Monday, February 27, 2017

The Key to the Best Life: Pursue Your God-Given Passion

Passion (noun) 1. a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything
--Random House Dictionary

The secret to life?  Read on….

If you are blessed enough or lucky enough to turn ninety years old, to get to that pinnacle in life and attain “nonagenarian” status, how do you imagine you might celebrate that special day? You could go typical: maybe enjoy a surprise party thrown by your family, cake and greeting cards and balloons and the like. You could go more over the top, like former United States President George H.W. Bush. On his 90th in 2014, he jumped out of a plane and went skydiving, just as he did on his 80th and 85th birthday too.  Or you could do something amazing, like what Swedish conductor and maestro Herbert Blomstedt is doing in 2017, to mark his ninth decade of life on earth.

In twelve months he will travel the globe and conduct more than 90 concerts, with the best symphony orchestras in the world. That’s taxing for any person but for a ninety-something artist? When asked for a recent New York Times article, what the key was to his continued energy and vigor, for still going so strong while most of his contemporaries were either long gone or long ago retired, Blomstedt gave a profound and unexpected answer.

“I love music. How could you deny being together with your loved one?”

He didn’t credit his longevity to a Seventh Day Adventist faith that’s kept him alcohol and tobacco free for life. Didn’t tout some magic exercise regime either, or his genes, or a miraculous diet. Instead Blomstedt attributed his continued engagement in daily life to one simple human trait. Passion. The love of, the love for, some thing, some one, some ideal, some pursuit, some vocation, that gets us out of bed each day and lights us up for daily life. 

And so even though his body no doubt creaks and cracks when he steps up to the podium to conduct, and even though he could just live a life of leisure, with a hot cup of tea and maybe time to listen to some Beethoven on the stereo in a retirement village, Blomstedt has discovered what may be the secret to the best life, to a truly good life, in the deepest sense. To find our one God-given thing in this life to love, really love, and then to give our one life over to it, with passion.  And commitment too. And joy. And fun!  

What’s your passion?

When we seek to live a spiritual life, a life beyond the mere satiation of our sensual desires or our basic instincts, a life that is truly our own, a gift from God, and not dictated by others, this is the question to ask ourselves on a regular basis. What is our passion? What makes our hearts beat faster, our souls soar, and our spirits come alive? Those may among be the most important questions we ask ourselves in our time on this earth, whether it ends up being, nine or nineteen or ninety years, even more.

Passion is always personal, unique, like a fingerprint.  My passion is to write, to put pencil to paper (or nowadays digits to keyboard) and create an idea or an argument or a story or a thought, for my own understanding and others’ too.  Though I get paid to write, I’d happily do it for free, and can’t imagine my life without writing. That’s one way to identify your passion.  What would you do for free, pursue with passion, regardless of the pay, or lack thereof?  Or, if given extra time, free time, how do you spend it, this precious gift?  Maybe you hike or bike or cook or paint or sing or do yoga. Maybe your work brings you passion; you feel called to your job and its never gets old. Maybe you book a flight so you can see your kids or grandkids and family is your passion. 

But trust this.  The One who creates us has placed within each of us a special love, a passion. It must be sought after, and then practiced and then embraced, with everything we’ve got.  You’ve got passion, we all do: thank God. 

So...what’s your passion?  Have fun finding out!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Drugs and Despair in America: Does Anyone Notice?

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”    --Søren Kierkegaard

Death by despair—can a person actually die from despair?  Brought so low by hurt and heartache, by economic struggles and mental illness, by addiction and unemployment that the cause of one’s death is finally despair. Believing no one cares for you, about you, that your one life does not matter anymore.  Convinced you are just not worth it. Spiraling down into alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression. “When I am gone, no one will notice.”

Death by despair--the term used by some social scientists to describe an alarming state and nationwide increase in the number of deaths by suicide, liver disease, alcohol poisoning and drug overdose among one specific group of Americans: white, non-Hispanic men, middle aged, with a high school education or less.

So, for example, last year in Massachusetts, almost 2,000 people died from opioid-related drug overdoses; 1,200 from the above described demographic. That 2,000 figure is up 26 percent from 2014, a six fold increase since 2000. The hot spots for drug deaths are ground zero for poverty and joblessness in the Bay State: 141 deaths in Boston, 56 in Lowell, 25 in Lawrence, 45 in Lynn, 48 in New Bedford, 41 in Quincy, 41 in Springfield, and 76 in Worcester.         

This trend is happening nationwide too. In a groundbreaking but largely under-reported 2015 study about life expectancy rates among Americans, Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case made a startling discovery. Since 1999, while every other age, racial and ethnic group in the United States has seen a rise in life expectancy, white middle aged men, ages 45 to 54, are dying at increasing rates. Deaths by alcohol and drug poisoning in this group are up by nearly 30 percent; chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis, 20 percent; suicides, up by 24 percent.  In trying to find a historic precedent, Deaton said, “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”

Deaton and Case name two trends that might explain the phenomena: financial distress and social isolation. Real wages for the group have dropped by 19 percent since 1999 and the number of manufacturing jobs, once a dependable bulwark for this demographic, has dropped precipitously since 2000. 

