Good night 2008

Another year comes to a close, number 55 in the chronology of my life. 2008 has been good, however that’s not to say it has been without sadness, nor a presage for challenges on the horizon. The year has been good because life is a gift.

I appreciate this much more after the past three years, when I have personally experienced that decades of seeming stability can end at any moment. Death or serious illness or any number of life-changing events intrude, creating raw edges and the visceral knowledge that the continuity of life is unstable and will be punctuated by loss.

My mother would have celebrated her 89th birthday today, were she still alive. She made it to 86. Except for her last three months, she lived as she wanted: independent and fully engaged with life. I miss her, our daily e-mail chatter back and forth across the country and my occasional drop-in visits when I was traveling to the west coast. I am so grateful that she and I had her last summer to share, for both of us to prepare for her pending death. While challenging, that time was sacred and a wonderful gift.

The life lesson I am learning with each year’s passing is to savor each day, to recognize that it might be the last. This thought is beautifully expressed in the poem Otherwise, written by Jane Kenyon.

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Send to Kindle

Christmas reflections

flameChristmas is such a conflicting mix of emotions for me. The essence of the season is light and love and giving. However, the spirit is too easily trampled in a frantic rush of felt obligations and blatant consumerism.

This year mimicked the mistaken perception I had as a small child, that Christmas occurred the day after Thanksgiving. Travel, an ice storm, work, other non-holiday commitments, and my overall preoccupation and distraction with the world compressed the past few weeks until I found Christmas upon me. Already. My holiday checklist, ill-formed and floating in my mind, largely unchecked. Emotionally disconnected.

As always, though, there are moments of grace where I am touched by the spirit of the season, moments that reconnect me to the transcendent mystery of life.

The music of my daughter’s high school choral concert last week immersed me in traditional and new expressions of the season. Listening, I was able to just be, rather than thinking and doing. It may have been the best meditation I have ever experienced.

Last night, we attended the Christmas Eve candlelight service at our church. Each person passing the flame while singing Dona Nobis Pacem and Silent Night never fails to stream tears down my face.

Before this ever-emotional finale, two congregants shared personal reflections and insight.

One woman spoke of first-time experiences that bring such enjoyment they become traditions. Paradoxically, with time the traditions become rote, “check the box” tasks and lose their meaning and ability to create joy. Rather than serving us, we serve them and for no reason. She admonished us not to fall into the numbness of such repetition and obligation, rather to be mindful and discern the blessings in whatever happens.

The second woman told of dissolving into tears as her list of obligations mounted and seemed to overwhelm all available time. She recounted the outburst that she vented to her husband: “I have to drive to the mall through the horrible traffic to buy presents, then I have to stop by the store to buy the groceries I need for Christmas dinner, then I have to come home and clean the house, then I have to start cooking,” and on it went.

Her outlook changed dramatically when, for some reason, she replaced have with get. The tasks on her list were privileges, made possible because of her good fortune. She was healthy, with a car, with enough money to buy groceries and presents. She knew not all were able to do what she could do, not all had a loving family with whom to share the holiday.

Usually by the time Christmas arrives, I am ready for it to pass and look forward to the normal days after. This year, though, since I feel I missed much of the buildup, I want the season to linger. Perhaps in the spirit of the 12 days of Christmas or the 8 days of Hanukkah, I can hold on to the underlying essence of the season and carry the light and love and giving into the new year. No doubt the world needs it, I need it, and my blessings are plentiful.

Send to Kindle

Meditation on snow

Backyard draped in snowWith the second storm in three days upon us, we decided to forgo church this morning.

As the snow fell outside, our family gathered in the living room, lit a chalice, and shared contemplative readings. Despite our frenzied holiday schedules, complicated by the weather of the past two weeks, we captured a few moments of quiet togetherness.

One of two readings I shared was part of the poem Valentine, written by Elizabeth Tarbox, from the collected meditations What We Share. Her reflection is so appropriate for today’s storm and this first day of winter.

“Creation gives us snow.

“Lest we imagine beauty was only for summer, or trees for leafing; just in case we thought cold was for winter or, at best, firesides or pots of pea soup, creation gives us snow.

“Creation outlines each slender twig with snow, a flake at a time. With divine patience, winter writes a character, a syllable, a word, until nature’s grace is there on every tenacious surface.”

Send to Kindle

Modern conveniences, nay necessities

Ice hanging from branchesAs I write, I’m watching snow flakes drift gently from the sky, adding to the quintessential snow scene outside. My vantage point inside is warm, with plenty of electricity to turn the furnace fan, run this computer, and light the Christmas tree.

A week ago, an unexpected ice storm caused massive power outages in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as falling tree limbs, branches, even entire trees brought down the power grid. Our power company said 322,000 customers in New Hampshire lost power at the peak of the disaster.

Our home went dark shortly after 11 pm on Thursday; power wasn’t restored until around 5 pm on Tuesday, roughly 4 days 18 hours later. I know a couple of people who didn’t get power back until yesterday (Friday), more than a week after losing it. My wife, kids, and I spent two nights in a hotel and three nights with gracious friends who had electricity and spare bedrooms.

Reflecting on the experience, I have a few observations.

Modern society is completely dependent upon the electric and telecommunications infrastructure. The reliability of these services is so high, we take them for granted and, in many cases, have little or no recourse when they fail. Without heat or light, my family had to seek shelter elsewhere.

We live in an age of instant gratification. Having to live without power for days and not knowing when it would be restored was contrary to our experience and expectations. My anxiety and frustration increased in proportion to the number of days we were forced to do without. I was not alone. One online posting quipped “If we put a man on the moon, why can’t they restore power in less than a week?”

The men and women who tirelessly worked around the clock to repair the damage, organize the effort and crews, and communicate to the public deserve our deep appreciation. When they finally have a chance to catch up on their sleep, I hope they will find deep satisfaction from their technical skills and, more importantly, their connection to the fabric of our humanity.

With no power, our cordless phones didn’t work; the phone line via fiber connection failed when the back-up battery drained. However, our cell phones did not fail, as long as we found a way to keep them charged. More impressive, though, is that the cellular base station network that relays our calls, texts, and Internet access remained powered and working throughout the ordeal.

For those who could access the web, at least from time to time, an online community formed around the ice storm. We tracked restoration efforts, followed one another’s experiences, provided encouragement, shared gallows humor, and celebrated when the lights finally came on. I feel a connection with people I have not met in person — a reflection of the Internet’s ability to form community.

Forced to choose my priorities, I prefer heat to light.

With deep gratitude, I think I will go take my morning shower. As hot as I can bear it.

Send to Kindle