Monday, October 15, 2018

Today Will Never, Ever, Ever Be Again: THEN LIVE IT!!!!

"This is a wonderful day, I have never seen this one before.” --Maya Angelou, poet

Sunday, October 14th, 2018. 

It was a day like any other day, I suppose.  The 287th day of the year. Just twenty four hours long or 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds, if you are counting.  In these parts it was a typical autumn day, a bit breezy, with a bright blue sky and then  later temps dropping to a chilly 41 degrees as the sun went down and the sliver of an orange moon rose in the sky.

Do you remember what that one day was like for you?

What you did? What you ate? The music you listened to in the car, the expression on your face in the mirror as you shaved, the feel of a warm embrace as your kid hugged you, the softness of your elderly parent's cheek as you kissed them in welcome for another Sunday visit?

Remember? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not.

For most humans: we have so many days to live that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to recall the minute and mundane, the beautiful and the boring moments of just one day out of so many. Which if you think about it is kind of sad.  Because the truth is that a day, say like last Sunday: it never, ever happened before and it will never, ever happen again, so to let it slip by unnoticed, to banish it to memory, never to be retrieved, is a lost opportunity, a forgotten blessing, even.

There are rare folks who actually remember every single day, almost every single moment, in life. These souls have hyperthymesia, the ability to recall much of their lives in very specific detail. In ten years ask them about last Sunday the 14th and they will tell you what the stranger sitting across them on the subway was wearing. 

I don't think I want to recall that much experience and yet I do wish and pray I could be more conscious, more alive to and wide awake to, the precious and miraculous gift that is every sun up and sun down, every turn of the daily calendar page. I want to live by the wise words of the ancient author who declared, "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

So--what was last Sunday, October 14, 2018, like for you? Try and recall, call it back. Guaranteed that on that one day you were blessed somehow. You were immersed in some experience that changed you: for the good, for the better, for sure.

Every day does change the universe, change us.  

So I now I do remember that one day...the wide open smile and enveloping arms of an enthusiastic five year old boy who wrapped himself around my legs as I finished up worship.  He just wanted to say "HI!".  I remember going to the Patriots game and being incredibly cold but so excited and happy: to watch a nail biting, nerve wracking game with my brother and four cousins, a rare gathering, then to finally get home at one a.m., so exhausted and so thankful.  It was a day to put up on the shelf and then take down later and remember with deep thankfulness.

And there is this day too.  This Monday, now the 15th of October. A raw and cold and rainy day. A smoky cup of coffee to drink by my side and another essay to write about life, about this one day.  The mistake I make is to somehow see this more "everyday" day as disposable or forgettable or something to quickly move on from because, well, it is just another day. Right?

But here's the truth. This day, that day, each day, today, all days: these are not just any days. These are instead days that will only happen once in a long string of tens of thousands of days that we all, incredibly, actually get to live. Get to breathe in and breathe out.  Get to watch our kids grow up, and feel ourselves grow older and witness the world rock and roll with so much change and so much challenge and so much energy.

We get to experience all of it, every single minute.

So thank you God: for October 14th, 2018. The 15th too.  Let me rejoice and be glad in it.  Let us all take this one day too, whatever the date, and then use it up and use it well, every last second.  Because when it is gone, it is gone. 

All that really matters is...today.





        

  





   

    



Monday, October 8, 2018

The End of the World As We Know It: Blame Pumpkin Spice

Fluff (noun) 1. light...particles, as of cotton. 2. a soft...mass 3. something of no consequence                       --Dictionary.com

(Trigger warning: this article is of absolutely no consequence. None. It's not political, partisan, profound nor p'oed. It is mere fluff, seven hundred or so words of cotton candy-ish rhetoric. You've been warned.)

I have seen the apocalypse, the end days, one sure sign that civilization as we know it is coming to an abrupt end. It appeared by stealth in these opening days of autumn, showed up unbidden on store shelves in the dead of the night, stocked by workers sworn to absolute secrecy. Perhaps you've seen it while strolling down the baked good aisles of your local grocery store, have recoiled in horror and fear at the appearance of this unholy spawn from the devil.

It is...Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. No, that's not a typo or a misprint.  Hostess Pumpkin Spice Twinkies. Yes, some food engineer sitting in a high tech lab somewhere in the middle of the corn fields of Indiana actually created this culinary catastrophe, this blending of two "foods", a Frankenstein like culinary monster of epic proportions. Bite into one of these spongy cakes and you'll be confronted with a vaguely pumpkinny flavored orange hued cream. Yum.

Okay. I know my harangue is a little over the top.  

But what is it with our nation's fascination every September and October now, with pumpkin or pumpkin spice flavored foods and drinks? I don't get it. Do you? This trend started in 2003 with the introduction by Starbucks of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a $4.65 cent melding of coffee and (at least according to the company) "real" pumpkin flavoring. Do they blenderize a whole pumpkin and then somehow mix it in with the beans?

Regardless of how the baristas do it, this drink has become a huge hit for the ubiquitous java chain.  BuzzFeed reports that in 15 years, Starbucks has sold in excess of 350 million of these odd concoctions, wracking up sales of almost $1.5 billion. The drink is so popular it has its own Twitter handle with 110,000 followers and a hashtag that's been tagged some 850,000 times on Instagram.  Since I'm over 55 years old I have no idea what that last statistic means, but it must be important, right?

