Thankful (even in 2020)

This year Thanksgiving Dinner will be a small gathering. How can we celebrate without ALL the family? Will the turkey be as tender? Will the stuffing be as savory? Will the sweet potatoes and cranberries be as flavorful? And dear God what about the Pumpkin Pie???

Less than a full table this year…

My head tells me those things don’t really matter but my heart wants this Thanksgiving Dinner to be like every other. I want us ALL to be gathered around the table. I want the house full of family and friends. I want it to be noisy and a bit chaotic. I want to eat too much, drink a little too much, and yet somehow still manage to have just one more piece of pie.

Of course it occurs to me that our Thanksgiving Dinners haven’t all been Hallmark moments. There were years with undercooked turkeys and burnt rolls. There were years with family fights. There were years when at least one of our kids threw up either immediately before or after dinner (or maybe both). There was the year we ate fish and chips at a pub in England – no turkeys in sight. There were the years our son was stationed at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea and Thule Air Base in Greenland eating in mess halls, while his place at our table remained empty. There was last year – our first Thanksgiving without Mom. So, my perfect Thanksgiving Dinner is more aspiration than realization. And yet we remain thankful.

We give thanks and we should. We should be thankful for one another. Thankful for love. Thankful for a full belly and a place to lay our heads. Thankful for a God that provides light even in our darkest hours.

A smaller table and a smaller gathering is disappointing but this year it is necessary. It’s tough not having Dad at our table because of Covid-19 restrictions at his assisted living facility, even though I know it is the right decision. There is certainly no shortage of heartache or suffering in our world today. And perhaps you’re suffering, too. I pray that your suffering, whether in mind or body, is temporary and your healing is swift.

Tomorrow I will remember to give thanks. And if Thanksgiving Dinner isn’t perfect in every way, I will try to remember that it’s the thanksgiving and not the dinner that really matters.

Peace,

Denis

The House That Love Built

My wife and I have been married for a while. We’ve weathered our fair share of storms through the years. Money problems; career challenges; parenthood; health issues; the loss of loved ones; 2020.

Somehow we’ve always held on; held out; held up. I know that we’ve been blessed with some great fortune. Not the monetary kind but the true treasure in life – loving family and friends and faith in God. I also believe that early on in our marriage we learned some valuable lessons in humility. Those humbling experiences weren’t fun at the time but they strengthened us and tempered our resolve to make our marriage work – even on the worst days.

Respect for one another is a big part of our success as couple. Folks say that marriage should be 50/50 but those of us who have been at it for a while know that sometimes it’s 80/20 or 30/70 and you have to step in and step up for your spouse when they need you. Being respectful to the one you love when they need more from you than they can give in return is challenging. It requires patience from the giver and humility from the receiver. I believe that it is even more challenging when you’re the one who needs to be carried for a time. But that’s what love is. Love builds us up. Love holds us together. Love gives us the strength to be the “carrier” and the grace to be the “carried”.

This has been a tough year for most people but at the end of each day I am blessed to able to look back and realize, once again, that I have had an amazing partner by my side. We’ve laughed and cried. We’ve cursed and prayed. And yet, even in 2020 somehow we’ve managed to hold on, hold out, and hold up.

When we were first married we had no idea what lie ahead. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Predictable journeys are, well predictable. Ours has been a serious of adventures. We’ve been surprised, heartbroken, blessed, scared and delighted along the way. We’ve grown up (and grown older) through it all. And we’re still standing…

Peace,

Denis

In Good Times And In 2020

Nothing could have prepared me for this year. Everyday seems to bring more sad news. More than 185,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Our nation seems more politically divided than during any other time of my adult life. Fear and anxiety have affected all of us in some way or another. It’s a struggle to find joy most days. Families are being torn apart by job loss, illness and death. Parents are juggling jobs and the education of their children. Weddings, vacations, funerals, and graduations have been cancelled or truncated. Often those we most love are the only outlet for our frustrations. Patience is wearing thin. Our families, our friends, our neighbors, unwittingly become easy targets for our ridicule and wrath in these darkest days. “I love you but…” seems to be a sad anthem for 2020.

