A perfect end to summer

Boston skyline

It would be hard to imagine a better Labor Day weekend, except for it to last a few more days.

What made it memorable?

A 24 hour holiday, wandering around Boston with the family.
No schedule, no commitments, no urgency.
Lots of laughter.
Plentiful, delicious food and drink.
Beautiful sights: a full moon over the city, sailboats on the Charles River.
Perfect weather: warm in the sun, cool — even chilly — in the shade.

As the days shorten and the chill in the air turns cold, we will remember this snapshot of summer.

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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.

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Last week marked my in-laws’ 55th wedding anniversary. They were married the year I was born, which is truly remarkable. Their relationship is a great example of a partnership of mutual respect and long-term commitment.

They quietly celebrated this year, as my father-in-law just finished a series of radiation and chemo treatments for tongue cancer. No night out or fancy dinners, as he’s relearning how to swallow. Nonetheless, I suspect the anniversary was quite special, given all they have been through this summer.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I remember the day too well, the culmination of a summer of preparation and waiting. On that Sunday morning, having lived fully to 86, she died quietly and at peace, in her home with her dog. That was just the way she wanted it to end.

While the grief has subsided, I miss her and always will. We were close and constantly chatting via e-mail or Skype. She was a good adviser: her life experience combined with a mother’s advocacy. Through my experience, she fed her interest in business, vicariously seeing a career that her age and the context of her time wouldn’t allow her to experience herself.

55 years and 86 years; both signify longevity. The paradox of such is that we come to believe it will never end. But it does, usually catching us by surprise and ill-prepared. Looking back, we may wish that we had savored and cherished the moments and experiences more.

One of the secrets of living a fulfilling life, I think, is to live in the moment. No day but today, to quote the song from Rent.

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In memory of Leroy Sievers

Yesterday, I pulled up NPR’s web page, hunting for some story, and was stunned when I saw the news that Leroy Sievers died Friday night.

I didn’t know Leroy and wasn’t aware of his work as a journalist. I learned of him two years ago when NPR reported on his blog My Cancer. That was around the time my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Leroy, 51, was fighting his cancer. My mother, 86, decided not to fight hers. With great equanimity, she announced that she had lived a full life and would let the disease take its course.

I followed Leroy for a bit and was encouraged by his progress. Soon, I had more than enough reality preparing my mother and myself for her death, and I stopped reading Leroy’s blog. Even after her death, now approaching the second anniversary, I did not resume reading, needing time and space for my own scars to heal.

Hence, my surprise and tears when I read of Leroy’s death at age 53. His fight gave him another two years, yet his time ended too soon for someone who had been so full of life. Just read Ted Kopel’s remembrance.

The last two weeks of Leroy’s blog are poignant. The family’s decisions to engage hospice and bring in a hospital bed were not easy, markers that the end was coming. Sooner than expected, it seems, and certainly sooner than hoped.

In the quiet of this evening, the crickets the only sound other than my typing, I am honoring Leroy’s struggle and courage and wishing his family comfort and strength. The immediate days after such a loss are a blur of preparation and sorrow, the sorrow creeping in when the activity subsides and the house becomes quiet.

My daughter is a fan of PostSecret. One of her favorite postings comes to mind, an admonition for the rest of us:

Psst, here’s a secret. Your last mortal thought will be, “Why did I take so many days – just like today – for granted?”

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High Sierra vacation

The last of July, my son Grant and I spent a carefree week hiking and exploring the high Sierra just west of Donner Lake.

We were part of a Sierra Club family outing, with nine other families from around the country and two capable leaders. Home base was the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge, which provided lots of wonderful food and a comfortable place to sleep.

Growing up in Reno, on the eastern edge of the mountains, I feel a strong connection to the Sierra: it’s inherent to my identity, and the grandeur brings me a palpable connection to the sacred. This trip was an opportunity for me to spend time with Grant and to introduce him to an important part of my life and a place just to have fun. The continual vistas of mountains, lakes, meadows, and stars recharged my batteries and reminded me of a few of life’s priorities.

Looking across Flora Lake, where this photo was taken, I penned these thoughts:

Clouds proceed across the blue backdrop.
Granite cascades to water’s edge,
competing with pine and brush.
The breeze – no wind – gusts across the lake,
rippling water and bushes along the shore.
Chilled, I move into the sunlight.
The breeze stills and the sunshine becomes hot,
sending me back into the shade.
Nature plays this game
and lets me join in for too short a time.
An afternoon out of an eternity.

