Once Upon a Time in a Land Far, Far, Away…

Our oldest granddaughter is a sophomore in high school now and our second oldest granddaughter is in 7th grade and is looking at high schools. Because of this I’ve been reminiscing about high school lately.

For many of us high school was a distant time and place. Still, high school wasn’t just the school building or the four years spent there. It was the people. It was the experiences. It was social order or disorder as the case might be. For many of us high school left an indelible mark on our psyches. Being accepted or rejected socially; being scholarly or not; being on the team or not; being physically attractive or not; these things in many ways defined our ability to succeed as adults. In some cases rejection may have made us work harder to find our real worth. In other cases gliding through the high school years might have given us the impression that life would be a breeze and we ended up stagnated or unfulfilled. Regardless if we were jocks or geeks, cheerleaders or bookworms, trouble makers or do-gooders, those four years had an effect on us.

I was a geek who thought he was cool. Kind of a hipster-doofus with most of the emphasis on doofus. I was not a good student. I was not athletic nor particularly attractive and I think I was invisible to most of the popular girls. Although I wasn’t a target of abuse or bullying like some of my geekier friends, I was nonetheless relegated to the “loser” group. I had some popular friends too but it’s likely that I thought we were better friends than they thought we were. I wasn’t miserable in high school, I just knew my place. If there was a contest (and thankfully there wasn’t) I would have probably been voted “Most Likely To Be Forgotten”.

Then the strangest thing happened. I graduated. I got a part-time job near home and went to a local college. I met a girl at that job who had attended a neighboring high school and was attending a different local college. I flirted. She flirted back. We dated (in that we’re-both-poor-college-students sort of way). We had fun together. And she really seem to like me. I learned from others that she had been popular at her high school and was on the Coronation Court – the royalty of high schoolers. It suddenly occurred to me that I was no longer defined by the high school cliques. I was still a geeky weirdo but she didn’t see me that way or she was too polite or too kind to point it out or maybe, just maybe, she liked me the way I was. This changed everything. Everyone seemed to know her and love her. She had been in the upper echelon of high school and I was, well, just me.

But she liked me, in spite of who or what I was. The Princess and the Frog! I learned a valuable lesson from that girl. She took the time to look past my outward appearance. When she looked at me she didn’t see the kid who didn’t measure up. She saw a young man with potential. With one kiss I turned into her Prince. And she changed our lives forever.

I hope that all our grandchildren have good high school experiences. And whether they’re the popular girl on Coronation Court like their grandmother or the doofus standing on the sidelines like their grandfather, I hope they measure their self-worth by what’s inside and find a princess who will hold the mirror up to their soul.

Peace,

Denis

Respecting Life

As a Catholic Christian I have a responsibility to respect life. Lately I’ve been thinking about what respecting life means to me. Not “Respect For Life” the pro-life mantra with all of it’s political implications but respecting life; the life we’ve been given and the lives of others.

In 1996 when our daughter was in high school she had the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student. At sixteen years old she traveled alone to Santo Domingo, Ecuador and lived with a host family for the summer. Her hosts welcomed her as part of their family. She attended school with her sisters, joined in family events, was never allowed to walk the streets alone without her brother’s protection and was completely immersed in life in Santo Domingo. During her time in Ecuador, she and several other international students spent a bonus week in the rainforest. They rode an antiquated bus into the jungle, slept in hatched huts, encountered huge snakes, fought off marauding monkeys who would snatch food from their picnic tables, and experienced a life most hadn’t realized even existed. Part of that week also involved meeting indigenous peoples in order to appreciate their culture.

Because this was before the days of smart phones and texting and easy access to the internet we were able to only receive one fax and two phone calls from our daughter during her time abroad. Needless to say, when she arrived home she had much to share.