In marriage (and in life) we realize that it’s in good times and in bad that we must live. We don’t just walk away when the going gets tough. I admit that I’d like to bury my head in the sand most of these days of 2020 but I refuse to give up hope. I refuse to let sadness and madness rule my life. I still have joy although sometimes it’s just a flicker of light in a mostly dark room. I still have peace in my soul even though I feel surrounded by hate, violence and despair.

I’m angry. I’m frightened. I’m heartbroken. Sometimes (many times in 2020) I need to be reminded that better days are ahead. These are tough times but I have faith in God and I have faith in my fellow humans. Wishing bad things away is not enough. We must fight injustice. We must work hard to end systemic racism. We must work to provide healthcare and living wages for all. We must welcome asylum seekers and refugees into our country. We must be a light to others, even if it is only a flicker.

I am privileged. Not just by the color of my skin but also because of being born into a loving family. I am privileged because I have shared my life with my partner of 45 years. Our foundation is strong enough to hold us together during good times and bad. Enjoying my blessings without working for others is selfish and cowardly. 2020 is a bad year, but for many it won’t ever get better. The foundation I’ve been blessed with is strong enough to hold me up and shelter others in need, too.

Perhaps I can use this time of strife to be more forgiving and charitable to others. I’m praying to be a better husband; a better father; a better brother; a better son; a better friend; a better neighbor; a better citizen; a better man; and to be a light…

Peace,

Denis

The Year of Hank

Our youngest child is named Blake, which originates from Old English and means ‘the fair one’. It was a good fit for the blondest of his dark-haired mother’s three children. Geneticists tell us that dark hair is a dominant trait but my beautiful brunette wife kept popping out blondes.

Anyway, being born blonde was only the beginning of a lifetime of anomalous characteristics that define our beautiful blue-eyed baby boy. Blake was the sweetest and most demonstrative of our children but also the quickest to lose his temper. He was the most curious and restless of our brood, and therefore the most likely to disassemble lamps and small appliances, but he was capable of tremendous patience and compassion with classmates who were unpopular. He was a ‘gifted’ student and a discipline problem. Too much going on in that little head of his to sit still and listen to the teacher, I suppose. At an early age he displayed a very mature sense of humor with a healthy dose of sarcasm thrown in (this really perplexed those teachers – especially the dull ones). He questioned and often resisted organized religion as a boy but was (and is) the most profoundly spiritual of our three.

Life with young Blake was like being on a roller-coaster. The highs were high and the lows were low but that ride was a hell of a lot of fun!

The teenage years bring their own set of challenges and it seemed at times that Blake might need to find a new home. How could we ‘out-smart’ a kid who was clearly smarter than us? Prayer helped. And love (which is prayer in action) was always plentiful. Oh, and we learned to not sweat the small stuff. Turns out most of the “stuff” is pretty small anyway. We didn’t object when he came home with his hair dyed bright green. My response was just, “Well actually blue is my favorite color but it’s your hair…” We didn’t freak out when he wasn’t excepted into the National Honor Society (even though he was a National Merit Semifinalist). Apparently hurling an F-bomb at an assistant principal disqualifies you for that sort of thing. When he casually asked us one evening over dinner to start calling him ‘Hank’ our only question was why? His response: “I like the name.” And so it was. We called him Hank. For the better part of a year he became Hank. It was really no big deal and we just decided to roll with it.

During ‘The Year of Hank’ he remained as academically gifted and artistically brilliant and maddeningly headstrong as ever but somehow the challenges became fewer; the fights were less intense. After a year or so of being Hank, he seemed bored with the novelty and became Blake once more. He recently told a friend that we were cool parents because we let him be Hank for a year. It occurred to me that we never ‘let him’ do anything. We usually stood in amazement as he ‘did him’ while we desperately tried to catch up.

He’s a grown man now but I still spy a glimpse of Hank now and then; in his voice; in his smile; in his compassion; in his sense of fairness and justice; in the way he loves with complete abandon; in his authenticity; in his loyalty.