Not content to stop at a hybrid Twinkie or warped cup of coffee, a horde of companies have created a seemingly endless list of pumpkin or pumpkin spiced themed products.  Ready? Pumpkin ale. Pumpkin Greek yogurt. Pumpkin coffee creamer. Pumpkin marshmallows. Pumpkin Spice Cheerios. Pumpkin Pie Hummus Shake. (Yes these two foods deserve each other.) Pumpkin Spice pretzel nuggets.  Pumpkin Flax Energy Cakes. (Why not mix in a little kale while you're at it?). 

But wait! It gets better...or worse.

Pumpkin gum. Pumpkin Pringles. Pumpkin Oreos. Pumpkin spice sweet burrito. Pumpkin spice candy corn. (Making the worst Halloween candy of all time that much more unpalatable.)  Pumpkin spice English muffins and what better way to top those off than with Pumpkin butter and Pumpkin spiced Jiff peanut butter?

Leave it to America to take a fanciful little idea, a cute concept and then turn it into a mass consumption juggernaut. This season alone, pumpkin themed products will bring in more than a $1 billion in sales. I wonder. Whatever happened to plain old pumpkin pie, the once sole use for our discarded orange gourds, mixed into a pasty concoction, poured into a pie shell and then consumed with a dollop of whip cream twice a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Call me old school, old fashioned, an old guy who stands on his lawn in sandals, shorts, and high black socks and then yells at the kids to "GET OFF!" Go ahead. I still can't fathom drinking a pumpkin coffee to wash down a pumpkin Twinkie. Nope. 

Instead, just pass the pie.  That's good enough for me.

(Trigger coda: you've just finished reading a piece that has no intellectual caloric value, nor any opinion that really matters. Hope you enjoyed it.)


Monday, October 1, 2018

On Leaves and Leaving As Autumn Settles In

“Two sounds of autumn are unmistakable...the hurrying rustle of crisp leaves blown along the street...by a gusty wind, and the gabble of a flock of migrating geese.”  --Hal Borland

Leave. To depart, to exit, to migrate, to go away from, to put in the rear view mirror, to part, to retire, to go on to something new.

Here's the odd thing I notice every year about the autumn. Spring, summer, winter: these seasons arrive with a bang. They pull up to the curb and bound out of the car and extend a hand and say, "Hello! Glad to be back!" They show up, often very suddenly. In April on a miraculous morning when the buds on the trees seem to have exploded forth overnight. In June when sultry heat arrives and so we drag the air conditioner out of the attic and prepare for the dog days. In December when the sky turns slate grey, and the sun's rays are so diffuse and then we look up and notice the first white flakes, lazily falling in circles to the cold ground.

But not fall.  Fall is about leaving.

Fall gets into the car and says to us, "It's time to go. It's time to leave. Get in."  Fall is always about leaving and leaves, of course. Red and yellow and purple and orange and pink and brown. These spread like a lush technicolor carpet over the mountains, circle a quiet suburban backyard, hang from trees that bend over city streets.  The leaves are so beautiful and yet we know that even as we enjoy this amazing God show, the painting of Creation by the master artist's hand, we know it is all temporary. That soon those same leaves will leave. Fall to the ground. Decay into the soil or get sucked up by the legions of leaf blowing landscapers who invade these parts every November.

Fall is about leaving.

I used to regret, push back against leaving. Who wants to face into the loss of someone or something, this going away? A son or daughter leaves for college and so even as we celebrate that rite of passage, we mourn too, aware of how much we miss the sound of their voice, the footfall of steps as they come down the stairs in the morning.  At the church I serve we recently gave leave to a couple who were members of our community for more than fifty years. The Sunday we said goodbye was bittersweet, filled with gratitude for all they had done for and among us, sure, but grief too, at their departure.  Who wants to face into such goodbyes, such endings?  Not me! And yet....

We need the fall. We need to leave sometimes. We need leaving in this life. 

For the new cannot arrive until the old has made way for it.  A new relationship cannot bloom forth unless we have made peace somehow with the old relationship, the one who is no longer with us. For children to grow up and into the world they will inherit, we adults must know when to hand over such responsibility, say to them, "It is yours' now. Take good care of it."  For the sweet promises of next spring and summer to come true we have to first welcome the fall, and finally close the door on last spring and summer. Pack those seasons up and put them away in the attic so that when all is ready, they can come back out and play next year.

Yes, there is a wisdom to autumn and to leaving. 

So as we move into shorter days and chillier temperatures, as the animals rush to collect forage for the winter, as the geese fly overhead and head south in a cacophony of honks, my prayer is that we can all lean into our natural and personal leave takings with grace and with care. That we can be grateful in the midst of leaving, for the times that are going away and the times that are coming, just up ahead.  In our leaving may we be thankful to our God for the people who come into our lives and bless us, but then have to depart. 

So welcome autumn. It's time to leave.


     

   

Monday, September 24, 2018

To Be Right We Must First Admit When We Are Wrong

"It does take great maturity to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favor, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or a truth."             
--Milan Kundera, author

I know this much is true. I get it wrong in this life. A lot. I have opinions that need to change. Biases that need to be challenged.  Self-righteous convictions that need to be overturned.  I'm actually wrong several times a day.

So this past Saturday evening, on the last night of summer, under clear skies and crisp temperatures, I was at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, watching the New England Revolution professional soccer team play the Chicago Fire. For years I gave a friend of mine a really hard time about his diehard status as a "football" fan.  I argued that soccer was in fact boring--just a bunch of folks running up and down, up and down the field, this repetitive display of play rarely punctuated by the actual scoring of a goal. I was half serious and half silly. I loved ribbing him but was also very set in my ways. 

