We Are Family

In his book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, Matthew Fox quotes Julian, a 14th century mystic: “Those who were Jesus’ friends suffered because they loved Him”. Fox then adds in his own words, “It hurts to be with the pain of others, of loved ones. But it also grows the soul.”

This week we celebrated the life of my cousin Michelle who passed away on October 7th. Michelle was a gentle soul who accepted every one of us as we were. I never heard her speak ill of anyone. She dearly loved animals because the love they returned to her was unconditional. Her life was not always easy but she carried joy in her heart and she shared that joy with all who encountered her, especially her furry and feathered friends.

When I think of Michelle I am reminded that Saint Francis, who also had a gentle nature, believed that humans and animals could live in loving harmony. Francis is attributed as saying, “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator, and love Him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Michelle’s service was beautiful and spending time with her siblings and her mother “grew my soul” this week. Our family, of which 4 or 5 generations have lived in the same town, is now spread throughout the rest of the world like many families today. There was comfort in being in our hometown and laying Michelle to rest next to her father, with those other 4 generations nearby. Knowing that we belong to those who came before us is comforting and grounding. Knowing that we belong to those who remain with us gives me strength. We shared our grief and our heartache on Monday but we shared our joy and our love for one another as well. This is our tribe and we carry one another when necessary. I held my cousin Kim’s hand as we prayed and watched Michelle’s remains be interred. That simple gestured calmed my soul and lifted my spirit. We are family and we belong to one another in a way no one else can.

Michelle had many gifts. She was a talented artist. She was generous to a fault. She didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She never met a stranger and welcomed all strays (even the two legged kind). But most importantly, to me, the greatest gift she possessed was simply this: every time I saw her I always left feeling better. Tomorrow when I am giving thanks, I will thank God for Michelle and for allowing my soul to grow. And I pray that she is flying in the purity of the air in heaven and smiling down on all of us.

Peace,

Denis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” ~ Saint Francis

Do Feast Days Really Matter?

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers. Feast days in the Church seem archaic and arcane. Perhaps that’s why I like celebrating them. They’re a reminder that our Church is ancient and mysterious and somehow still enduring.

St. Denis – Outside the Madeline in Paris (depicted with head intact)

I’ve always been happy to have Denis as my saint’s name because he’s kind of a maverick and a tough guy. According to legend Denis was Bishop of Paris in the third century and was martyred by beheading. He is said to have picked up his own head and walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. Besides being the patron saint of headache sufferers (for obvious reasons), Denis is also the patron saint of people dealing with frenzy and strife. During this time of pandemic we might learn something from Denis and “keep on keepin’ on”.

Of course, I admire the “saintly” saints who prayed and fasted and gave up all worldly possessions to follow Jesus’ call. We all love the saints who lived simple lives and made tremendous sacrifices for their faith but there’s something about a guy who has Denis’s spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads postmortem. So, in my book Denis is a saint to emulate. Not only was he tough but he was cool. Let’s call it grace under pressure – extreme pressure.

My Aunt Gene Marie used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’s feat day and I will miss that again this year, but I believe she’s in heaven now discussing that fateful day in Paris with Saint Denis and still celebrating his feast day. She’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. I have always taken a certain amount of pride (is that a sin?) in the fact that my patron saint was a badass who defied his Roman persecutors!

I’ll keep celebrating feast days amidst the growing uncertainty about the future of our Church. When we forget that love should be our guiding principal and we refuse to accept ALL of our brothers and sisters, I believe that we are turning our back on God. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, wrote, “God is all that is good. God has created all that is made. God loves all that he has created. And so anyone who, in loving God, loves all his (or her) fellow creatures.” Julian was a woman who lived during the bubonic plague and still found joy in all creation. I am comforted by the knowledge that our Church is ancient and universal and that Julian’s wisdom still speaks to me today. I wish all clerics would read her words. We continue to make mistakes; to exclude; to blame; to punish. How many times in history have men nearly undone the gift of Church that God has given us? I wish all Christians would remember that we are the Church. I believe that there is room at the table for all of us. We can honor those who have come before us and thank God for the wisdom they have shared. We can pray for those who will follow us and show them that love is never a mistake.