And so the notion that you’d work in the same factory your father and grandfather did, provide for your family with a decent union job and middle class wages: that hope slowly fades and then dies.  And so you get sick but have little or no health insurance; the bills mount, you lose your job and turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.  And so cheap drugs like heroin are easily available, sometimes cheaper than booze, and you use that substance to escape, if only for a few hours on the couch. And so businesses in town begin to close one by one; the social groups which once tied neighbor to neighbor—churches, clubs, bowling leagues, the Rotary, the Lions Club—these close too.  And so you live in a city where the young and well educated are moving in and housing costs skyrocket and you can no longer afford the rent, not on a minimum wage job.

And so…you despair.

The worst part of despair? Invisibility, the fear that no one sees you anymore. You’ve slipped through the cracks, unmoored from community, forgotten.  I imagine such despair can lead to great anger directed outward, maybe even seeking a messiah like figure who can rescue you and the memory of who you once were.  I imagine enclaves of despair in city neighborhoods and once proud mill towns, now lost in the hustle and the bustle and the pace of this brave new world we now call home.

As a nation, in these perilous times, we’ve got a lot to do to repair our social fabric across all demographic groups. We’ve got lots of folks who feel left out and who therefore despair. Faith teaches this: one of our main jobs as children of God and neighbors is to seek out the lost and lonely, the overlooked and powerless, folks left behind.

The antidote to despair is always hope and hope happens when someone takes an interest in our well being, takes the time to reach out. In church basements where addicts help other addicts.  In houses of worship where the hungry are fed. In the halls of government where the brave and the compassionate actually speak up on behalf of people other than the well connected and the powerful.

The despairing are out there, waiting for some one, any one, for you, me, to care.  Will we notice those who despair? I hope our answer is, “Yes”



Monday, February 13, 2017

A Big Old Elm Dies But First: It Makes History

“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are…”             --Herman Hesse

It was called the Big Old Elm, or just B.O.E., the affectionate nickname given it by the neighbors who so dearly loved that tree. For 135 years this stately seven story high elm tree claimed Boston’s Marlborough Street, in the Back Bay, as its home. Such American elm trees (ulmus Americana) have marked this part of the world for thousands of years. Known for their graceful umbrella like canopies and the heights to which they can soar, the trees are loved for their longevity too, some living to 200 years or more.

But last week, B.O.E. had to come down. She was the victim of Dutch elm disease, a beetle borne fungus that has killed most of the American elms in North America. A stump now sits where she once stood so proud. A neighborhood mourns and yet: what a long life she lived!

When the tree came into the world, and that diminutive sapling first reached up to heaven for life giving sunlight and down into the soil for life giving water, her new home was marked by the “clop, clop” of horse hooves, carriages traveling up and down Marlborough Street. Boston was America’s fifth largest city. The new American President Chester A. Arthur championed civil service reform. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress ended all immigration from China. Boston’s baseball team the Red Stockings, had great hopes for the coming season at the South End Grounds on Columbus Avenue. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was in its first year. Mayor Samuel Abbott Green established the Franklin Fund to purchase land for Franklin Park. The poem “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, was banned as obscene, by the city council.

Many of the folks living then, who walked by the tree each day, on the way to work or school, no doubt imagined that their time in history, that time in history: it was an unprecedented epoch. Some celebrated it as a golden age: the city booming, electricity for every home, soon on the way. Others knew it as a time of great troubles: immigrants and refugees discriminated against by the blue bloods. “No Irish Need Apply” signs hanging in the windows. 

People were born. People lived amazing and anonymous lives. People died. Time passed. And the tree grew.

For almost five generations, the tree stretched limbs upward, its leaves providing shade, as folks moved in and moved out of the brick townhouse at number 284. Babies were birthed in the third floor bedroom of that home. Children watched the leaves turn and drop and marveled when the tree bloomed all green and new again, come the spring. Lovers stole secret kisses in the shadow of its trunk. A soldier leaned against the tree’s wide girth, smoking a cigarette, before rushing off to catch a train, to go and fight in a war that would end all wars.

And the tree grew, a silent witness to the thousands of souls who strode past it daily: through bone chilling winters, and resurrection Aprils, sweltering summers and bittersweet autumns.     

Snow piled up against the tree and then melted away.  The weight of rushing streetcars shook its base and later, the blue smoke of car exhaust wafted up through its branches. The strong roots of the tree pushed at the bricks that encircled it; red rectangles scattered by the power of that living God made creation. Friends used the tree as a meeting place: “Look for me under the big tree just around the corner from Fairfield Street!” The tree’s relatives, scores of American elms which once graced the street from end to end, began to die, one by one, until finally she was the last of her kind.

One last hold out. One final survivor.

And then on February 8th, 2017, folks with chain saws arrived in bright yellow bucket trucks and over the course of a chilly and rainy winter’s day, took down that tree, limb by limb, as a crowd of brokenhearted witnesses watched in mute sadness.

Oh, to be such a tree!  To stand up, true and tall, through so much time. To somehow possess the wisdom of the world within your one strong and scarred body.  Humbled but never broken by the march of history, with all its triumphs, its defeats, its weight.  Faithful in the time that God plants us on this earth. Trusting in the goodness of existence, right up until the day that we breathe our last, and then return to the soil which gave us birth. 

