t think so.

Look out the window on this chilly February day. All Creation witnesses to the miracle of loss and rebirth, death and resurrection, endings and beginnings. For that green bud under a snowy branch preparing to blossom in a month or so, a leave had to fall last November.  Winter’s loss will be spring’s gain.    

And finally if we dare to love, dare to courageously give our hearts to friends and family and God, to places and people, to jobs and causes, to life…then the risk is always that things will end. The story will conclude.  Loss will one day knock on the front door and declare, “It is time for a change.”

Loss.  It just is. We can’t make it go away, no matter how hard we try. We can accept it and then love our best and try our best and live out our best lives in the moments we have right now then thank God for this chance. 

I’m willing to take that risk, even if I lose. How about you?

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Needle and the Damage Done: An Actor's Death and Addiction In America

Addict (noun) 1. a person who is addicted, especially to drugs, from the Latin ‘addictus’, to give one’s assent to.    
--World English Dictionary

Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation.  An Academy Award winner. A sensation on Broadway. A film director. Through his work in fifty movies and numerous stage productions, Hoffman raised his art to high art.  He was the kind of actor whose face we always knew but whose name sometime escaped us, and yet, when he acted, when he was onscreen or onstage, he mesmerized. He shone. He was amazing. 

But now he’s gone.

Because Hoffman was also an addict. The details of the 46 year old actor’s death last Sunday are now widely known.  Discovered in his New York City apartment, “Investigators [also] found a syringe in his arm and, nearby, an envelope containing what appeared to be heroin.” (from The New York Times). Hoffman left behind millions of fans and most tragically, a partner of many years and three children.

I’m not sure why his death has hit me so hard but it has. The wider culture is certainly in shock about it.  Maybe it’s because his demise is such a waste. How could one so talented, so idolized, so great at his craft, who seemingly had “everything”, take the risk of sticking a needle in his arm to get high?

How could one who had shared publically that he was clean and sober for twenty three years relapse so quickly, go so far down, so fast?  How could one who must have been aware of the dangers of heroin use, who knew of fellow artists who died from drug addiction--Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Amy Winehouse, et al—ignore this and still shoot up?  How did he become just another statistic, one of more than 38,000 Americans who will die this year from drug overdoses, 75 percent from opioids like heroin?

He was an addict. That’s how he died. That’s why he died.

We need to name that truth even as we mourn Hoffman.  Not to condemn or judge the man. As someone who works very closely with addicts and has faced addiction, I know firsthand the demons Hoffman must have wrestled with. I think the reason a death like Hoffman’s is so shocking is that most people, non-addicts, 90 percent by some estimates of the general population: they don’t understand what makes an addict tick, or use, play with fire, have an addiction.

If any “good” could come from Hoffman’s death, let it be that our nation take more seriously the huge social costs of addiction and more important, begin to better understand the nature of addiction. 

Addicts don’t use just because they want to or because they can. Addicts drink and drug because they have to; because they are driven by a soul deep compulsion to fill a hole within, which can seemingly never be repaired. Addicts drink and drug because they are mentally ill, not because of moral failings or a lack of willpower. Addicts drink and drug out of an insatiable physical need for a high and an unmet spiritual need, an inability to see their own worth as humans, as children of God. 

Addicts are often some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Addicts are not just the famous and well known like Hoffman, nor are they merely stereotypes: the junkie in a cheap motel room, the wino weaving down the street.  Addicts are also our neighbors, our sons and daughters, our spouses, our co-workers and our friends. 

Ultimately addicts need our help and our compassion.  Not condemnation. Not overly simplistic platitudes like “Just Say No”.  Addicts need something more: some power greater than themselves and some care from folks and society, to help them get and stay clean and sober, just one day at a time. 

God rest your soul Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Actor. Partner. Father. Friend. Human. And yes, addict.