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.





Friday, July 13, 2018

The Gift of Summer: Returning To Our Happy Place

Happy Place (noun) A destination, location, [or] world...anywhere you feel the most at home and yourself. It is where you can have fun, smile, laugh, and get excited.

Here's an interesting experiment.  The next time you find yourself day dreaming or tuning out at a boring meeting, perhaps doodling on a notebook page, as the minutes wile away, where do you "go"?  Where does your mind wander and end up? What do you draw?

My go to doodle sketch has been the same for 42 years. A lone white birch cross on a grass covered hill, surrounded by the White Mountains of New Hampshire, puffy white clouds framing that drawing.  That's my go to daydreaming destination too.  My happy place. I know that phrase sounds kind of "earthy crunchy" even cliché, but we all have some happy place, or should. Some real place in the world, some place in our memories, some part of the world where our souls sing and spirits relax. A one of a kind space where we truly feel at home in the world. A place to retreat to, recharge, just have fun. 

Where is your happy place?

My place is at summer camp, one week away I have enjoyed for most of the past four decades plus, worth of summers. The wooden cross I always unconsciously draw marks the spot, where at fifteen years old, I made lifelong friends, and "met" God for the first time. The spot where I watched the sun set in shades of pink and yellow, where one night I witnessed the shimmering aura of the Northern Lights.  A spot where the creaking sound of cabin screen doors opening and closing is the soundtrack of summer.    

It's simple to understand why this place is so special, so blessed for me.  In my life full of changes and moves and victories and defeats, camp is always there for me. It's dependable, as faithful as the return of the seasons each year. It's the sweet memories I associate with this happy place: diving into an ice cold pond on a sultry and sweaty July day; making sticky 'smores over a crackling fire; having seven days each year when I actually turn off my cell phone and don't crack open my computer. It's spending precious time with folks close to me in life, laughing and playing and creating community out of a group of kids who have never met before. On day one all are nervous and unsure. By the last day, most campers don't want to leave.

You might say our happy places are akin to a bit of heaven on earth, spiritual, sacred even. They are holy in the sense that when we arrive at our happy place, we get to be our most true selves. That's a hope our the Creator has for each and every one of us.  To know a safe place somewhere. A space to let down our guard, breathe, pay attention and enjoy life in the deepest sense, with no distractions.

Happy places can be anywhere. One of my oldest friends claims as hers' the shores of an ancient lake in New Hampshire, where she has returned to throughout life, since childhood.  Another friend loves her cabin in the shady woods of Vermont, in the shadow of the Green Mountains.  My neighbor doesn't have to travel far for his happy place: its in the green and verdant garden he plants in his backyard every year come spring.  Happiness for him is hands deep into the soil, and fresh grown veggies to share with the neighborhood.  Some happy places are actually mobile: think of a sailboat or a bicycle or a yearly road trip in the car to places unknown.  Happy places are always personal, unique, our own.  No one else gets to name a certain place "happy" but you or me. 

My prayer and hope for all of us then, at this mid-point of summer, is that we've either already made a pilgrimage to, or are excited to go back to, our happy place.  The ocean or a river.  In a camper crossing the country or staying in a five star hotel.  How about the hammock in the backyard or a tent crammed full with family and friends?   At a time in this world when there is more than enough unhappiness to go around, we may need to seek out happiness and our happy place now more than ever.

The real gift of these happy places is that they stay with us, like an old friend. As the author Alexandra Stoddard says, "When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go."  So even though every year I am sad to leave summer camp, I know that place will be with me for fifty one weeks, or a few years, or until the next time I get to go there.  And I can always draw a simple picture on a scrap of paper when I need to return.  Just one birch cross on a hill and I am there.

So here's to a happy summer and to our happy places! May we all find our way to that corner of Creation.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? That Is The Question For These Hard-Hearted Times.

"Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered . . . just one kind word to another person."            --Fred Rogers
He most certainly is not the kind of cultural hero we'd expect to find these days, in the rough and tumble and oh so hard and sharp elbowed world of 2018.  He's actually kind of geeky, clad in a brown or blue or even bright orange zip up cardigan, knit by his mother. His footwear is old school penny loafers and lace up tennis shoes. The first thing he does to greet us as he comes through the door is to sing! Instead of speaking in a loud or threatening voice, he always talks to us quietly, deliberately, and gently. As we listen, it is as if we are the only person in the whole world at that moment. Most amazing, when he does make or take a public stance or teach some life lesson through his TV show, he always does so with kindness and humility.

It's Fred Rodgers of course, or Mister Rogers, as those of us of a certain age remember him, the creator and host of "Mister Rodgers Neighborhood", a children's show that debuted fifty years ago this month. Mister Rodgers was the caring man who'd visit us each afternoon on our local public TV channel and then for one hour transport us to the land of make believe.  A land for the young and the young at heart.  A land where we were reminded by him every single show, that each of us, and every last child of God, is unique and loveable, no matter what our station in life. Or race or gender. Or ability or disability. He reminded us that the world is a good place.  That we belong here.  That we belong to each other, every single soul on God's earth. 

Though Rodgers died in 2003 at age 74 from cancer, he's enjoying a renaissance this summer, as the subject of a beautiful and heartfelt documentary now showing in theaters, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?".  Friends: run, don't walk, to see it, because in a short ninety-four minutes, this biographical and thoughtful examination of Rodgers' life and legacy to America's children and America, reminds us of one basic spiritual truth. Something that's so easy to forget in this time of Twitter wars and social rudeness and indecency and mean spiritedness on the part of so many of our so called "leaders" and even fellow citizens.