A feast day is as good a time as any to do both. Jesus loved saints and sinners. And He still does.

Peace,

Denis

A few years ago my grandson was Saint Denis at his school’s annual All Saints’ Day celebration. If pride really is a sin then I’m surely doomed.

Noah

Today is our grandson Noah’s birthday.

Eleven years ago he stole my heart and conquered my world. He single-handedly restored my faith in God. He gives me hope for our future. It doesn’t hurt that he’s kind of my mini-me as well. We look a little bit alike (okay, more than a little bit). We laugh at the same jokes. We love the same folks. We like the same food. And we like being together.

I suppose that most men are just little boys at heart and with Noah, I can celebrate my inner 11-year-old. We both like to win at card games, contests, feats of strength, riddles, etc. No, I don’t let him win. Yes, he usually beats me.

Noah loves to point out our similarities: eye color (although his are bluer); hair color (although mine is whiter). We’re both color-blind (something that he thinks is sort of cool). Blue is our favorite color because it’s a color we can see. He looks up to me. And I’m his biggest fan.

There’s an awesome responsibility when someone sees you as a role model. What I say and do in his presence matters. My opinions, my actions are being observed and studied and often mimicked. If I act like a jerk, he might as well. If I behave with compassion, he might too. If I am patient and kind, loving and generous, he might follow that example as well. It’s tricky, this business of being a responsible adult.

Lately I find myself following his lead. He, in many ways, has become my role model. When we are together we share our stories – mine of days of old; his of school, soccer, baseball, robotics, and electronics beyond my understanding. We connect both physically and spiritually. He believes in God and I truly see God in him.

Noah has a habit of sitting next to me and taking my old arm and wrapping it around himself. That small gesture is sublime! It soothes my soul and calms my spirit. The fact that an 11-year-old boy still wants my embrace is a nothing short of miraculous. It’s my little bit heaven on earth and it will sustain me beyond the years when he no longer needs me. But I pray (selfishly) that he will always need me. Because Noah strengthens me. He makes me a better man.

Noah is eleven. He’s my boy. But in the blink of an eye he will be twenty-two. And thirty-three. And forty-four. And…

More selfish prayers – I hope that I am around to see the man that I know he is destined to become. I know that he will change our world. He’s already changed mine.

My birthday wish for him is that he will always know how much he is loved. And that he will always know I have felt his love and God’s presence whenever we are together.

Peace,

Denis

Back to School

Our daughter is a second grade teacher. She loves to teach. And I suppose unless you love it, you shouldn’t do it. The pay is meager and the challenges are plentiful. Still, she is a joy-giver and has an indefatigable spirit and those kiddos will someday remember her as someone who mattered. Because in her classroom they matter. She makes learning fun but she reminds her students that what they do and how they do it is important. School is important and so are they.

Truth is, she’s been teaching her entire life. She taught me how to be the dad of a daughter – which can be pretty daunting for us slow-learners. She taught her brothers a thing or two along the way. And of course her husband and children are devoted followers. She teaches; we learn.

Seeing her welcome her second graders this year brings back thoughts of classrooms long ago. Remembering my apprehension each school year of who my teacher might be and worrying that I might have forgotten EVERYTHING during my summer of freedom from the classroom. What would I do if I couldn’t remember arithmetic or names of the state capitols or something? I remember I would pray to Saint Jude, patron of hopeless cases, for a day or two before school started and somehow miraculously I could write my name in cursive after my summer hiatus.

As an adult I fondly remember favorite teachers; Miss Boerding, my second grade teacher who had a beautiful smile and always smelled nice and was patient and loving. Sister Leandra, who insisted on good grammar and penmanship and told amazing stories, which may or may not have actually been true. Miss Pfaff, geography teacher who instilled in me my love of travel at an early age. Sister Thecla, my high school drafting and graphic arts teacher who was a hoot and made her classes fun while we worked our tails off trying to meet her standards of excellence. Sister Fidesta, high school algebra and geometry teacher who was a force to be reckoned with but always had a twinkle of kindness in her eye.

