Be Brave!

You can, you should – and it you’re brave enough to start, you will.

Stephen King

[Daily Peace, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, April 4]

Stephen King has written dozens of books, some of which could be considered modern masterpieces. Two in particular come to my mind: The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The first was written as a serial novel, with small sections released every few weeks until the whole story was told. The second was a short story. These are not horror stories, even though both deal with tragedy, inhumanity, and loss. Neither are typical of King’s usual writings – the scary books everyone has come to expect. Both were made into exceptional movies.

I wonder whether it was a difficult thing for King to write these particular tales. In addition to the usual pressure and difficulty of writing a book – creating characters and story lines, putting in enough description and action to keep the story moving, bringing the whole thing to a satisfying and fitting ending – is added the anxiety that comes from offering something unexpected to an audience that is used to the thrill of the macabre. It’s like offering a chocolate raspberry torte to a child expecting a chocolate chip cookie: who knows what the response might be, but disappointment and rejection are just as possible as delight and enthusiasm.

Perhaps the hardest part of trying something new isn’t dreaming it up or doing the research. Maybe the hardest part is putting pen to paper and writing the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Making the jump from going to to doing isn’t something that comes from knowing it’s possible to do or even knowing it ought to be done: it’s a leap of faith only the brave or the foolhardy can make.

Perhaps this is true in things beyond writing. Perhaps it’s true of any worthwhile endeavor.

May God grant us all the courage to take the first step.

What’s it worth to you?

The good things in life cost what they cost. The unnecessary things are not worth it at any price. The key is being aware of the difference.

[Holiday and Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016, p. 97]

My grandmother spent more money buying groceries than most of her friends. When asked why, she’d always say: You pay at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. One way or another, you pay. She thought it a lot more fun to spend money on food than doctor’s bills. Keeping healthy costs what it costs.

I’ve been buying groceries and making meals for over thirty years now, and spending more at the market than many of my friends and neighbors. I buy things grown and raised locally whenever possible. It adds a good $30 to my grocery bill every couple of weeks, sometimes more. I try my best not to waste any of it – composting vegetable peels, putting stale bread ends out for the squirrels and birds, making stock from chicken and turkey bones, growing herbs and vegetables in season, and making baked goods at home. Eating out or buying pre-prepped food from the market is an occasional act. At the end of the month, I doubt I pay more than anyone else to feed my family – it just takes a lot more time and planning to do it this way. Outside the yearly check-ups, visiting a doctor is very rare. I can’t help thinking my grandmother was right: you pay at the grocery store or the doctor’s office.

What about other good things in life, ones not so easily seen or touched as food on a plate? Fostering the lives of family and friends, spending time with God, enjoying the natural world, covering the basics of food, clothing, and shelter: these good things cost what they cost. Sometimes the cost is in dollars and cents handed over a counter, sometimes the cost is time away from earning money or having fewer possessions and vacations in order to be an involved parent and partner without living in constant exhaustion. Good things cost what they cost.

I can’t tell you what the good things in life cost you. In my own life, I’ve had to choose what was worthwhile and what wasn’t, because there isn’t enough time in the day, energy in my body, or money in my account to have both. I can tell you that the good things have been worth every penny, effort, and minute they cost. A joyful life, the chance to serve others, the beauty of the earth, and the loving God who holds it all.

Growth on an Empty Stomach

What influences the ruling reason that guides your life?

[Holiday and Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016, p. 96]

When I say I’m hungry, what I really mean is I want something to eat in the next few minutes; when my husband says he’s hungry, he means he’d like to have something to eat in the next couple of hours. We realized this difference driving from New Jersey to New Hampshire. To keep subsequent road trips pleasant, my husband adopted a new pattern: whenever I said I was hungry, he pulled over at the very next restaurant. It didn’t matter what kind food it served – as long as the place was clean, we stopped for a meal. I also changed my pattern: I made sure to bring snacks so I wouldn’t lose my sense of humor if mealtime was delayed by an hour. If we hadn’t made these adjustments, there would have been a lot more arguments in the car over the years. Low blood sugar affects my mood, my mood affects our relationship.

When I recognize the connection between lack of food and my bad mood, and I can usually compensate for my crankiness; I can keep it as in inner dialogue rather than one between me and whomever might be in the room. Still, it does affect my reasoning. Perhaps this food/feeling/action connection is why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins – fear of hunger leads to hoarding food at the expense of self, other, and world.

I suspect that everyone has something that undermines their ability to think clearly and act wisely. Lack of sunlight for some, lack of sleep for others, God knows what else for the rest of humanity. Changing behavior to keep things on an even keel is a good option – bring the snacks, pull over at the next restaurant. But personal growth comes when recognition leads to inner dialogue rather than external damage. Accepting with grace the difficulty that can derail judgment and action and working to make sure it doesn’t. To do this can strengthen the spirit and deepen compassion for others – God’s spiritual feast that only comes when the bread doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s for people like me that Jesus reveals himself to be life-giving bread and wine…

Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread of heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:32-35 NRSV

The Things I Put Up With…

The first great rule of life is to put up with things.

