Eighty Things

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A year ago on a Tuesday, my father passed on into paradise. When I look over the past year, I see how much my family has endured, so many transitions. In going through all sorts of treasures in preparing our family home for sale last summer, I found this tidbit that I gave my father of “Eighty Things” on his eightieth birthday…they made me laugh and renewed my belief that he is still with us. I won’t share them all because you wouldn’t understand most of the personal anecdotes, so here are the highlights…

  1. In every non-linear, chaotic system (that would be you) the initial conditions of said system set the path you would follow. Like a butterflies wings, that can change the weather across the globe, so the world was changed when you arrived in it.
  2. That’s right, the world was and will continue to be altered by your existence…deal with that tidbit of information with the enclosed package of Mallowmars (my father’s guilty pleasure). Some how, chocolate always seems to make mind blowing realizations palpable.
  3. Don’t hang too tightly onto those initial conditions, they were preordained before you were born. You were born, in particular, the miracle baby boy of an Irish woman who survived multiple miscarriages before you came, which under normal circumstances would have made you intolerable to the rest of us, but was offset by the fact that you were poor, Irish, and Catholic with the addition of scary relatives. Surely this is proof that the good Lord believes in balance for all his miracles, and also has a kick ass sense of humor.
  4. Since the nuns didn’t kill you, thus leaving your will to live in tact, the fractal that is you had already begun to spin into a delicate design.
  5. All the information you learned in school is still locked away in your cranium, the records of which are downloaded daily, and in your case will stave off Armageddon for at least a bit more time. Note, that as long as stupid people inhabit the planet you will have to think smart thoughts even more vehemently.
  6. Just like weather patterns, the going is never consistently easy, which is what makes a fractal beautiful. I’m sure God is constantly amazed at how easily his children sweat the small things. Worrying about Global changes are appropriate, the question of “Am I good enough” NEVER.
  7. Every contact makes an impact. Awareness of a result or lack thereof will never alter this fact.
  8. We are all ingredients in the perfect recipe, faith is nothing more than allowing heaven to guide us in the compilation of the greatest result. You are in charge of keeping your addition fresh. Doubt will make you rancid, and will affect the whole.
  9. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Which means by now, you should just have it about friggin perfect. Wisdom flows from you, so sail through to the next event with no fear.
  10. If you’re alive, there is still plenty of work to do, God is not finished with you yet, old man…
  11. Boy, did you score with your lovely wife Ruthie, could you have ever imagined what a perfect compliment she was to your DNA? Of course heaven could, which is why you were so prolific…5 kids in 6 1/2 years. Let’s just list fertility as both of your super powers.
  12. There were times when the post traumatic stress of having such exuberant offspring has shaken you to your very core. Take enclosed Kowalski gift card, buy a picnic at the deli and with your lovely wife, revel in the fact that they no longer depend on you financially…most of the time.
  13. Celebrating all those sacraments, with all that spiritual energy coursing through your body, I would think you’d be able to fly by now…No?
  14. So, go outside and breath in deep and blow out several time, the air definitely needs purifying and since your body has been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, why not? It’s good to put those sacraments to work once in awhile.
  15. Now, take a moment to just be. Even non-linear chaotic systems need to sit in the still point of this turning world to remember why we’re here. Like the parable of the talents, we just need to try and do the best with what the master has given us, and with that winning personality of yours I will say with confidence that you have a SHIT LOAD of stuff to do before the master gets back!
  16. Just when the fear of running out of time hits you, remember this: everything about this world wouldn’t have existed without you, because nothing would be the same.
  17. That being said, the fractals that you have authored  (John, Tom, Mary, Kate, and Joan) may have turned their individual professions on their heads, but given your influence, it is probably a well needed and deserved toss.
  18. Take a walk on the beach and celebrate that you have successfully retired to Florida and haven’t lost your fashion sense, unless you’re wearing black socks with sandals and then, well I just can’t look at you right now.
  19. Say what you mean to say, for the love of God man, you’ve been alive for 80 years and it’s a sin to keep that kind of wisdom to yourself!
  20. Suck up as many senior discounts as possible, you deserve it.
  21. Revel in the fact that as much as your offspring tortured you during their adolescence, they are now getting it back in spades…karma is a bitch.
  22. Like wine, we get better with time, the only thing we take to the afterlife with us are our experiences and lessons learned. So, celebrate, especially if there is reincarnation…you will surely come back as a higher species and given the depth of your stellar life, I would be confident in saying that you will probably come back as a woman…congratulations!
  23. Although you may feel that life has nothing in store for you, zero point theory states that there is no empty space between things, so take your energy and move some shit around, man! Make sure when you do, do it in public and freak people out. If not now, when?
  24. While close to the end of this list, hopefully not your life. You have created order out of chaos, and helped the weather ease for many people throughout your life, many of whom you may not remember or even be aware of, but heaven knows and never forgets.
  25. You have have been and are still loved, truly, madly and deeply!