I’m thankful for my many teachers. When I correct someone’s grammar (in my head) while they’re speaking or become frustrated with their improper sentence structure and lack of punctuation in an email I thank Sister Leandra. As I cringe while someone says, “I’m going down to Wisconsin” (and they’re not coming from Canada) I thank Miss Pfaff. When I study architectural drawings and work on designs for my job I thank Sister Thecla. When I have to be tough but remember to also be kind I thank Sister Fidesta.

Of course, I’ve had countless teachers outside of the classroom as well. My wife is a tireless teacher who has yet to give up on me. My Mom taught me how to pray. I have a workmate who leads me through the perilous journeys of our data system whenever I am lost. I have friends who teach me by their love and devotion and our shared experiences. My grandkids teach me how to operate some of these gadgets in our house that are apparently necessary for survival today. How many remote control devices must one have?

In or out of the classroom I’m always learning. And most days it’s good to get back to school.

Peace,

Denis

Saints and Angels

Below is a text exchange I had today with our teenage granddaughter. “Teenage granddaughter”. I still hold my breath a little when I say those words. That tiny baby girl who I held in my arms just moments ago is a teenager. But today I got a glimpse of the woman she is becoming: strong and smart and loving and faithful.

Here’s our exchange:

Me: We honor Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, as saints. We celebrate the joint feast day of Jesus’ grandparents on July 26th. Their love for one another and for Mary is an example to us of how God calls us to live. They also remind us to honor our own grandparents and to thank them for the blessings they have passed down to us in love. Happy Feast Day Anna! (I have to admit that part about honoring your grandparents was blatantly self-serving but I sent it anyway.)

She: I am greatly blessed to have you and Nana as my grandparents and today I am especially reminded of that. I love you.

Those words: I am greatly blessed… and I love you.

Just when the world seems to be too much to bear. Just when I’m not sure if I’m even fit for humanity. Just when I can’t seem to find a kind word or a kind thought, there she is. My girl. My teenager. She softens my roughness. She calms my restlessness. She looks past my ugliness. She ignores my mean-spiritedness. She digs deep and finds the love and beauty and truth that I sometimes keep buried deep under the angst of everyday living. But she finds it! She lifts my spirit and she soothes my soul.

And I am greatly blessed. And I am loved.

Peace,

Denis

What, why, when, where, how?

We have two of our granddaughters, aged 5 and 7, staying with us for three weeks this summer. It has been a lot. A lot of fun. A lot of laughs. A lot of ice cream. A lot of laundry. A lot of love. A lot of questions.

You forget sometimes when you are an adult to ask questions. I mean we already know everything anyway, right? What is there to learn? We’ve been there and done that. We stand by our convictions and our restrictions and God help anyone who tries to get us to open our eyes (or minds) to new ideas or experiences. And please don’t make me learn anything new. My brain is old and tired and full.

Sadly, there is a loss of fascination and wonder as you age. And I am guilty of not-wanting-to-know-anything-else! Ignorance is bliss. I don’t have to be responsible for anything if I don’t know how my irresponsibility contributes to the pain or suffering in our world. I believe in God (most days) but there was a long stretch during the Trump administration that made me doubt His (Her) existence. So much hate. So much darkness. So much divisiveness.

But my granddaughters are full of wonder. They ask questions about EVERYTHING. They force me to think about the whys and wherefores. They force me to take off my blinders. Their innocence and joyfulness and energy reminds me that I need to be more mindful of my responsibility as a human being. Their curiosity rekindles my need to better understand what is happening in my neighborhood, my church, my country and my world. I cannot afford to be a silent bystander when there is so much to be done. There is such a need for compassion and love in this world and I can do my small part.

On those days when I curse my fellow humans and stick my head in the sand I will try to remember that my granddaughters desire a better future. I must stay hopeful and faithful. I must keep asking questions. What can I do to help others? Why is there so much hate in our world? When will we learn to love one another? Where can I find hope and strength? How do I improve myself, my neighborhood, my church, my country and my world?

Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a prayer that includes: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the inclination that we do not have evil in our hearts. Deliver us from religious and national exceptionalism. Deliver us from addiction and depression. Deliver us from self-loathing. Deliver us from self-righteousness. Deliver us from high fructose corn syrup. Deliver us from a complete lack of imagination about where you are in our lives and how you might already be showing up. Deliver us from complacency. Deliver us from complicity.

As I read her prayer I realize that I too need to be delivered. I need to be delivered from my self-assuredness and pride and I need to start asking some questions. I need to ask the ones that are especially hard to ask – like where is God in my life? I need to learn to be patient with myself as I search for those answers. I also need to let go. I need to stop carrying the weight of anger and resentment. I need to unload those obstacles that consume so much of my energy and brain activity. Then perhaps I can wonder and wander. And maybe even carry someone else’s load for awhile. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

Peace,

Denis

The link below will take you to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s complete prayer

https://thecorners.substack.com/p/sunday-prayers-october-25th-2020

Still Waters Run Deep

My father-in-law was a thoughtful and loving man. He was more comfortable as an observer than a participant in most situations, but when he spoke it was always worth my while to listen. I’m more of doer and a talker (too much of a talker, according to some) and I was often humbled by his quiet wisdom.

We lost him last week. And I’m certain that the angels welcomed him to heaven.

Pop was a father, grandfather, great grandfather and father-in-law. Nothing made him happier than being surrounded by family. We are all better persons for having had him in our lives.

He grew up poor in Southeast Missouri. He lived a hard life as a kid. He earned pocket money killing rats in the cotton and watermelon fields as young boy. He lived in his grandparents’ home when his mother couldn’t afford a place of their own but he never complained about his upbringing. He never voiced any regrets. He was grateful for all that he had in life.

In many ways he was ahead of his time. Unlike many men of his generation men he wasn’t afraid to do what was considered “woman’s work” and he often did the grocery shopping, would clean the house on occasion, do laundry and could prepare a meal if necessary.

He enlisted in the Air Force and then had a 40 year career with American Airlines but he never forgot his humble beginnings. What I remember most is that he never uttered an unkind word about anyone. He never looked down on anyone. It didn’t matter where you lived or what you looked like, he accepted you as you were. I never once heard a racist or anti-Semitic word or phrase pass his lips. He truly believed that all men and women were created equally. And he lived his life that way.

He taught my wife how to be a person of dignity and more importantly how to afford dignity to others. Since his passing she has wished that she had asked him more questions – about his life as a boy; his time in Korea in the Air Force; his love affair with her mother; his career; his grandparents and great grandparents; his hopes and his dreams. But if she had been able to ask all those questions, I know in my heart that he would have likely shrugged and said, “I have no regrets. I’ve lived my best life. And as a bonus I got you as my daughter.”

Pop would have done anything for any of us, but he didn’t like being fussed over himself. The night he died we let him get some rest. His health had been declining rapidly and he had had a fitful time the night before. We went into another room and reminisced about happier times. When we went to check on him the second or third time, we realized he had found his way home.

Our son commented later about Grandpa not wanting to be hovered over. He said, “It was just like him to sneak off while no one was watching.”

And so it was…

Peace,

Denis

I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

Heartbreak and Hope

Last week we had the mundane task of shopping at a big box store. You know the place, where you can get toilet paper and toys and t-shirts and televisions. We had time to kill so went spent more time than usual and dawdled at the barbeque grills, smokers, and outdoor grills – fascinating stuff they sell for the backyard these days. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. That is until we paid for our “necessities” and headed toward the door.

There was a young couple just in front of us with a baby in their shopping cart who was greeted by a woman in a tie-dyed t-shirt. I thought at first it must have been a friend waiting for them but then I realized she had a police officer at her side. She greeted the couple with, “I’m store security. I need you turn around and go back into the store with me now.”

My heart sank. The young woman turned beet red. The young man looked clueless (was he? or was it an act?) And the baby? Sweet innocence. There was no protest. They just turned and walked back into the store sullenly and shamefully. The dad in me had the urge to yell out, “I’ll pay for whatever it was!” But I didn’t. Perhaps I was afraid. Maybe I figured that it wouldn’t solve their problem. Besides the undercover security officer and the cop didn’t really look like they were the negotiating types. Regardless we walked out of the store as they walked back in. And I kept thinking that could be my daughter or my son.