I remember vividly her telling us about her experience in the rainforest. Her best friend was over and our daughter was sharing her photos while describing in detail everything we saw. She mentioned how they had all been offered a drink of some concoction from a wooden bowl. I believe it was considered a blessing or sign of hospitality. She took the vessel and held it up to her mouth but she didn’t swallow. Pretty discerning for a sixteen year old. She was respectful but cautious. (Her mother’s influence should be credited for that gracious maneuver). When we looked at the photos of how the people were dressed (and undressed) and had painted their faces. Her friend exclaimed at the top of her voice, “Oh my God, I would stare!”

Those two girls, at sixteen, respected life. My daughter concerned by what might be mixed in that unknown concoction, nonetheless was respectful enough to accept the gift given. Her friend’s reaction to the native Ecuadorians unusual costumes was only an embarrassed, “I would stare!” Neither girl expressed disgust or hatred or fear of a different life. They were respecting life. A life so different from their own but deserving of dignity and respect. I was so proud of those girls then and I am proud of the women that they have become. They are both mothers now and they are raising their children to also respect life. And they are changing our world. One works in immigration; one works in education.

In a interview in America Magazine on October 1, 2020, Jeannie Gaffigan said, “My faith, family and Catholic education have given me the belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Human life is sacred, and all humans have equal value. Of course, this means it is wrong to intentionally take a human life under any circumstances, but it is also wrong to disregard human life through racism, unjust social and economic structures, providing inadequate access to health care, wantonly harming the environment, abusing or neglecting anyone—a child, a mother, a father, a grandparent, an immigrant.”

Our daughter and her best friend were also given a Catholic education and faith and love of family was instilled in them as well. I can’t take too much credit for the amazing person that our daughter has become but we did teach her to respect life.

So here is my prayer; here is my hope. That one parent will teach one child to respect life. And our world can be transformed one child at a time.

Peace,

Denis

Coping and Copying

Recently I reached out to some friends to see how they were managing during this most unusual year. Of course, calling 2020 an usual year is the understatement of this unusual year. And now I’ve done it again; unusual. Clearly I need a better adjective – perhaps abysmal or abnormal or outlandish or freakish or monstrous, but none of those words truly do justice to the pain, disruption, and misery of 2020. Eight years ago we lived in England and my British friends consider 2020 a terrible inconvenience. My American friends consider it a sh*t-show; not nearly as eloquent but certainly to the point.

While inquiring how friends are coping, I’ve learned a lot about resilience, good nature, humor, perseverance, hope, love, and faith.

Here are some of the comments my friends have shared:

“Summer is here with its ‘heat warnings’ and ‘water restrictions’. We thank God for AC and don’t venture out for walks, unless it’s early in the morning or late in the evening.”

“It helps that Missouri is one of six states with no open container law!”

“I cope with humor. I haven’t had a haircut since February and my hair gets frizzy in humidity. I am worried about my memory. Every time I see my reflection I think that although I don’t remember putting my finger in a wall socket, I must have.”

We have closed the office and are all working from home. My wife’s office closed before mine so she commandeered the study. I am reduced to working at the kitchen table. Schools are closed now, and with the boys locked up, they have turned feral!”

“Sure miss you guys. Hope to be able to get together soon.”

“I just finished one of our “chat sessions” where a dozen of us were on Zoom. It isn’t perfect but it is surely a good solution.”

“I miss friends and all of the activities we enjoyed. We are just watching and waiting.”

“We are just driving around. Pretty much the only thing we can do safely.”

“These are very difficult times, but we will be okay with God’s help and our friends holding us up in prayer.”

So, my friends are coping, each in their own way, and I am trying to cope by copying some of their positive attitudes and gentle humor. I am also trying to remain hopeful and prayerful. It certainly helps to know that even though we are not physically together, we are NEVER apart in spirit and love.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay hopeful.

Peace,

Denis

Independence Day

It’ll be a different celebration this year. No parades. No “bring a dish” large family gatherings. No splashing around at the public pool. Fireworks (maybe) from a social distance. It’ll be quieter, safer, healthier and possibly a little disappointing.