A Lifetime of Bearing Fruit

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I found out late last night that one of my roommates from college passed away. In looking through all my old photo albums, I was aware, once again, of those positive influences in my life who helped me overcome my inadequacies, and stood as an example of goodness, truth and such kindness. She stands front and center. I know its common to talk about people who die in celebratory language and images. But Louise was the real deal. She would get teased sometimes by her Pollyanna approach to the world, but she was just, simply, so good. She helped me stay optimistic when my more brooding tendencies would begin to take over. A fellow sojourner on a quest for spiritual enlightenment, she visited a community in Canada to calm her spirit and find some answers, like I did in the desert in New Mexico. She found her soul mate in her husband Tom, a relationship I often used as an archetype of how a man and woman behave in a healthy relationship. I wasn’t always good at social cues, and Louise somehow helped me navigate through the complications of relationships. Even after all this time she continued to be that person who glowed, and that was intrinsically so much better than many of us not just because she was kind, funny and smart, but she moved in the world living a life that reflected her spiritual values and made it seem uncomplicated and effortless…and she never made me feel inferior, never once, even though I believe it to be true, in every sense of the word. Lou was matter of fact about what was necessary to be a modern Catholic Christian. She had her causes and worked tirelessly to bear her own brand of “good fruit.”

She was that friend you could always pick up right where you left off. I was able to talk to her on the phone a few times after she got sick because she lived in another state. The first time, I didn’t even know she was sick, we didn’t talk about that, we just picked up and updated like we usually did. My world was brighter every time we connected, and it is my hope that I made her world brighter too. She was my only friend that continued to write letters long hand as well, waxing philosophically much of the time, continuing to search and grow. They are in my box of letters along with others like my father’s that made me think and grow. She again, was much better at it than I was. I would start but never finish, and end up sending missives separated by long periods of time that had many different sections that were started and then stopped. I regret letting my own ill health often get in the way of reconnecting, but I do feel confident that she knew how much I loved her, even if we didn’t see each other very much.

I have often used Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” in the story of the wood fox, to depict how to make friends or tame people…

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Louise tamed me. She transformed how I learned to see the world. I’m sure through her husband and beautiful children, her friends and family, no one will see the wheat fields in the same way agian. And it is nice to know that there is one more angel in heaven watching over and bringing us light and hope.

You would know the secret of death

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Here is the poem I read at my father’s funeral…I made it almost the whole way through, until the part about dancing…

On Death

Kahlil Gibran

You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light. If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; and like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity. Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor. Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king? Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then you shall truly dance.

 

I still hear his voice, telling me that the smallest gestures can make the largest impact, to live fearlessly and faithfully. I embrace fully in the dream of building the Kingdom of God, one simple brick at a time. Papa, you taught me that and you showed me that by all the people that showed up to celebrate you…from your students, neighbors, colleagues, family, the diocese, and many friends. Your heart was open wide to the body of Life and from above you still walk with me and all those you love to keep singing and dancing until we meet our King.