I haven’t been able to shake that encounter out of my mind. The young couple. The baby. I have a million questions. Were they so desperate that shoplifting was their only hope of survival? Was it just a kick – some kind of thrill perhaps? Were they feeding an addiction or just trying to feed their baby? What would become of them and their baby? I can’t (and won’t) judge them. I know that stealing is wrong. I realize it is crime to take what is not yours. But how is one’s self-esteem brought so low that this happens? How has society (that includes me) failed them? I’ve been praying for them since.

I hope that the courts show mercy. I hope that this a wake-up call for the young parents. I hope that the baby retains no memory of that shameful experience. I hope and I pray for all those who are desperate and in need of compassion.

During Lent we are encouraged to repent. The word we translate as ‘repent’ – metanoia – means ‘change of heart’ or to live life with your belief in the Good News of the Gospel. Nice sentiment and easy to say but where is the Good News for those in trouble? Where is the Good News for those on the fringe of society? Where is the Good News for the hopeless ? The hungry? The prisoner? The outcast?

I’ll start by trying to refrain from judgement of others. Mercy is a gift that I can freely give. Kindness can be shown to everyone I encounter. That’s a first step towards my change of heart. And I will continue to pray for that young couple and ask God to forgive me for my blindness to others’ pain. I pray that there is always hope even amidst heartbreak.

Peace,

Denis

Planned Parenthood (or something like that)

We had our first child after we were married nearly four years. It seemed like a good plan. And it was!

He was a perfect baby. He was beautiful. He was healthy. He ate well. He slept well. He was always happy. He loved everyone he encountered. We were clearly excellent parents.

We weren’t just good parents, we were brilliant and so good at this ‘baby thing’ that we decided to plan our next child right away. Finding out that we were having a second child on “Perfect Baby’s” first birthday seemed like a dream come true. And it was. She arrived only a year and half after her brother, tiny and pink and so soft that my rough hands could barely feel her tenderness. She looked like a little rose bud. Our planned had worked!

So there we were with two cribs, two high chairs, two diaper pails. Our new addition would certainly be as sweet and easy and happy as her (only slightly older) brother. This planned parenthood would prove our brilliance to those who had doubted our wisdom – naysayers all! Big Brother went to bed every night promptly at 8:00pm and didn’t wake up most days until 8:00am. We were certain Baby Sister would get into that groove, too.

But Baby Sister had a different schedule in mind. She began crying (no – let’s call it screaming) at 8:15pm. This usually only lasted 3 or 4 hours EVERY NIGHT. Her pediatrician said she was colicky. Of course all the “old wives” (mother and mother-in-law) with their old wives’ tales, offered little comfort. Try lying baby on her stomach across your lap after nursing. Try rubbing baby’s tiny belly after nursing. Try nursing baby before she started crying. Try waiting to nurse baby until she was really crying hard. Try having Daddy hold baby after nursing because baby could sense Mommy’s tension. The message that I was receiving: TRY NOT PLANNING ANY MORE PREGNANCIES. They won. The naysayers. The “I told you so”-ers. What in God’s name had we been thinking?

So we battled on like war-weary soldiers fighting a lost cause. We knew that we might never survive, but we also knew that we could never surrender. The mockers and naysayers would win! We couldn’t let that happen. So we carried on. Night after night we rocked and cuddled THE TERROR. Night after night we soothed THE BEAST. Night after night we cried ourselves to sleep, we three, while (only slightly older) brother slept through it all.

And then six months later it happened. A miracle. The colic stopped. Our angel appeared. She became the most beautiful baby girl that the world has ever seen. She and big brother became best friends. They were inseparable. They literally grew up together. Often mistaken for twins, Baby Sister and Big Brother were usually in lockstep. Once again, we were brilliant parents. We were unstoppable. And few years later when a sort of general amnesia clouded our colicky memories, Baby Brother joined our ranks. And we lived happily ever after. Until adolescence.

But that’s another story of survival…

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