Still, today is America’s birthday. This should be a day to be proud of our great nation.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have our nation in it’s grip. Our president is once again crying “hoax”, this time concerning revelations that Russia may have paid bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protests have turned into opportunities for hate groups to exploit and distort a message of unity and hope.

I pray for my family, especially my father and father-in-law, that they continue to be spared the Corona Virus. I am saddened by the ever-widening political chasm in this country and lack of trust of our elected officials. I worry that my black and brown family members and friends might become victims of someone’s misguided hate.

I wonder what has happened? Where is the love of our neighbors? This is America!

Recently my niece wrote, In a time when everything can seem so bad, let’s not lose focus on the small things that mean so much! Do what is best for your tribe. Stay humble, and enjoy life!”

I found tremendous comfort in her words. This 4th of July weekend we will do just that. We will focus on the small things. We will have a quieter celebration at home this year. We will love one another the best we can. We will call or video call those who cannot be with us. We will avoid the crowds and watch fireworks from afar. We will continue to thank God for our freedom and pray for peace, justice and healing in our nation. We will stand with our brothers and sisters of color. We will be humbled, once again, to be called citizens of this great nation. We will wave our flags. We will vote.

And when we tuck ourselves into bed tonight, we will rest in the comfort of knowing that our small tribe has made a difference.

Peace,

Denis

“Dad” – the best honorary title I’ve ever been given

It’s Father’s Day. The day that Hallmark invented because men were feeling a little left out because of all the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s true. The dollars spent on Father’s Day pale in comparison to what we fork over on Mother’s Day gifts, cards and flowers. Of course, mothers deserve more respect and reverence (and stuff, I suppose) if for no other reason than enduring childbirth. I was in the room for a couple of those. I’d take a double hernia any day!

Still, dads have some tough stuff to do, too. As dads we change our share of poopy diapers and mop up puke and wipe away tears. Some of us taught our kids how to ride a bike or drive a car. Some of us have instilled great wisdom in our young charges. Some of us are models of virtue, faithfulness, patience and courage. But most of us are just trying to make it through to another day.

Did you ever take your 13 year-old daughter swimsuit shopping and have to examine in detail nearly 100 swimsuits all of which “weren’t quite right”? Or have to sit through your 9 year-old’s ‘Parent-Teacher Conference’ and listen to Junior’s litany of sins while realizing that your kid is smarter than this teacher? Or did you ever have to fish something out of the latrine at boy scout camp that your son couldn’t manage to hold on to, and find yourself screaming, “Why the hell did you have that in here in the first place!” These experiences are not for the faint of heart. It takes a real man. It takes a Dad.

I’ve been blessed. God has chosen me to be a Dad. Somehow with limited intellect and no training or background in child development I was able to plod through this journey of fatherhood. My efforts were, at best, questionable and my mistakes as countless as the stars. Still my results were beyond my imagining. Three amazing humans walk this earth that I have the joy of calling my children. They are loving, caring, capable people who you would be better for knowing. So if a dumb-dumb like me can pull off a feat like this, there is hope for all of humanity.

Being called Dad is an honor and it is one that I treasure with my whole being.

Happy Father’s Day to all dads, stepdads, foster dads, mentors, and men who make a difference in the lives of children.

Peace,

Denis

Wait! What??!!

My grandson is a nine year-old who is often too busy to listen to what is going on around him. Still, he is keenly interested in EVERYTHING. So when conversations or events are happening and he is preoccupied, but hears something that intrigues him, he will stop in his tracks and ask, “Wait, what??!!” My dad, his great-grandfather, does exactly the same thing. It’s funny how a nine year-old and a ninety-four year-old react the same way, with the same expression, when something piques their curiosity.