And I thank God for the ‘Year of Hank’ and the grace that allowed it to happen.

Peace,

Denis

Looking For The Ocean

There’s a story attributed Anthony de Mello that he would share at spiritual retreats. It goes something like this:

A fish was swimming frantically from side to side in the ocean. Another fish asked, “What are you doing?” He answered, “I’m looking for the ocean.” The other fish said, “You’re in the ocean.”

This is my dilemma. I am the fish swimming from side to side. Covid-19 has come as a silent invader. It has crept in and robbed people that I know of their health, their livelihood and in some cases, even their life. I am looking for the ocean. I am looking for that safe place, where I know that life will return as I remember. And I feel frantic and weary because I can’t find that place.

I am the fish swimming from side to side. And I need to be reminded that I’m in the ocean. It’s my inability to recognize that I am surrounded by everything I need that is exhausting. Because I don’t focus long enough to see what I have, my spirit is sapped. Because I can’t stop frantically searching, my joy is gone; my hope is lost.

And then someone or something reminds me. Sometimes it’s like a flash of light! Suddenly I am keenly aware of all that surrounds me. I AM IN THE OCEAN! All the love and understanding and compassion that I need is here. In me. With me. Around me. Other times it seeps in slowly. I begin to faintly reckon that I am where I belong. It’s a flicker of light. A gentle wave of consciousness. I am serenely in the ocean. Surrounded by love. In me. With me. Around me.

The Corona Virus is awful and it is life-changing but I am determined to stay prayerful and be grateful for what I have. I will cherish what I have now because I know that it is not guaranteed to last.

And when I am with my loved ones, with my friends and my family, I know that I am in the ocean. Our presence is prayer. And God is with us.

Peace,

Denis

Weary Traveler

Life is a journey. As with any journey, there are good times and bad. There can be unexpected turns or detours along the way. And sometimes EVERYTHING feels like an  uphill climb.

Losing Mom and making arrangements for Dad to live with assistance has been emotionally draining.

Mom’s funeral was a healing experience. The liturgy was beautiful. The luncheon was perfect. Our family held each other up both physically and spiritually. We cried, but mostly tears of joy for a life well spent. Mom would have been pleased and proud.

weary heartGetting Dad moved into an Assisted Living apartment was trying – lots of red-tape. Furnishing his new apartment with some of his (their) furniture has been bittersweet. It’s nice to give him familiar things but hard to take apart the house that had been their home for 57 years. Still harder is watching Dad grieve and trying to be strong and gentle at the same time while struggling with my own grief.  Nothing prepares you for this.

Mostly, I’m tired.

No one told me that grief could be so exhausting. Sleepless nights. Or nights interrupted by dreams or reminders of things left undone. Also the seemingly endless activity that is required in planning a funeral, finding and getting Dad settled into a new home, moving furniture, filling out paperwork, hours on the phone with my siblings reassuring each other that the decisions we are making are the right ones, staying strong and “holding up” and doing all of this while life goes on.

I’m not complaining. We were blessed with a Mom who lived to be 90 years old. I’m just feeling weary. I will rest later. Right now I have to keep on journeying.

Peace,

Denis

Being a Minister of Hospitality with an Inhospitable Heart

I had an Uncle Les who was one of the kindest men I ever met. Always smiling and ready to shake a hand, he appeared constantly happy – always approachable and utterly charming. Fittingly, he was an Usher at our Parish Church. Never a Sunday went by that he didn’t hug our kiddos, give Deb a peck on the check and offer me a pat on the back. It remains one of my greatest joys about attending mass at our old parish. And Uncle Les didn’t reserve his hospitality for his nephew and family. He greeted everyone in the same manner. “Welcome!”  “Good to see!”  “How are you?”

Fast-forward about forty years and now I’m an usher (we’re called ministers of hospitality today) and I try to be a friendly face and welcoming presence like my dear uncle. Usually I fall short of that goal.