But then I finally decided to go to a game with him, to give it a chance, spend a few hours under the lights with 20,000 or so other fans and....WOW! It was a great match. Really exciting. The players were amazing, so athletic, kicking and heading the ball in ways unfathomable. The match was tight and hard fought and came down to the final minutes. When our home team scored in the waning moments of the match I leapt to my feet and roared with joy.

And so I was wrong. And so I am wrong too.

Not just about soccer but also about other ideas and issues and beliefs too.  It used to be hard for me to confess when I was mistaken, or made an incorrect assumption, or held some belief I thought sacred and inviolable but that was in fact incorrect.  If challenged I'd dig in my heels, argue even harder, double down on my self-righteousness and never, ever, ever, ever back off.

But then I grew up. Came to see that to be a fully formed and mature human being, to get along with folks I share this life with, I need to be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. I have to actually listen to an opponent with respect and care.  I have to dig deeper, do research and look at both sides with thoughtfulness.  I have to have the courage to try new things I can so easily dismiss as "not for this guy!" I have to be willing to change my mind.

About things like a soccer match. Or a political belief. Or a moral stance. Or a religious ideal. Or a partisan conviction.

That soccer epiphany reminded me of a larger reality about right and wrong and right now. We are in a civic crisis in the United States: more divided, more angry, and more convicted by our unwavering convictions than ever before, at least in my lifetime.  Democrats and Republicans move in lock step as partisan foot soldiers, more loyal to their own kind and their own way of thinking than to country.  We are "led" by firebrand politicians who rarely, if ever, admit when they are wrong. We are awash in media and social media that is ever hungry and hungrier for a cruel tweet, a nasty insult, or a sweeping opinion that condemns a whole group of humans as "less than" or "the enemy". 

As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming", "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed...The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity."  I don't think this judgment is overly dramatic. For the worst among us these days are so full of passionate intensity, are so sure of their own beliefs that they would even take down the community as a whole, even the nation as a whole and why?

To be "right".

I'm almost always idealistic about the future of our land and world, the days ahead, and our ability as a species to overcome whatever crises we face.  I want to believe, I need to believe that at some point those who lead us will let go of ego, self interest and blind conviction to actually do the work of our democracy.  But if this is to happen, all of us as citizens must leave the safety of our righteousness and have the courage to imagine that we may be wrong.  That we may need for our minds and hearts to change.  That the common good will happen when folks meet somewhere beyond mere passionate intensity.

I'm wrong today.  My opponent too.  That's the place to start.


       








Monday, September 17, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Pandemic That Started in Massachusetts

“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak, to tell their story for them.”
--Czesław Miłosz, Polish poet and writer

It's a largely forgotten story now, lost to history, vaguely remembered by some Americans but almost never recalled for the huge public crisis that it was. How many lives it took; how it disrupted all forms of public life; how it stole away husbands and wives, young children and young adults, folks who were supposed to live long and loving lives, but who instead died in the grip of a mysterious plague.   

And it all happened exactly 100 years ago in the fall of 1918.

The previous spring, reports had come from Spain about a deadly form of influenza, the flu, sweeping through groups of soldiers, killing scores of previously robust and healthy young men. It was World War I, "the war to end all wars" and Americans were being sent to Europe by the hundreds of thousands and, of course, then coming back home. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was first detected at an Army base in Kansas, but then the outbreak dramatically escalated, and right here in Massachusetts. It appeared at Camp Devens, a military base 45 miles northwest of Boston, and at naval shipyards in the city's downtown.

Victims of the outbreak would first suffer from normal flu symptoms: fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea.  But for many, especially the young, folks considered in the prime of their lives, the sickness would turn fatal. Severe pneumonia would develop. Patients would turn blue from a lack of oxygen, and eventually die, as their lungs filled up with fluid, victims drowning in their own bodies. 

In the Boston area by mid September, hundreds of cases were reported in the city and its suburbs. In response public schools were closed at the end of September and almost all public gatherings--military parades, sporting events, concerts, movies, clubs, etc.--were temporarily banned. Churches were given the option to stay open but most closed out of great caution. Still the pandemic grew. By October there were thousands of cases of influenza around the region and dozens of people were dying each day. Coffins were in short supply.  Understaffed hospitals could not keep up.  As one nurse of that time said, "It seemed as if all the city was dying, in the homes serious illness, on the streets funeral processions.” 

By early December, Boston had lost 4,794 people to the flu, with many more added to that number after a brief flare up the following winter.  Boston's influenza death rate was 710 per 100,000 residents, making it the third hardest hit city in the country.  Imagine 5,000 Bostonians dying in a matter of months from the flu in 2018 and you can begin to comprehend the depth of the crisis.

Scientists and historians estimate that worldwide, 20 to 50 million people died from the Spanish flu; that number includes 675,000 Americans, 140,000 of whom were soldiers. Some reports estimate that upwards of 5 percent of the global population died in this outbreak.  More folks died from the flu than all the military deaths from World I and World War II combined. 

But then in 1919, as quickly as the Spanish flu flared up, the flu died out, leaving families, communities, cities and nations ravaged, a whole generation lost to a disease that we still do not fully understand. How did it develop?  Where exactly was the first case reported? Why did it go away?  Could it happen again?  Such important questions.   

Yet why then do most of us suffer from historic amnesia when it comes to this, the worst worldwide pandemic since the bubonic plague, or Black Death, of the mid fourteenth century? Part of it may have to do with a lack of storytellers: folks who survived 1918-19. For the most part they are long gone from this life.  Maybe we neglect to remember because death was so random and chaotic--no logic to it. So hard to understand or comprehend.  Perhaps the story is untold because unlike casualties of war, which are often framed in dramatic, patriotic terms, folks who died from the flu went quietly, anonymously, and privately. 

