Independence Day

Half-mast flags at the Washington Monument

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

From the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

It’s hard to imagine the culture and mindset of the colonies in 1776.  Or the discussions and debate that preceded the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The “self-evident” seems obvious now—although we’re still striving as a nation to fully understand and live up to these truths.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful to have been born in the United States and to enjoy the rights that have emanated from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and 234 years of history.

Today I pause for a few minutes to give thanks to all those who have made this life of freedom possible, from the statesmen who fashioned those early documents to the women and men who serve us with the goal of preserving—in some cases establishing—a just society.

May we, as a nation, not take this hard-won gift for granted.

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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.

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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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