“Wait! What??!!” has become a little joke in our family. It’s one of those expressions that can almost always be anticipated. Perhaps if the “wait!-what?-ers” could pay attention they might not need to interrupt the conversations or events as they unfold. When you’re nine or ninety-four I suppose many things are competing for your time and your interest. Those two and their “wait! what?” almost always bring a smile or a laugh. And I suppose it’s okay to be preoccupied or disinterested or disengaged at times. It’s humorous that these two react so predictably. This shared trait in great-grandson and great-grandfather is truly funny and even charming.

Unfortunately lately I have found myself exclaiming “Wait! What??!!”, too. But my “wait! what?” reaction is to what is happening in our country and it is not amusing; it’s frightening. It’s not that I’m disinterested or disengaged but it seems that no sooner than I wrap my head around one tragedy or disaster, another even more horrific event presents itself. As corona virus deaths surpass 108,000 in the U.S., many people have become cavalier in their disregard for social distancing and safety. To ‘mask or not to mask’ seems to sadly have become a political issue rather than a valid health decision. Gatherings at beaches and resorts have sent the message that all is well while healthcare professionals say otherwise. The senseless killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd remind us (again) how racist, hateful and divided we remain as a nation. The threat of military action against our own citizens who choose to protest these killings from some unknown, unidentified troops looks as though we are living in an authoritarian dictatorship. As a nation we are restless, anxious and fearful. Information from television, radio and social media outlets abound but how much is trustworthy? And rather than providing leadership and comfort to our nation our president seems complicit in exploiting all this heartache for some twisted political advantage.

I am trying to stay hopeful and I do see positive signs: The economy is taking “baby steps” toward recovery; There are fewer recorded cases of Covid-19 in some of our local hospitals; Peaceful, respectful protest marches are taking place all over our country, including in my own hometown; Military leaders, religious leaders and some politicians are showing the courage to speak truth to power.

Most days when I turn on the news or look at social media, I still find myself saying, “Wait! What??!!” and yet I believe that life will be better. I pray for peace and justice. I pray for health and safety for all. I pray for understanding in this whirlwind of chaos and confusion. I believe that love will lead us to a better place. I believe that God will not abandon us.

I believe…

Peace,

Denis

Putting Life On Hold

We’ve all experienced the frustration of calling a doctor’s office or bank or billing department or any government agency and being put ‘on-hold’. Those minutes can seem like hours and usually the ‘on-hold’ music makes the experience even more intolerable.

Covid-19 has put our lives on hold. Work has been interrupted or completely stopped. Schools are closed. Graduations, weddings, and family reunions have been postponed or cancelled. Even more heart-breaking are funerals that have been restricted to only a handful of family members with a promise of a memorial at “a later date”.

As I watch the number of Corona Virus cases continue to climb and the death toll surpass 60,000 people in the U.S. alone, I feel hopeless and weary. When will it end? Will our lives ever return to normal? So much is unknown and so much information seems to be inaccurate or downright misleading. Should I watch and listen to media “health experts”? Can I trust any politicians? Do I listen to well-meaning friends and family members? Often it all seems like so much “hold music” interrupted every now and then with a “please continue to hold” thrown in for good measure.

When will this incessant ‘on-hold’ ever end?

I for one, have decided to hang up on the hold call. Instead of focusing on the health scare, financial uncertainty and forced isolation, I’m trying to take this time to be more prayerful, more attentive to my wife (after all we’re stuck in this together) and more grateful for the many blessings in my life. I’m thankful for friends and family members with whom we have safely stayed connected via social networking and technology. I’m thankful for an employer who has allowed me (so far) to work from home. I’m thankful for schools and teachers who have supported our grandchildren in their efforts to learn-at-home. I’m thankful for the health care professionals who are striving to keep my dad safe and healthy at his assisted-living residence. I’m thankful for the countless numbers of people I encounter who are wearing masks in an effort to mitigate the transmission of this deadly pandemic.