But remember we must. To affirm this part of history as a part of our human story and our American story. To name the lost, these children of God: to recall them in memory, in honor, and in prayer. A few years ago, while on a bike ride, I discovered a lone gravestone at a local state hospital, now long ago closed. The marker stands at the entrance to a field of unmarked graves, anonymous souls who passed on. Affixed to that stone is a brass plaque, that simply declares: “Remember us: for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”

One hundred years ago.
                            


        



  

Monday, September 10, 2018

In Praise of Tears and the Relief These Bring: Pass the Tissues

"It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper; so cry away."                     --Charles Dickens

A confession.  I'm a crier.  A sniffling sap.  A big softie. 

Yes. Even at 57 years old, I tear up, well up, weep, if something or someone touches my heart; makes me realize how great it is to be alive; inspires me to remember what a gift from God each day is; what a miracle it is that love happens in this often broken and ugly world.  I weep at a corny TV commercials, grateful that the insurance agent arrives to save the day! I weep every single Christmas watching the last scene from the film "It's a Wonderful Life" even though having seen that flick 143 times, I already know that George will be rescued from suicidal despair by his friends and that an angel named Clarence will get his wings.   

Sniff, sniff.

I weep when I stand with parents at the front of the church and take a little baby from them and hold that fragile and delicate soul in my arms and then drip holy water over that child's tiny forehead, with sacred and ancient blessings. I weep when I sing a soaring majestic hymn, as the organ notes waft above me. And yes I wept when the Red Sox finally won it all in 2004!  I definitely wept when I saw my Godson get his diploma last May and flashed back to a day long ago when he had to hold my hand to cross the street. 

When's the last time you had a good cry? 

Mine was last Saturday night when I really, really overflowed with the water works at a family party celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary of my cousin Darrell and his wife Deb. She had no idea what was coming and so as 100 or so of us huddled quietly in a banquet room, Deb walked through the doors and then saw her life love holding a dozen red roses and then he took her into his arms and then their song played and then they danced slowly in a tight embrace and she wept and heck, we all were blubbering. 

Pass the tissues please.

There is something powerful, therapeutic, spiritual, and beautiful about being so moved by an event or a person or an act of love in this life, that we just have to cry.  The tears can signify so many things.  That we've finally let go of some thought or notion or grief we've hung on to and we can lean into it, let it come.  When I finally wept at my Grandfather's funeral, it meant I knew he was really gone and with God, but it also meant I did really, really so, so love him.

Tears remind us what is most important to us in this life.  We cry at a wedding because in this hour of joy, we re-learn that love really is the most powerful force in this world, that love is really all we need. Tears signal that we are going into a soul space, deep within, into a mystical realm.  We cry in a house of worship because the music or a sermon or a soft spoken prayer gets us closer to God and to our real feelings, nothing held back and so we weep. Art moves us to tears because the best song or symphony or story or painting reveals human truth in a way the everyday just cannot.

I know folks for whom it is still hard to cry.  They fear that once the tears start they won't be able to stop. Or men, who still think it is somehow less than masculine to cry; echoes of "Boys don't cry!" holding them back from shedding tears of sadness or joy. Or we can hang on to an outer shell of cynicism or snarky irony to protect us from our tears, to push away deep emotions.

The truth is that crying actually takes courage.  Crying cracks us open, reveals our hearts and takes us to the most authentic place of all: being fully human. Remember that the next time you start to tear up and your first instinct is to tamp it down, push it back. Here's a gentle suggestion. Let those tears come. Let them flow. It will do you good. Nothing like a good cry.

So if you find yourself sitting next to me at a wedding, please have a hanky ready.  I'm definitely going to need it.


 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Summer Memories: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” 
--Lucy Maud Montgomery, "The Story Girl"

Unload the luggage from the car and clean out all the detritus of my road trip: eight  coffee cups, four pretzel cheddar combos bags, etc. Check. Sort accumulated mail: 80 percent in the recycle bin, 10 percent to the bill pile, 10 percent for actual reading. Check. Listen to landline voicemails: two sales calls, one hang up, one offer for a free cruise. Erase. Check. Read work email. Well, maybe not just yet, at least not until later,  post summer, post vacation.  

But most important? Remember the memories. Remember. Check. Check!

Here's a suggestion for a September spiritual pick me up before we move so quickly out of summer and into fall, before we rush back to school and off to college and ramping up at work and shorter days and leaves turning and yet another year rolling on by. Sit down this day and write down all your favorite memories from our quickly departing summer of 2018. Go through your phone and your camera and download all the photos too. 

The image of your toes squishing into the sand, or of you squinting into the camera because it was so sunny that day. The bright technicolor fireworks from the fourth: remember all the "ooohs!" and the "aaaahs!" and how hot it was that night. Take a moment to look at the pictures from an exciting soccer match at Gillette Stadium with your mates, or a night at Fenway as the Sox rolled over their opponent in this baseball season when the hometown team is red, red, hot. Look again at the portrait of your freshman son or daughter, so happy and nervous in their new college dorm room.    

And then remember.  Just remember. 

The stars in the sky on a muggy August evening. The peepers lulling you to sleep. The sweat on your brow or trickling down your back when you mowed the lawn or took a long bike ride or ran a few miles or tended the garden or just sat and read. The barbeque at the family reunion, dropping kids off at camp, hosting grandkids for a week or two, that funky outdoor concert where you actually got up and danced. 