Letters from my Father

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During this painful waiting time, while my father comes to terms with the finality of his corporeal life, I dug out all the letters my father wrote to me in college. They are incredibly thoughtful and wise. Here are some excerpts from the many letters I received, listed non-chronologically:

About my personality:

God has ways of doing what is best even though we don’t realize it. It is not as though you have never been told that you are too harsh, though. You do lack a sensitivity to people at times, and you are aggressive. I dearly love you and know you better than they, but at times you piss me off by that behavior. I know it’s a cover for other feelings and I yet I still feel that way. However, I wouldn’t change you much. I would never want you to be meek. I want you to grow to be comfortable with you, who you are now and what you will become. I would want you to be more sensitive to people. Learn to read their feelings and respond accordingly. You are so wonderfully strong and I want no less, but your strength should not ever be to cover a weakness or fear. Is this confusing? I know, because I’m not sure how to say it. I have been hurt by similar things but have grown as a result and hopefully have become better. Sometimes, we must have things pointed out to us that we don’t see. It is most important for you that you work with it, test it and grow. You are almost perfect…but not quite! I think of you and pray for you, do the same for us. I continue my love and support, but no money…Ha! Ha! Harrumph.

and yet again:

Nice to hear from you, but you sound up-tight. What do I say. You’re always so anxious you know you must simply relax and take things slower. You will go over the herd. You see so much and are so interested, you see so many different ramifications that others are not with you. Not that your’e wrong you’re so ahead that people don’t always know what point you’re coming from. However, you always question everything. Perhaps its time for you to accept things as you learn then file them not to question them. You must learn quietness, acceptance, patience and slowness. Things must be questioned and challenged (this is a logical process) but not with the intensity that you go at it. All life is a process. As you proceed in life or in literature or studying theology, by your humanness, you are forced to go step by step until we get to the end which for people of faith we never do. Our concepts are imperfect and constantly changing. Even our knowledge of God changes, although God doesn’t. This is what makes life so interesting. We go step by step and learn more and more and try to enjoy where we are at each moment. That is why there is always a need for scholarship. But good scholars are patient. You can’t skip the middle of the book. You might like to know, or even re-write the final chapter, but until you have the means… you can’t. Enjoy what God Gives us each minute, patiently, slowly and learn more and change according to the plan. Un-hunch your shoulders my darling, study and learn but just not with such ferocity but a thankful, patient slowness. Enough homily, but I demand you relax and take life a little easier.

His humor:

I’m surprised to hear that there was a bee that had enough guts to attack you. Obviously the poor thing was suffering from delusions of grandeur…and then died

On a men’s bible study:

I started a Bible class on Saturday morning for men only. We are going to study from the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, etc. It will be a new, different opposite from the traditional. It was very good and the book we have to read is exciting. Basically, the point of view is that man is made a free individual who God trusts. A man, in his scope, makes decisions and hopefully they are worthy ones that he must live with the outcomes. Unlike traditional beliefs, culture is pleasing to God because he has given man the power to create and this is our greatness. Less emphasis on “saviorhood” of Jesus and more on his humanity because God wants us, like David, to embrace life, now, daily-not to suffer life and be rewarded in heaven. Heaven is now or should be, and also after. So man must be concerned about his community (culture) and his fellow man because we are brothers of Jesus, in terms of justice and peace, etc. right now. We should know life and God trusts us to do the right thing: this is more responsible than saying man is degenerate and weak and asking God to handle all our problems. This kind of prayer always baffled me…asking God to take care of everything. If I was somewhat God-like in power because of Jesus why would I cast them aside and make myself less? I always pray out of thanksgiving and love not of weakness. Although at times I say this is what’s going on and I can’t handle it God. Somehow, I think this is OK but I don’t know why. The important thing is that God trusts us, life is great. Even though we make mistakes God is not angry. He is if we don’t do what is life giving. I guess it is better to over live than under live. The ideas are so very exciting!!!