And I’ve found some joy: The laughter of our younger granddaughters responding to my silliness via FaceTime: the willingness of our grandson and his older sister to continue to do their school work before they go out and play each day; that same granddaughter who has decided to write letters and send small gifts to residents of a local care facility in her community; the text exchange between our oldest granddaughter, where she confirmed that I would likely look like Santa by the time our quarantine ends (I’m sure she was referring to the beard I’m growing and not my ever-expanding waistline); the more frequent phone calls from our younger son who says he’s “just checking in” (but even if he’s just bored or lonely, it’s great to hear his voice).

So, life is ‘on-hold’. But I hope when we return to normal or to our new normal some of these ‘on-hold’ measures remain: Siblings happily spending time together; families slowing down enough to cherish one another; parents learning by teaching their youngsters; friends staying connected; phone calls from our sweet boy.

I’m still not happy to be ‘on-hold’ and I haven’t turned a blind eye to the suffering and loss in our world. I’m not expecting someone to “flip a switch” and magically take this all away. I’m not looking for a panacea or a miracle cure. What I hope for is courage and patience. What I pray for is compassion, understanding and continued faith in my fellow man.

May you all stay safe and healthy.

Peace,

Denis

Easter Season

On Easter the Alleluia returned! But for many of us it was a muted alleluia.

Usually Easter Mass is exultant, but not this year. If the bells tolled and the organ played but no one was there, did it still make a sound? Virtual was not actual. iPads and televisions were poor substitutes for the true sights and sounds and smells of Easter Vigil.

I for one missed the ‘carnival atmosphere’ of Easter Sunday morning services, too. My version of heaven is filled with wiggles, giggles, and jelly-bean breath. I missed seeing kids stuffed full of Easter candy, wearing itchy new clothes, packed into an overcrowded church, and expected to sit quietly for over an hour. You can’t get that kind of entertainment on TV.

This year was different. This year we must be smart. We must be safe. We must stay healthy.

So perhaps this was not my favorite Easter. In fact, this was the worst Easter I can ever remember, and my 93-year-old father says it’s the saddest Easter of his life. But our inconvenience and our disappointment are small prices to pay for protecting our loved ones and our neighbors from this pandemic.

Why do you search for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!

I’m reminded that the first Easter was a pretty quiet affair, and the group was smaller than 10 persons. Still, our salvation is secure. Without fanfare. Without cymbals. Without trumpets. We are saved.

Let’s have a joyous Easter season and remain a grateful people!

(And maybe next year we can have that Easter Parade and you can wear your bonnet with all the frills upon it)

Peace,

Denis

Good Grief, It’s Good Friday!

Hard to believe that today is Good Friday. I thought that the saying was “time flies when you’re having fun”. Nothing seems like too much fun right now. And here it is – Good Friday. Another year has gone by.

I’m on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Today marks one year since our Mom passed away. Holy Week was important to her and to our family. Watching Holy Thursday Mass yesterday on my i-Pad just didn’t feel quite right. I’m grateful for the technology and I wouldn’t want to put anyone at risk by attending Triduum services, but still…

So I’m grieving today. Missing Mom. Missing Holy Week. Missing our friends. Missing my family, especially our children and grandchildren. Worried about our Dads in their isolation.

I’m grieving for friends and family that have recently lost loved ones. There can be no funerals. No gatherings. No holding on to one another. Just plans for memorials “in the future”. I’m grieving today for the nearly 100,000 victims of COVID-19 worldwide. Many of these souls will remain faceless, nameless statistics. God help us. God be with us.

Lucy (of Peanuts fame) often would exclaim, “Good grief!”. Her ire was always reserved for poor hapless Charlie Brown. After she would shout at him, his response was often an exasperated, “Good grief” in return.

Good grief – what a funny expression. What is good about grief?

I’ve been struggling with this and praying about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that grief indeed can be a good thing. It can be healing. It can be cleansing. Certainly no one wants to grieve. Surely no one wants to deal with loss. But grief allows us to own our feelings. Grief allows us to love beyond death. And everyone must grieve in their own way; in their own time.