Remember it all.

Then give thanks. Practice gratitude. Say "Thank you!" to God or to the Universe or to whatever mysterious power greater than ourselves gives us the grace of enjoying this life twice. First there is the profundity of living right now, and then also, remembering "then", recalling precious moments, the days, nights, and hours that you just do not want to forget. For that was a time that will never, ever be again. 

What memories stay? What event so thrilled your heart or caught your breath or made you cry or made you laugh, that you just do not want it to fade away? What summer memory do you want to hang on to and then remember on a chilly day next February, when you need some warm reassurance in the middle of snowy winter? That's the power of memory and memories. They gift us in their creation and they gift us in their re-creation too.

In so many ways memories and the act of remembering make us into the people that we are at this very moment. Especially as we get older, we judge the present by comparing it to what happened to us in the past, by our remembrance. Yesterday shapes today. That experience can be evoked by something as simple as a smell (think frying bacon or the like), a sound (remember the bells of the ice cream truck?), or a touch (clutching a toddler's hands and recalling your own parents' safe grip). 

Memory is miraculous and memory is powerful and memory is a blessing. As J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan", wrote, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December." So just this day, may we all make memories and then collect memories and then keep our precious memories too. You see, we won't pass this way again, and so let us all....

Remember.


 

         


     

 

 

     

      

Monday, August 27, 2018

Godspeed John McCain. The Real Deal. A Patriot.

“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”  
--Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher and Roman Emperor

Where have you gone John McCain? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

A story: near the close of the 2008 campaign for the Presidency of the United States, Republican nominee Senator John McCain faced a moment of truth and courage, one I'll never, ever forget witnessing. It all unfolded a decade ago on the stage of a rally in Minnesota. With a little more than a month to go before election day, McCain was behind in the polls and struggling to make up lost ground.     

Context: ten years ago the fact that an African-American, for the very first time ever, had a very good chance of winning the highest office in the land: this heartened many but also threatened and scared many voters too.  Folks who looked with suspicion upon that candidate's exotic sounding name--"Barack Hussein Obama"!?  Others, including a publicity seeking businessman and developer from New York City, who insisted Obama might be foreign born, maybe even a Muslim.

In that historic campaign McCain could have easily jumped on the fear mongering train. Stoked the ugly whisper campaign against Obama.  Presidential politics are often marked by such Machiavellian tactics. To win at all costs, right? But that was not candidate McCain. A decorated Vietnam War veteran and a prisoner of war for six years in a North Vietnamese cell: he endured torture and starvation. McCain was a person of honor, integrity and above all, courage. 

Not a saint.  He could be tough and blunt. He made frequent mistakes but usually took immediate responsibility for his sins.  His conservative politics were certainly not my cup of tea, but always I was so impressed by the political courage he showed in his life as a public servant for so many years. When McCain was confronted with political hypocrisy or deception, with political buffoonery or grandstanding, he named it for what it was.  He did not suffer fools lightly. He was a maverick until the day he died.

And so at that town meeting style campaign event on October 11th, 2008, McCain could have gone low.  Played dirty.  Used fear to garner votes. Smeared Obama. Been a bully or a braggart. A voter stood up and said to McCain: "Frankly we're scared of an Obama Presidency. (Applause). McCain responded: "First of all I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be. But I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared (of) as...President." (Boos and hisses). A second voter pushed back: "I can't trust Obama...I have read about him. He's an Arab."  McCain quickly took back the microphone and said: "No. No Ma'am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about." 

McCain's honorable defense of Obama did not win him many fans among the party faithful. In doing the decent thing McCain that day no doubt angered conspiracy minded "birthers" who still insisted that Obama was born on foreign shores, was maybe even an "Arab".  But McCain, in that one shining moment, showed courage, as a man not willing to give up his personal integrity for the sake of winning an election. Such courage was the hallmark of his career. He actually worked across the aisle with Democrats like that liberal lion Ted Kennedy to pass legislation. He put country before party, the common good before a narrow partisan good. He was a patriot in the deepest sense, beyond the pseudo patriotism of flag lapel pins and public posturing.

McCain was the real deal. And yes, as a country, we will surely miss him.

As he wrote in "Character Is Destiny", a book he co-authored with Mark Salter in 2005: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people....Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and the joy of living....Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

Godspeed John McCain. Thank you for your service.


          


Monday, August 20, 2018

Take the Road Less Traveled: It Will Make All the Difference

"Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still." 
 --Carl Sagan
  
"So where are you going on vacation this summer?" a well meaning friend asked me not long ago.  "Columbus, Ohio!" I replied with enthusiasm. "It's my yearly summer road trip. This August it's 765 miles from here to there. I can't wait to go and just explore."

"But...Columbus, Ohio?! Why?" she persisted.

"Because I've never been there." I replied.

That's really the only reason I need to travel: because I've yet to visit some part of God's Creation.  Explore it. Learn more about its history. Discover what makes a place like Columbus a very special place, one of kind, home to so many.

So some of my destinations on this trip have included, yes, Columbus: capitol of Ohio, home to minor league baseball and the Clippers, who play in a gorgeous downtown stadium. Cheap tickets, tasty hot dogs and "Play ball!". And Akron, Ohio, where Alcoholics Anonymous was born in a quaint guest house on the grounds of a local tire magnate's estate. Two struggling drunks shared a cup of coffee there in 1935 and together they discovered the miracle of recovery for millions of people. And Seneca Falls, New York, where in 1848 the first Women's Rights Convention was held. Participants, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fredrick Douglass, demanded that America live up to the ideal that all people are created equal, that the vote must be given to women. And the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland, where a good friend of mine opens up the church he serves for community basketball, as a beacon of hospitality and non-violence in a hardscrabble urban landscape.