About speaking in tongues at during the charismatic movement:

When we prayed the Confiteor at the beginning of mass, the priest said we should express our sorrow and love. I though, O.K., then everybody began to talk, and sing and clap very loud and independently of each other. It sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. I stood amazed, flustered, and I suppose embarrassed. Suddenly as though by a pre-arranged signal all was quiet. It was an interesting phenomena but I was shaken momentarily. More than anything I felt like someone looking in a window at a party where I wasn’t invited. It was a slightly lonely experience. Then I thought the hell with it. I’ll come to your party if I damn well please any time I please. You’ll have to beat me up and throw me out. Isn’t that strange to feel all that at mass? Embarrassment, fear, love , anger all at the same celebration.

About politics:

The news on the political front is disturbing. It looks as if the Democratic party is splitting. Short (the candidate) does not represent the people as he says. He represents money and power. However, with diligence we will survive and the world will go on in spite of the political chicanery and volume of words with no meaning. This may be the first year in my life I’ll not vote. It does seem there is only solace in God.

About fundamentalism:

I’m flattered that you see me as an expert, which of course I’m not. You probably know more about the Bible than I. Your mother is the real expert. What I know, I know from listening to priests and your mom, but mostly from seat of the pant logic. I am glad you disagree with fundamentalism because to be narrow as they are apt to be, leads to a narrow frustrating life. They tend to gather around others like them and fail to find goodness in those who are not like them or put their own their own faith to tests of honesty. They’re good people but they stay status quo, with no growth. It seems to me they put limits on God. To me theology is a process of change which goes on continually in a life time. One must continually grow by learning new things, theologically. As you learn more your life changes in accordance. Everything you learn, in turn, must be challenged and tested. This is how you arrive at growth, or truth. I do not judge how others believe because ultimately we are responsible for our own Christian lives and we must act according to what we know to be the Truth at the time. Over a time we may prove to be wrong but only because we had insufficient knowledge or our logic was faulty. There is always so much we don’t know but we have to have faith that somehow God will reveal to us how right or wrong we are, and with way we grow. I’m sure God does not abandon us and sometimes things happen we cannot handle alone and we give it up to Him. I see you in everything I have said. You plan your own path well enough.

About the death of Hubert Humphrey:

I suppose you are aware by now of Hubert Humphrey’s death. I’m pleased and sad. He fought it so gallantly and he had enjoyed life. I’m sure he was a figure of stature we will not see in our lifetime again. Such an indomitable man, God must be very proud of Hubert for his just spirit, his true love of humanity and life. He had a full realization of what God has given us. What profound joy there must be in heaven where his spirit joined those whom God has loved and who loved God. I pray our lives are full of the justice, humanity and love that Hubert had. If all of us could exercise our power to one tenth of what he did, what a wonderful world and lives we could have. I hope his spirit still works in our lives and gives us hope.

I added the last note in the hopes that he understand that is exactly how I see him and his impending welcome into heaven. There are more letters to cherish and when he is gone they will give me comfort. That wisdom formed me, calmed me and still gives me hope. I love you dad, more than you can ever know.

Do not go gently into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light

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This poem by Dylan Thomas is loved by my father who is in hospice care right now. It pretty much sums up his attitude toward living…never idle and always in a continuous fight for light it its many forms. Whether it was the light of intellect (he has four degrees), the light of truth (his involvement in politics, from school boards to general elections), the light of faith (a devout Catholic and when he retired from teaching, a second career as a deacon), the light of love (married to my mother for 60 years and with her raised 5 very different and exceptional children). A jack of many trades, he was always planning the next great thing and the reality of Alzheimer’s and cancer has altered those plans, leaving the many in his stead whom his light has touched to continue to rage against darkness and be champions of the light.

My father has always been quite the orator. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Gospel, his voice commanded the moment, his inflection amplified and diminished words in perfect measure and cadence. Once, after he was done reading the Gospel at church, without thinking, I naturally started clapping instinctively as if it were a performance. Of course, I was embarrassed when I realized that I was the only one clapping, but I knew by the gentle laughter that I had done what everyone else had wanted to do in that moment. Words matter to my father, he required good grammar and for us to speak intelligently. Ignorance was simply unacceptable, as was the cruelty of gossip and unfounded innuendo. He held high standards for his children and his students because he had the uncanny knack of recognizing other people’s potential even when they, themselves, could not. That is the greatest gift he could give us as a teacher, to help see ourselves in the fullest light. He wasn’t always successful, but always maintained hope. Even as his cognition wanes, I still see the light he sees in me, reflected back in his face whenever he looks at me.