I have a secret: I became an usher (oops – minister of hospitality) because I didn’t like most of the people I encountered at Mass. Ours is an upscale, very conservative parish where I often feel out of step with most of my fellow parishioners. I thought that if I could stop judging and start greeting people I would learn to love them as they are and let go of my need to have everyone think and act like me. Some days are easier than others.

But it’s working.  S L O W L Y –  V E R Y  S L O W L Y.

usher-pic_origI smile and shake hands and offer the occasional hug or pat on the back. I’m the ‘Minister of Hospitality’ but in truth I’m the one being ministered. These folks that I’m greeting, that I know I would have never engaged in conversation before, are also welcoming me and greeting me and loving me. I’m certain many are misogynists, and racists, and xenophobes, and all manner of despicable human. But isn’t that why we gather? Aren’t we at Mass to be changed? Aren’t we building the “Body of Christ” in our flawed human way?

So I continue to show up on Sundays and do my thing. I smile. I greet. I welcome. I especially enjoy the ‘late-comers’ – the folks who try to slip in unnoticed. They often have a look that’s a mixture of shame and astonishment (“How did this happen? I’m sure I left my house on time!”) I greet them with a special smile and knowing nod – “It’s okay; you’re here; you made it; welcome.” I particularly love our “back of church” officially called the “Gathering Space” It’s an amazing and wonderful place.  Normal ‘Mass behavior’ can be abandoned there; beleaguered parents can allow their children to run and giggle; crying is completely acceptable; teenagers can skulk about like parolees.

In all of this, I see God’s love. Jesus is greeting me with each smile and kind word. I’m beginning to look at the “Body of Christ” in a whole new light. And little by little my stone cold heart is being chipped away.

Some Sundays I even feel Uncle Les smiling down on me.

Peace,

Denis

Sweating the Small Stuff

How many times in my life have I heard someone say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” Usually it’s meant to comfort me when I feel anxious about something that appears to be trivial to another or offered as an excuse or permission to fail to meet some expectation not shared by the person offering the solace. And there are scores of books written about not sweating the small stuff. You can purchase wall plaques, pendants, caps, key fobs, T-shirts, etc., all emblazoned with the phrase.

There seems to be a universal assumption that little things don’t matter. That unless something has monetary or political or social significance, it is not worthy of our time. But I think that little things do matter. So I will continue to sweat the small stuff.Little things

After all, if the best things in life come in small packages then why not give them their proper attention and respect? The idiom, “The devil is in the details” implies that there is something hidden in the details; something that might seem simple at a first but will reveal itself to be more than expected.

I prefer the phrase “God is in the details”. The little things. Watching glimmering snowflakes cascading down from the sky. Taking a walk on a crisp fall day. The sweet smell of a summer rain. That first cup of coffee in the morning. A favorite book. Resting under a shady tree. Hearing a child’s laughter. Receiving a friendly smile. Or a soft touch. Or a kind word. Simple things perhaps but hidden inside each of these is comfort, joy and love. And I believe God is there, too.

So I’m sweating the small stuff. I will take the time to appreciate the details. I will hold the door for you. I will carry your load if you let me. I will set the table properly. I will use good penmanship. I will clean my house and mow my lawn. I will drive courteously. I will try to be a good citizen; a good neighbor; a good friend. I will say thank you and please and you’re welcome.

But more importantly I will say I love you. And I will say it again. And again. I want the gifts that I give to be wrapped literally and figuratively in all the beauty that I can muster. The gifts that I have to share may not be significant or of any financial value. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, my gifts are all just small stuff. But I will sweat them out. Anything less would have no meaning…

Peace,

Denis

 

Summer Makes Me Happy!

Summer makes me happy! Sunshine. Blue skies. Lazy days. Swimming pools. Cool drinks. Baseball. Watermelon. Picnics. Patios. Snow cones. I love it all.

All the rules change in summer:

  • No school for the kiddos.
  • “Dressy casual” becomes more casual and less dressy at the office.
  • The sun stays up longer, so dinner can be something on the grill (or sometimes just hors d’oeuvres and cocktails).
  • Nature is in abundance – our gardens are in full bloom and the hummingbirds return.
  • Everything just feels a little lighter – a little more carefree.
  • Vacations (even a little road trip) can be a time to recharge our batteries and refresh our souls.