If I hadn't detoured off the main roads, explored these off the beaten path places, away from typical tourist haunts, I'd never have discovered their unique stories. Their quirks and oddities. Their place as just one part of this amazing country and world. I wonder why more of us as tourists and vacationers, travelers and wanderers, don't go out of our ways to explore such destinations.

Sure, we all want to go to the places that the millions also explore: Times Square in the Big Apple, Boston's Faneuil Hall, the strip in Las Vegas, Mount Rushmore. I've visited those places, but will I return? Not likely. One and done. Such marquee landmarks are often too crowded, too familiar, too easy to experience. Don't get me wrong. I loved Wall Drug in South Dakota and the Empire State Building and Disney World too. 

But when I travel I also ask the human spirit of wandering to bring me to a hole in the wall diner in Lime Springs, Iowa. Or on a long bike ride along the Lake Woebegone path in northern Minnesota. Or to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright's studio in the leafy Chicago suburb of Oak Park. And, of course, to a baseball game, anytime, anywhere! All in a quest to explore and be an explorer in life, of life. Throw out the map and toss the GPS and go off road.

For when we choose to go beyond our well worn boundaries and outside of our travel comfort zones, the world changes and we change for the better too. We live in a time when too many of us spend too much energy exploring the world, virtually, all through our screens. Yet there is no substitute for face to face exploration. You have to actually be there to "be there". We also live in a time when our nation is infected with an angry spirit, fueled in part by geographic and political ignorance. Thus so called "deplorables" despise so called "over educated coastal elites" and visa versa.

Imagine what might happen if we as Americans chose to explore parts of the United States that we've never seen, that we far too easily stereotype. I know this sometimes snobby northeastener has had my mind and heart opened up by leaving the familiar and getting to know folks in far away places.

All you need for such adventures is a full tank of gas, a spirit of exploration and the courage to take a road less traveled.  Be an explorer. I dare you!  Go! Even all the way to Columbus, Ohio.




Monday, August 13, 2018

Life Is a Classroom. Are You Still Learning?

"Here's a test to find if your mission on earth is finished. If you're alive, it isn't."
--Richard Bach, "Illusions: The Adventures of Reluctant Messiah"

This time of year I always feel envious towards the young, as they prepare to go back to school, begin some new learning chapters in their blossoming lives. Late August reminds me of the excitement and anxiety, the nervous energy I always felt as a young person when brand new classes or a brand new place of study was just weeks away for me. There's no other feeling quite like it in all of life.

It's time to learn.

Time for brand new books that open with a satisfying "crack" as you explore those pages of knowledge for the first time. Time for unexplored class syllabuses outlining all you will learn in the days ahead. A time when your only job in life is to learn. To expand your knowledge of the world and yourself and others. A time when life is unsettled in a good way, as you wade into some challenging new academic or life activity with absolutely no idea of how things will turn out.  Life then is a blank slate, a canvas waiting to filled in, and so with courage and curiosity you move ahead. Try some new way of thinking or living. In that one bold act, your life changes for ever.

All because you are committed to the act of learning.

Which is why I also love this time of year, these pre-September days, as I see young people in my life leave for college so excited about all the new ideas that they get to study. As I drive the streets of the city and watch young adults move into a new neighborhood, wrestle a couch up a flight of stairs, live with new roommates, start their next academic semester. As in just days from now when I will drive by the bus stop in front of my suburban home and watch as nervous parents let go of the hands of their young children, sons and daughters off to classes, some for the very first time.

All of them learning. All of those young people reminding me that the best God-given life is always marked by this work: to learn and to grow. To expand hearts and minds and spirits constantly. To never stop studying. To see all of life as a beautiful and unexplored classroom. To learn just for the sake and the joy of discovering some new talent that you never knew you had or a new thought that you never considered before.

What I most fear as I age is not the slow breaking down of my body, the new creaks and cracks I get to experience in the morning as I get out of bed. Nor do I fear too much this fast changing world that admittedly some days feels like a foreign land to me. Everything shifting and so quickly. No: what I fear most is my mind's ossification, the nightmare that one day I will awaken and conclude that I no longer need to learn anymore, or learn anything else, in my life. That instead I've seen it all, done it all, learned enough to last me forever. What I really need to do is fall back into my Lazy-Boy chair, watch TV all day, preferably some mindless drivel, or worst of all, a 24 hour news channel that tells me exactly just what to believe. No thought necessary.  No learning.

If one day in the future you happen to find me living thus, please put a fork into me because then I will be done.

No. Give me a life of learning instead. Lifelong learning from the day I am born until the day I leave this earth. Give me a room full of books and the time to read them all, to allow those tomes to take me to places I have never been before. Give me a God who pushes me to try new things, a God who is ever faithful but always challenging me to expand my soul and never settle for narrow orthodoxy or dusty doctrine.  Give me the courage to try something new each and every day.  Some exotic food. To sing a new song I've never sung.  Ride on my bicycle to some new place I've yet to discover. Give me a new idea I need to think about, that just may change my mind for the better.

When will our lives of learning cease? When is school out of session? If we are still alive, God willing, never. School is beginning again. Today. Will I see you in the classroom called life?

Think about it.






Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Does Anybody EVER Retire From Politics? The Cost of Leadership That Never Leaves.

Retire (verb) 1. to leave one's job and cease to work, typically upon reaching the normal age for leaving employment                        --Merriam Webster Dictionary

Some things just get better as they age, get older, rack up the years, and go gray.  A vintage bottle of wine.  A classic or classical song or composition, the Beatles 1970 "Let It Be", Beethoven's 1824 Ninth Symphony. Take a walk around Boston with its aged architectural and institutional wonders like the Old North Church (295 years old), or Harvard University (founded 1636) or the James Blake House in Dorchester (circa 1661) and we are reminded that good things last. 

There is a power and a dependability to certain things staying, remaining steady and stable. Things come and go but the best lives on. Age is a gift sometimes. It can produce great human wisdom. For investing there may be no better sage than 87 year old "Oracle of Omaha" Warren Buffet, who was already a millionaire while I was still stuffing pennies into a piggy bank. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no spring chicken but at the ripe age of 85 she is wise and witty and smart: a legal mind for the ages, still lifting weights at the gym while younger colleagues huff and puff. 

But sometimes things and people and institutions decline with age, become sclerotic, rigid, unresponsive, unwilling, unable to adapt to a new world. There's a restaurant I loved as a kid that forty years ago was the place to go for a great meal. Now when I go there I see faded carpet curled up at the edges, peeling wallpaper and a menu better suited to 1958.  I expect it will close soon. Ride a Red Line subway car on the T and chances are it's up to fifty years old, creaking and clanking its way down arthritic tracks.  Or consider the current state and age of our national political leadership. Lots and lots of gray hairs and dyed hairs and comb-over hairstyles in this bunch.

The President clocks in at 72.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 78. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is 76.  The retiring list goes on: Hillary Clinton soldiers on at 70, while wild and white haired Bernie Sanders whips up kids his grandchildren's age at the grand old mark of 76.  Massachusetts is no younger.  Senators Elizabeth Warren (69) and Ed Markey (72) bypassed AARP years ago. Democrats are so desperate for a decent Presidential candidate that they continue to pine for 75 year old Joe Biden.

Which makes me wonder: is the current dysfunctional, gridlocked, hard headed and hard hearted state of politics in Washington D.C. caused by the scleroticism of old ideologies and old ideologues? Heck at 57, I'm a kid compared to the generation we still entrust to lead our stumbling republic. There have been times when America turned with confidence and hope to the young to lead us. John F. Kennedy captured the Oval office at 43; Barack Obama did so at 47.  But lately we seem to continually vote for folks who stay and stay and stay, folks I just wish would spend more time golfing and playing bridge and less time ineffectually tackling our 2018 problems with 1968 ideas.

I'm not anti senior. At the church I serve some of the most generous and committed leaders I am blessed to work with may be old of body but they are young of heart and spirit. This past weekend I rode one day and 85 miles in the Pan Mass Challenge bike ride while a teammate, more than twenty years my senior, went on the next day to ride an additional 84 miles! I know many "old" folks who are young and I know many youngsters who are much too old before their time. My faith tradition is more than 2,000 years old but it was founded by a 33 year old whippersnapper. Age is more about attitude than any numerical marker if, and when, we think young, we live young, and we continually grow: spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

So what worries and frustrates are the aging politicians on both sides of the aisle who are more interested in a return to the "good old days" (that never really existed) rather the future, the real place we are all headed. We have too many aging politicians who think it is still the 1960's and that if you just march and sing nostalgic protest songs, everything will change. We have too many of the younger generation fleeing politics. I am not the biggest fan of 48 year old outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, but his departure, after getting caught up in the blood sport of the current administration, begs the question: just who will step up?    

The best actors always know when it is time to "exit, stage right". The humblest folks know when it is time to step aside and invite new leadership to lead the cause. The tired and well worn know when it is time to give it a rest and retire with gratitude. When I get to that point, I pray I will know when it is time to go.

It is time for a new generation to lead us. Anybody up for a game of bridge?



    



      


        

       

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pedaling the Pan Mass Challenge and a Life Worth Living

"This is the true joy in life...being used for a [mighty] purpose..., being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live."   --George Bernard Shaw

What kind of life do you want to live? Its quality? Its energy? Its purpose?

Me? I've always hoped to live a life devoted, in part, to something beyond my own little world. I want to live for positive ideals and hopes, and not just spend my days itching every scratch and feeding every appetite that I have, and then imagine this is what existence is all about. I want to be challenged, instead, to live for something greater than myself alone, a noble cause, a worthy goal, some endeavor that reminds me I am not the center of the universe. I want to die having made a mark for the good in Creation, leaving this world better than when I arrived. I want to stop along the way on this journey of life too, and help someone who might be having trouble, someone the world might be tempted to leave behind or forget. I want to be kind to counteract the toxic atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that seems to be winning far too many hearts and minds in our country right now.

That's my life hope. Sometimes I get there. Sometimes I fall short. But always I keep trying, inspired by a God who made all of us for good things, for greater things, for lives of service, for days that wear us out but days that make a difference. That's why for the tenth year in a row, I will ride in the Pan Mass Challenge (PMC).

The PMC is a two day bicycling fundraiser for the Dana Farber Institute, Boston's world class cancer care and research facility.  For the past thirty eight years, come the first weekend of August, folks ride and raise money.  Ride in hope for a day when cancer will be but a memory.  In almost four decades the PMC has raised an astounding $598 million dollars! This year the goal is $55 million.  Every dollar donated goes directly to the cause. All these details absolutely will inspire and motivate me and the 5,000 cyclists and 3,000 volunteers who will work to get us all the way from the wilds of Sturbridge to the dunes of Provincetown next Saturday and Sunday. 