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Independence Day reflections

FireworksHere’s my list of things worthy of gratitude on this holiday:

The obvious one is being a citizen of the United States, enjoying the benefits of the grand experiment this country pioneered in 1776. Notwithstanding that the world and country are deeply troubled, the values upon which the U.S. was founded remain a source of promise and optimism.

Freedom, equality, opportunity.

We haven’t achieved them yet, and no doubt never will, however each generation moves closer to the vision. Our progress is not the result of a natural force, like gravity. Rather, it is often the result of hard-fought and painful challenge to the sources of status-quo: the prevailing wisdom, the center of institutional power, even evil. As Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century author, noted: “We owe almost all our knowledge, not to those who have agreed, but to those who have differed.”

We should be grateful for all those who saw a different world, helping to create the one we enjoy today. And as important, let us be sufficiently humble to consider that those with whom we differ may be leading society to a better tomorrow.

Secondly, I am mindful of the gift of each day.

A year ago this 4th of July, I was attending my wife’s family reunion. We were catching up and enjoying each other’s company before a backdrop of warm summer days full of laughter, plentiful food, fireworks, fishing, and minor league baseball. This year, my father-in-law is undergoing treatment for tongue cancer. His barbecued hamburger will be delivered via feeding tube, with a dose of morphine rather than a beer.

I am reminded that life can turn on a dime, leaving those halcyon days as memories. While we cannot change the course of life, we can live it with presence, so that our memories are of days enjoyed to the fullest. Henry David Thoreau expressed this same idea when he wrote of his rationale for moving to Walden Pond: “I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Now, to the most important item on my list. I am most grateful that my father-in-law’s prognosis is good. We fully expect he will be eating that hamburger, with a cold beer from the bottle, by summer’s end.

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Father’s Day reflection

On Father’s Day last year, my daughter Andrea had been home from the hospital for one day. The prior week she had undergone two surgeries to remove a tumor from the right frontal lobe of her brain. This sudden and serious experience made Father’s Day much more meaningful for me than it had ever been, transcending the timeworn veneer of the Hallmark card and new tie.

I captured my feelings in a posting on a Yahoo! Groups web site, a web site that a friend had started to efficiently inform our family and friends of the latest news. Today, I reread my words and find them to be as true and important as a year ago. You may find them helpful in shaping your perspective about what’s important.

Sunday, June 17, 2007 – For Father’s Day, Andrea gave me wonderful gifts of joy and a few life lessons:

Gratitude – One of the paradoxes of living is that our normal day-to-day routines often dull our awareness of the miracle of life. The seemingly simple biological processes of our bodies, the communities of people we see every day, even a sunny day become ordinary. This past week, nothing was ordinary nor could be taken for granted. And so we became profoundly grateful for every positive step, each gift we received, everything “normal” that could have been otherwise. I hope we can maintain this awareness and sensitivity as the days and weeks pass.

Equanimity – Andrea’s acceptance and outlook in the face of this unbelievable challenge is such an inspiration. There were moments that her spirit faltered – when we first learned of the tumor, when we were told of the need for a second surgery – yet she quickly bounced back and went on to transcend her own circumstances and reach out to others in the hospital. Her strong will and positive attitude carried us.

The Power of Support – When told of Andrea’s tumor, our world immediately turned upside down. We felt so ill prepared and alone. As word spread and people responded, an incredible community of support materialized to sustain us. And more than I expected, this web site has been amazing: stealing a few minutes from the non-stop hospital routine to read a few posts, we have been reassured and comforted by the outpouring of well wishes, prayers, positive energy, and offers of assistance that you have sent our way.

No Absolutes – I have learned there are no absolutes in brain surgery. You ask questions wanting black and white answers of assurance, yet the doctors and nurses can’t provide them. Did you get it all? Will there be any impairment or change? What’s the long-term prognosis? The answers we get are gray, probabilistic. Andrea’s outlook is excellent and better than we dared hope for a week ago. Nonetheless, she will be followed closely for at least five to ten years.

This morning, reflecting upon the experience of the past week, I am making two resolutions as a parent: sincerely telling Andrea and Grant that I love and appreciate them every single day, and focusing on the “big rocks” and not sweating the small stuff so much.

This is the best Father’s Day ever. I am blessed with two wonderful kids.

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Anniversary reflections

Piano recitalOne year ago today, we learned – quite suddenly and shockingly – that our daughter Andrea had a brain tumor. What began as a parent’s worst nightmare became a miracle as we lived through the following blurred days and the subsequent months.

Andrea’s piano recital last night prompted these reflections.

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Photo: Between brain surgeries, Andrea gave a piano recital to the nurses and other children on 9-North. One of the hospital staff turned the pages for her.

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