PoolWhen I was a boy times were simpler (or maybe our parents were naïve). But it seemed that we had lots of freedom and at least we felt safe. Certainly parents then didn’t have the fears that parents do today. We swam in creeks. We road our bikes EVERYWHERE. We drank from the garden hose and peed in the backyard. We played in open fields. We collected soda bottles and returned them to the A&P for the 2¢ deposit. My friends and I would save enough of the deposit money to buy a watermelon (the kind with seeds – the seedless ones hadn’t been invented yet) and we would cut it open on a summer day and gorge ourselves and spit the seeds on the ground. Perhaps that’s why summer makes me so happy. I can relive some of my youth with my grandkids. We can play ball in the backyard and eat watermelon and splash around in a wading pool.

I believe in our world today, more than ever, we could use some happiness. I certainly know that I could. I’m not “sticking my head in the sand” pretending that global warming isn’t real or ignoring the fact that millions go to bed hungry each night or forgetting that racial and social injustice are still rampant in our society. Searching for a little happiness won’t eliminate the political turmoil that currently has a stranglehold on our nation. But I need some summertime to help me put it all into perspective. I need a break from all the unhappiness. I need to play outside and run through the sprinkler and eat too many hotdogs and ice cream cones and LAUGH OUT LOUD.

Maybe then I can get back to the serious business of worrying and praying about all the things that make us so unhappy as a nation; as a community; as a neighborhood; as a family.

In the meantime, let’s be happy! At least for a little while…

Peace,

Denis

Letting Go of Stuff

I have to admit that I get attached to things. My favorite old sweater. My ink pen with the Air Force logo. My car “Max” that carried me on my way for 160,000+ miles. My Denny’s® coffee cup that kept my coffee at just the right temperature on my desk. My, my, my, mine. And this might be the problem with my stuff. It’s mine. It’s all about me. What I want. What I need. What makes me happy.

So I’m trying to let go. Some by choice; some by need; some unplanned.

Max was dying a slow death as many 12 year-old cars will do – transmission trouble, oil and other assorted leaks, failing to sometimes start, etc., etc. I traded in Max for a newer model (which I like) but I still felt a sense of loss as Max sort of limped away to the auto auction lot.

cupMy favorite coffee cup was recently broken by the cleaning crew in my office. The appropriate apology and offer of replacement was extended but somehow it doesn’t seem enough. They’ll never be able to replace a 20 year-old Denny’s® cup that my sister gave me. I’m afraid my coffee will never quite taste the same. That cup gave me comfort and a sense of connection.

Again, this unhealthy attachment to things is giving me pause. I need to let go. I must let go. I will let go.

How many times have I held on to stuff that I haven’t really needed? How often have I valued property over people? Stuff over relationships? “Loved” things???

My granddaughter Charlise’ middle name is Clare. And I’ve been reading about Saint Clare and how she followed Francis of Assisi’s example and gave away all her earthly possessions. Clare had been born to a wealthy Roman family but walked away from her life of luxury to join a religious order. Devoted to serving the poor and living a simple life the order of nuns would ultimately become known as the Poor Clares.

I’m not ready to give away all my stuff. But I’m trying desperately to place less value on things. I don’t need the newest gadgets or the latest fashions or the fanciest cars or the finest furniture. I’m going to try to live more simply. I’ve seen too many families torn apart fighting over stuff while trying to settle an estate. I’ve witnessed greed and selfishness and neither are easy to look at. I know that I have more than I need. So wanting more stuff seems foolish and sinful.

I’ll never be a saint like Clare or Francis. And you can’t have my Air Force pen! But maybe if I remove some of the clutter from my life I’ll be able to see more clearly what truly matters. It’s okay to have things but I’m going to try to give more and ask for less. Because I believe that less may be more.

Peace,

Denis

If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? 1 John 3:17