Basic human goodness, decency and care are still and will always be, the values that our nation and world must embody: to be our best, for and with each other.  Kindness, though it does not always "win", is the key to the most meaningful of lives for each of us and all of us, together.  Forget this Rogerian truth and we are doomed to an ever downward spiral of communal hard heartedness and social Darwinism, every man and woman and child for themselves, on their own.  Alone.  That's a cold and cruel neighborhood.

But when we remember just what Mister Rodgers taught us? We just may have a chance as a country and neighbors to save this land. To inspire each other through love, to be our better angels, our best selves.  As a cultural leader and sage, that's what most marked Rogers' life and ministry. (Rodgers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.)  He made us want to be good.  He showed us might does not make right, that in fact, doing the right thing is what makes right. 

And he always did so above and beyond any human divisions. It's interesting to note that Rogers was not that flashy of a guy in his private life, for all his cultural fame. He was married to the same woman, Sara, for fifty-one years. A lifelong registered Republican, Rogers neither drank nor smoked and he swam everyday of his life to keep in shape. But those labels, all human labels, meant nothing to him nor his philosophy. Everyone in his imagined neighborhood was welcomed, no one ever left out or left behind. Especially the young, the vulnerable, the children.

I know this vision of kindness is not selling well right now in our cynical and snarky and uncivil times. But something tells me Mister Rodgers would still encourage us to keep on trying and to keep on loving.  After all, who can say no to this one gracious invitation: "Won't you be my neighbor?"

That I absolutely will, Mister Rodgers. And thanks again for teaching us of the goodness in ourselves and in others and in this sometimes broken world.  After all, God's Creation is and will always be, just one big neighborhood. 



Monday, July 2, 2018

Turn Off The News. Turn Way Up Some Soul Soaring Music!

"People all over the world, Join hands,
Start a love train, love train...."
--The O'Jays, #1 song, winter 1973

Seventies funk music: the kind that when turned up really, REALLY loud, as in "THUMP, THUMP, THUMP!", pushes speakers and headphones to their aural limits.  It's also called rhythm and blues. Songs by the O'Jays. Stevie Wonder. James Brown. Marvin Gaye.  Gladys Knight and the Pips. Al Green. Aretha Franklin. I'm not naturally a funky kind of guy, not at all.  But lately this music is one sure way for me to escape the unrelenting "THUMP, THUMP, THUMP!" drumbeat of bad news in the world. Hard news.  News that never, ever lets up. News that's often really difficult to hear, read, see, to comprehend. Some days it seems as if our society, our world, is struggling through a greater level of civic conflict and rancor than I've ever witnessed in my lifetime.

So I put on the O'Jays and dream of a love train, because love is the only thing power that works to defuse anger, discord, even war. 

War: on immigrants and refugees. War on free trade. War on the press. War on athletes who kneel for the anthem. War on Harley Davidson. War on the Republicans by the Democrats and by the Republicans on the Democrats. Every day seems to brings a new target for wrath or anger, for going off about the latest issue or tweet that makes folks blood boil. If our current level of civic dysfunction and conflict were a person, we'd be worried that they will blow a gasket, have a heart attack, if they do not calm down very soon.

Add to this the cruel truth we Americans also have access to more news, in more places, through more devices, at more times, from more sites and sources, than ever before in our history and we've got a perfect social storm. Which makes me wonder if one the reasons our nation seems to be freaking out is that collectively we are unable to stop consuming news, social media, information, in such copious amounts. We're like a famished soul who just cannot stop eating.

We have become news obsessives, news junkies, news addicts. I know this because I am one. "My name's John and I'm a newsaholic."  "HI JOHN!"

Cell phones "ding" a news notification and we must open that story up right away and read it.  NPR is on the radio in the car or kitchen all the time. Households keep the TV on and tuned to Fox News or MSNBC from morning until night.  Our Facebook feeds are filled with political rants from the left and the right and folks tear each other to pieces in the comments section.  Pay close attention to this "news" and you'll also realize that in most of it is opinion. Spin offered by journalists, pundits, washed up politicians and so called think tanks "experts".  They don't report any real news, but instead tell anyone who'll listen their "very important" ideas about the news. 

So as a refreshing alternative, I recommend, as soon as possible, playing seventies funk music on your Pandora or Spotify or home or car stereo or in your ear buds.  Or whatever other kind of music makes your heart soar and your toes tap, gets you singing at the top of your lungs in the car or the shower or as you make dinner or run or workout at the gym. 

Turn off the news, just turn it off, at least for a little while.  Then turn on, turn up...ABBA! The Beatles. Tim McGraw.  Glen Miller.  Joan Jett.  Ella Fitzgerald. Springsteen.  Rhianna. What's your secret musical indulgence that no one else knows about but you?  Mine is funk.

Whatever the genre, the artist, the playlist, I say get singing. Get playing. That's my hope and spiritual prescription for all of us in these strange, crazy, intense days for the United States and planet earth: that we'll all take a break from the news. Disconnect from the cycle of news. It will still be there when we get back. Yes we do need to stay informed as citizens and activists. Yes we are called as neighbors to care and to act and to make our world better, saner, kinder.

But we also need to give that impulse a rest regularly.  We need to refresh our spirits and for me, for many of us, music is the thing which soothes and comforts and inspires us.  Everything from gospel to rap to classical and yes, hardcore seventies funk.  So be warned: the next time you pull up next to me in your car at a red light, I may be rocking out in the front seat of my little Honda Fit to Earth, Wind and Fire.  When I look over at you, what song will you be moving to, grooving to? 

People all over the world! Join hands. Start a love train. Love train! Let that be some good news, at least for this one day.