My parents and I have often sat around the dining room table and talked about theology and the world at large for hours. In fact our whole family has spent many hours around a table laughing and telling stories. Those kinds of conversations began by having dinner at the same table all together growing up. We all shared an appreciation for the absurdity of our human condition and the hilarity of these moments gave us stomach aches from laughing so hard at all our escapades. Our dinner table was as much a place for talking as it was for eating. Dad, at the head of the table, was the inspiration for much of the conversation. I think I picked up my sense of humor and storytelling from that dinner table. I remember him telling stories of reciting Macbeth in a Swedish accent, or all his English classes wearing orange on St Patrick’s day (you Irish Catholics can figure it out) and the stories of his time in the Navy, or growing up down the street from Charles Schulz who wrote the Peanuts cartoon. He had as many serious stories of intervening to help students, parishioners, and many who struggled. The best advice I ever got before I started teaching was from my dad. He said: Be prepared, never raise your voice, always look them in the eye, never talk down to them, and always hold them to their highest selves and more times than not they will rise to the occasion.

In a recent conversation about heaven he had with my younger sister, he contemplated whether he had done enough in his life. While surprising, given everything he’s done, I understand what he meant. My father always knew there was so much more to do, that the Kingdom of God was hardly finished and he wanted to be there to see how it all turned out. My prayer is that he will have a front seat to all the action, to celebrate and guide us from above while we continue to refuse to walk gently in this life and carry on his legacy of fighting for the light.

Silly Cat

Picture 004It is so weird…the weather is really cold, I tackled Cyber Monday, my eldest son comes home from Montana for the first time in four months, I’m cleaning for the holiday celebrations, my cat died….yeah MY CAT DIED.  Just sleeping on my bed.  When I went to move her over so I could go to sleep for the night…she didn’t spring into action like she usually does.  We all freaked out a bit, because she wasn’t very old, and then the practical me kicked in, cleaned, wrapped her, autopsy, cremation.  The vet said she found no cause…most likely a brain or heart incident.  I feel kind of funny in the face of immeasurable losses people have experienced around me to focus on my cat, death still shockingly disrupted my life and for a moment shed the film that often clouds my vision.  It is amazing how an animal becomes ingrained in the rhythm of life and softens the mundane.  So much more for our loved ones.  We have to fashion new ways to celebrate their presence in our lives and imbue everyday things with their spirit.  And yes, I do believe even my little kitty has a spirit.  For this holiday season anyway, I pray my faith expands my sight to beyond what my human eyes can’t see to what my soul can.

The Comforts of Home

comfort of homeThis has been an overwhelming week.  Tragedy strikes, the kind that one wonders if its possible to come back from…and then, small miracles happen that renew hope.  I have to say what an honor it has been to work together with amazing people in this small little hamlet who have responded with no less love and compassion than heavenly angels.  The effortless ease with which we pulled together to help our friends, our neighbors, attend to whatever needs there may be, is indeed inspiring.  In the lull of day-to-day, it’s easy to isolate in our own personal dramas and let the negativity of the world overwhelm and discourage us.  Then, by no small miracle we are given an opportunity to pull together and bestow the kind of loving embrace that soothes the wounded soul.  Broken hearts of a few are augmented by the functioning hearts of the many.  We are the body of Christ as we pull together and carry our friends in their need.  From a simple desire to sooth and help, to comfort and to heal, to mourn innocence gone too soon, connections happen that strengthen us all.  I feel in this moment the magic of my simple yet extraordinary community.  Regardless of position or politics, we are a community to be proud of, the best that America has to offer, and proof that in even in the darkest moment our hope will prevail.