We ride in memory of those now gone, angels who died from cancer. For me that's Dottie, Nora, Frannie, Kathy, and Sue, to name but a few.  We ride for those fighting against cancer right now, like Uncle Bill, Brad, and Jean. God willing, if my legs and lungs and backside all hold up, come the 4th, I will cycle some 90 miles (about 80,000 pedal strokes) from Metrowest Boston to the Cape. It's amazing what miracles a plain old bike can create, just two wheels and hope.

So when you consider your one life, what is your "PMC ride", your cause, your dream for this world, your prayers in action? What are you doing to make your one God-given life amazing, transcendent, and other centered, a life for "thee" and not just "me"? A big life, in the best sense.

You may not be crazy or foolish enough to ride a bike for ten hours a day on a hot August weekend, but the PMC teaches that each of us, all of us, can make the life of this world gentler, kinder, and more loving.  We can actually slow down from the frenetic pace of modern life and show mercy on the road to any and all who need a helping hand and someone to care.  We can live a life of adventure, doing something we never imagined possible.

But first you have to figure out the kind of life that you really want to live. I think the best life, a good life, a life that says "thank you" to God for the gift of life, is one that day by day, mile by mile, and pedal stroke by pedal stroke makes the world brighter. That's why I ride the PMC.  To join with neighbors and friends and strangers who for one glorious weekend actually unite in a singular cause. To give so others might live.  With the way so much of our world seems to be going these days, that seems to me to be a worthy life mission. 

So what will you do with your one life?  That is the question we all must ask and answer in the limited time we have on earth.  As George Bernard Shaw concludes, "Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

And you? How will you burn brightly and with passion in your one beautiful life? I'm doing my chosen work on a bike. Who knows? Maybe I'll see you on the road.

And always, keep pedaling. (To make a donation, visit pmc.org)



  

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Modest Proposal For Happiness: Practice Moderation

“Moderation in all things”           --Aristotle

On my late Grandfather's 100th birthday (he lived to be 103), Grandpa's cake was topped by a word sculpture made of plastic, staked into that confectionary masterpiece.  It read,  "All things in moderation."  Or as we no doubt teased him, using his French-Canadian immigrant's accent, "All tings in moderation."  But the thought is the same.

A good life, a long life, maybe even the best life for many (certainly for him) is one marked by being moderate. Moderate: in hungers and appetites, in behaviors and actions, in lifestyles and beliefs.  I don't know if we could ever prove Grandpa's life philosophy contributed to his amazing longevity, but I absolutely believe his moderation did keep him on this earth long after almost all of his peers were gone.

Up until his early eighties he rode a bike to most of his daily errands.  He sometimes smoked, but usually one or two and then no more. He liked a drink but almost always limited it to a single or double.  He rarely got very angry or very vexed or very high or very low. He followed his daily routine like clockwork, from his morning breakfast menu, to his once a day walk to the mailbox, to an ever present book by his side. 

He was moderate. 

Not all agree with such a middle of the road life.  As the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson cheekily observed, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation." Yet if I were to coin a phrase for the way me and far too many of my fellow human beings live life in 2018, it might be: "Extremes in all things, especially being extreme." We live to the extreme, extremely, in this second decade of the 21st century. 

So with our technology, it is not enough to check our phones or social media accounts or email once or twice a day or even once an hour. Instead we furiously clutch our technological totems and bring them everywhere: to the dinner table, in the car as we drive, on our bed stand for an early morning jolt, even to church.  Our culture wide F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out) drives adults in the United States to be glued to a screen, on average, 10 hours and 39 minutes per day, according to the media company Nielsen.  Assuming 8 hours of sleep that means we have our nose to a TV, smart phone, tablet or computer the majority of our waking lives. 

That concerns me, our addiction to tech. How about you?

In our national politics, extremes also rule. Ideological puritans on the far left and the far right self-righteously insist that their singular "truth" is the only truth.  News is diced and sliced into left and right wing or worse, "fake". So many leaders tweet first and think later, work not for the common good somewhere in the middle, but instead for personal gain and ego inflation. To be a political moderate in this environment is all but impossible. I know, because I am one. But no one seems to want to hear from us, the majority of Americans who are, in fact, politically moderate.

That worries me for the future of our fragile republic.  How about you?

Even our playtime is marked by extremes.  Children and youth are so often overbooked, over committed and over taxed in over planned activities. Hours spent on playing fields or buried under homework, pressured to "succeed" at all costs.  Ask a harried Mom or Dad when was the last time the whole clan gathered as one around the dinner table. Such gatherings are rare, as everyone rushes off into different directions. We are captured by a cultural ethic that says life only matters when we are in constant motion. No time for moderation: swinging in a hammock on a hot summer day, or day dreaming as we look at the clouds or claiming an unplanned day or a wide open weekend.

That worries and exhausts me. How about you?

So here's a moderate proposal.  Be moderate.  Seek balance in your one God-given, precious life. Work but play too. Put down your phone tonight and look up at the stars in the sky. Consider what is the greatest good, not just for folks like you, but also for the rest of God's children in this world. Get enough sleep. Smile more and frown less and laugh at yourself and the absurdity of life, daily.  Indulge your appetites but seek moderation.  I know that's all kind of moderate.  But we must start somewhere.

And thanks for the advice, Grandpa.