I suppose Good Friday is a good day to grieve. If we’re Christians we can grieve the suffering of our Savior today.

Regardless of our belief traditions, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to breakdown a little. It’s normal to want to hold on to those whom we love. It’s human to feel the pain when we know that we must let go. But we can also be assured that death is not the end. Our loved ones remain with us in spirit. We see them in the sunrise and the sunset. We see them in the stars at night and in the clouds by day. We hear them in the songs of birds and the rustling of leaves. We feel them in gentle breezes and the warmth of the sun on our skin.

And if remembering and loving them until it hurts is grief, then I suppose it is good.

Peace,

Denis

Letting Go

Have you ever had to retrace your steps?

Maybe it’s a senior moment because it happens more often as I get older. I start to walk into a room for some reason and then almost immediately I can’t remember why. So I stop and return to where I started, hoping to trigger whatever thought it was that made me enter into that room to begin with. I suppose it’s good exercise but not really all that productive . Or perhaps I’ve lost something and I return to where I remember last seeing it. I literally retrace my steps to see if I might discover where the item was misplaced. “Where did I put my glasses?” is a common theme for me.

It’s human nature, I suppose, to want to hang on to those necessary thoughts and those necessary things. I need to know where I’m going and why. And I need my glasses to see whatever it is I’m going to be doing when I get there.

But Jesus asks us to let go. Lent is a usually thought of as time to give up something. This year, during this pandemic, even more so. What I really need to give up is my need for control. This is easier said than done. As I am struggling to wrap my head around Covid-19 and all of the repercussions of this deadly virus, I feel that I need whatever control I have left. During a normal Lenten Season surrendering to God’s plan is challenging. This year it is downright frightening. What is happening??!! Jesus, how can I let go??!!

In his book, “How Big Is Your God?”, Paul Coutinho writes “a consequence of my life with God is essentially a dying, a giving up, and a self-emptying.” He goes on to say, “Jesus promised to give us inner freedom, joy, and happiness that no one and nothing can take away from us, even in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering, sickness, and death.”

What holds me back? The challenge is thinking about what I need to leave behind.

Is it comfort? Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it hate? Is it anger? Is it anxiety? Is it my need for perfection? Is it my self-righteousness?

The frightening part is the actual leaving behind.

The strain of having to distance myself from my loved ones. Worry for our son who has lost his job in the restaurant industry. The constant concern for my 93 year-old father and 88 year-old father-in-law who are both at high risk. Dealing with the disappointment of cancelled events. Frustration with the lack of leadership in our state and in our nation. Struggling with the uncertainty of my employment. Trying to ignore the foreboding feeling of “who might be next?”. The nearly constant reassurances of “we’ll be fine”, that I both give and receive, which seem grossly inadequate.

And yet, I have to let it go. I have to leave it all behind. How else can I empty myself and wholly embrace the desert experience?

This is exactly why I need Lent. Especially this year. Maybe my journey is meant to be a struggle. A challenge. A reminder that God loves me as I am: worried; woefully unprepared; hopeless; helpless; vulnerable.

We are made in God’s image, but our humanity requires that we accept and even embrace our limitations and our sinfulness. We must accept the fact that because we have free will, we can choose to love God or not. Faith is a choice. Lent should be an opportunity not a burden.

Coutinho talks about how once we let go we are then free to swim in the ‘River of the Divine’. I love these words but I struggle to put this into action. Most days I feel pretty distant from anything divine.

Making sacrifices during Lent is not a bad thing. Giving to charity and serving others is certainly admirable. I read somewhere recently that we will need a “Letter of Recommendation” from the poor in order to get into heaven. I can pray for others during my isolation. Kindness costs nothing. Doing something positive can help combat these feelings of futility. If this time of trial helps me to get to the “desert” I should be thankful. Only there can I face my temptations and acknowledge my weaknesses. Then after I empty myself of pride, I can retrace my steps, jump into that ‘River of the Divine’ and be healed once more.

Peace,

Denis