Rest in peace, Big Old Elm.  We will miss you.



Monday, February 6, 2017

The Words We Live By As a Nation: Words Matter

“Words--so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them."  --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Words matter.

We live and we die, we are known, through the words that we speak, the words we write, and in 2017, the words, that we also tweet, we text, we post, and we send out into cyberspace. In just a few words or paragraphs: a heart can be broken, a dream denied or a heart can be mended, a dream realized. Words can set people free. Words can inspire a nation, even a world. Words can also imprison or oppress a people, or close a door, even threaten to tear down a cherished national myth.

And all with a mere stroke of a pen, or the posting of 140 characters on Twitter.

Words matter. 

“I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12) [Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen], would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order.”

“The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days....I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.” 

(The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January 27, 2017)

Words matter.   

"’Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. ‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she with silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’"

(“The New Colossus”, 1883, Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty, New York harbor)

Words matter: in these times, in all times.

Words of great wisdom, like ancient words from ancient texts that continue to be read and believed and followed, because of the truths these words proclaim; truths that transcend any specific time or place. Truths that last, generation to generation.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” --Leviticus 19:33-34

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” --Matthew 25:25-36

(The Holy Bible)

Words matter, whether expressed by the powerful or the powerless, for by our words, both written and embodied, we will all be judged. Of that I am absolutely sure. Words need no spin nor interpretation nor analysis. Words finally speak for themselves.  Words reveal character, conscience, and conviction. 

What words will we live by? What words will define us, in this time and in this place, and in this moment in our history?

Words matter.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Something We Can Actually All Agree Upon: One Super Bowl. One Night of Fun. GO PATS!

“Life is more fun if you play [and watch] games.”                --Roald Dahl, alt.

Sometimes human beings: we just need to play.  To play and to have fun. To watch others play a game and have fun in that pastime too.

So on many Sunday evenings, after a long week of work, I get together with a few friends at a local bar and we play a game of trivia, against other teams. Over cold glasses of beer or diet Coke and hot slices of pepperoni pizza, we take a few hours to test our minds for arcane information and then we compete, with joy and gusto and much laughter. 

Who is the only person to play for the Celtics, the Bruins and the Red Sox? (John Kiley, who played the organ at both Fenway Park and the Boston Garden!) 

And while we tax our brains at coming up with such trivial answers, larges screen TVs surround us, always tuned to professional sports games for us to watch. We play while they play: NFL football games on chilly winter evenings, Major League baseball games on warm summer nights. We cheer for a touchdown.  Groan when an easily catchable ball is dropped.  Protest vehemently if a referee clearly missed an obvious call.

I’ve always loved games, both as a player and as a fan. Games allow me to lose myself for a bit of time, escape the more intense aspects of my life and my work. Games remind me that even in middle age, I’ve still got a body, and it is made for more than just laying on the couch and eating Cheetos! I still need to play and challenge myself physically: at the gym or on my bicycle. To watch games is a gift too: witness athletes at the top of their games, women and men who stretch their physical abilities to the max, do things I can only view with awe. A vicious overhead smash by Serena Williams for the point. A towering, clutch home run by David Ortiz. A perfectly thrown spiral for a touchdown, delivered from the miraculous hands of Tom Brady.

To play a game.  To watch a game. And always to just have fun.

After all, that’s why it’s called a game. Fun. That’s why I and so many of us are PSYCHED this week as we New Englanders prepare with huge anticipation for a really, really, really big game and big fun: New England Patriots versus the Atlanta Falcons. Super Bowl LI, Sunday night, 6:30 pm, in Houston, Texas. 


Fun.  One game so many of us across the nation will share all together, a rare communal event we agree is a nice break from the day to day. No debate. No protest. No rancor. Just fun.  To gorge ourselves on delicious, gut busting food, throw out the diet, balance a plate of sour cream covered chili on our laps and a beer in our hands, surrounded by family and friends and all of us cheering full volume.  Fun.  To watch the gaudy spectacle of it all, the crazy and weird TV commercials, the preening national anthem singer, the over the top halftime show, excess that only American culture can produce.  Fun.  At a chilly and wet and freezing time of year, with Christmas a dim memory and spring still a far away dream. Fun.  To watch the game with our kids and remember the games we watched with our Moms and Dads, to be a kid again, in a way. 

Fun.  A game. A super game. The Super Bowl.

Given the current state of our world and nation I know that right now, I need some fun.  Bet you do too. We all do.  We need a game. We need to participate in an activity within which, truth be told, there is finally little or nothing at stake, save for entertainment and the pleasure of watching what is finally, is after all only, a game. Thank God. The world will not rise nor fall based upon its outcome.  Rabid Pats fans may dis the Atlanta team, and Falcon fans are so excited at the hope of taking down the despised Patriots, but that red hot rhetoric means nothing.  It’s harmless trash talk, playground chatter. 

For one night, most of America will actually be able to concur about one thing. A game. The game. The fun of play. We can all go back to regular life, come next Monday morning, but for now?