Baltasar Gracian

[Daily Peace, Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, March 11]

Baltasar Gracian was a seventeenth century Jesuit priest and philosopher who wrote these and many other words. His Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia was translated from its original baroque Spanish to English by Christopher Maurer in 1994, and gained popularity under its anglicized name – The Art of Worldly Wisdom. It’s currently available  as an ebook and as a printed-and-bound book]

This truth doesn’t mean accepting abuse or neglect – that would be the first great rule of death: it means accepting the bedrock reality that the world doesn’t exist for the convenience of any one person, including me. Sometimes the train will be late, the line at the grocery check-out long, the game cancelled due to rain. Power lines go down. It’s just the way life is. Sometimes there’s someone at fault, but often there really isn’t. The grocery store running out of cilantro isn’t a sign that the world is out to get me.There’s no nefarious plot to deprive me of salsa, just a plain old inconvenience that I can accept with amusement or petulance.

All these things I put up with can teach me patience and grace, opening my eyes to the glorious imperfection that is life on this planet. If I gain enough wisdom I might even discover that these things I put up with are God’s way of giving me the world (and the good sense to know that everyone else gets it, too).

Love is patient, love is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13: 4-6 NRSV

 

A Matter of Choice

You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b-40a

It’s easy to confuse the image we present to the world for who we actually are…that’s what Stoics urge us to consider. Not how things appear, but what effort, activity, and choices they are the result of.

[Holiday and Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016, p. 87]

What is a beautiful choice? What choices lead to a beautiful life? Is it possible to tell from the outside whether or not someone is beautiful? In many ways, all of my daily meditations have asked these questions. Two of the other books I’ve read in recent weeks also ask these questions, just with a different vocabulary – Desmond Tutu’s and the Dalai Lama’s Book of Joy and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**K. 

The difference between appearance and reality, false self and true self is common to all these books. The authors range in age from thirty-something to eighty-something, the quotes stretching back to philosophers and seekers of holiness over thousands of years. Perhaps this is why some have named sources from all religions and philosophies as the Perennial Tradition – the basic questions don’t vary much, and the answers similar in gist if not vocabulary.

I don’t want to live a life devoted to maintaining a false self – hiding from myself and the world behind a mask of my own making. How do I make wise, holy, and beautiful choices?

I don’t think the answer is particularly complex. In fact, it’s fairly simple: love God, self, and neighbor. Remember that everything is holy and beloved, even when it’s damaged and hurting/hurtful.

But simple isn’t the same thing as easy…

The most beautiful people we have know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.These persons have an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross [Daily Peace, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, March 19]

He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 NRSV

Lord, give me the strength to live a truly beautiful life. Amen.

Storm and Calm Lessons

There are some things you learn best in calm,

and some in storm.

Willa Cather

[Daily Peace, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, March 17]

When the chips are down, will this person be there? My parents believed the answer to this question divided trustworthy partners from untrustworthy ones, real friends from the merely friendly. They didn’t think the answer could be found in a person’s wealth, talent, personality, or good looks. Only a storm could strip the surface appearance away to reveal the true nature underneath. This is as true for self as well as other: when the chips are down, will I be there? Knowledge of self and the other that is gained in the answering can be painful, and it cannot be unlearned – storm damage.

But not everything is best learned or revealed in storm. Calm, peace, and order provide a safe structure to grow in, and they foster flexibility and strength of spirit. It’s when the storm blows by that I can learn whether the person who wasn’t there when the wind was whipping around is not a true friend or a true friend who just made a mistake. And if I happen to be the one who ran away at the first sign of the storm, whether I’m a true friend or not is also a lesson best studied in calm.

I hope what I do with the answers to such questions has something to do with love of God, self, and neighbor. Otherwise, what’s the point of asking?

Powerless

It went out just after nine in the morning yesterday – the second time in as many weeks that storms took down power lines throughout the area. Lights and heat, phone and computer cease their work and noise. Food in the fridge is moved to the red Coleman cooler and cell phone calls are made to Eversource to report the outage. There’s no school, public meetings are rescheduled, and neighbors check in with one another. Some birds pull seeds from one feeder while others cling to the suet feeder. The wind rattles the windows while snow drags tree branches to the ground.

There are some great things that come when the power fails: a break from electronic media, extra family time, and a chance to marvel at nature’s beauty and destructive ability. But showers aren’t pleasant without hot water, clothes can’t be washed, and prepping meals becomes something of challenge without an oven and stove. There is also a reality check involved: modern technology isn’t a given as much as it is a usually reliable but not guaranteed convenience, and without a fireplace or a generator my house gets cold.

There are lines down just around the corner and power may not be restored for a couple more days. The temperature inside the house is hovering at 50 degrees. With my older son flying in for Spring break, my younger son’s school reopening in the morning, my husband facing a full day, and my own work resuming tomorrow, it made sense to book a hotel room for the night – hot showers, warm food, and access to communications are worth the cost. At least for a single night.

It’s a blessing to remember the power of nature, and it’s a gift to be stuck at home with people I love. It’s also a blessing to move into a hotel for the night. I have the benefit of both, inconvenient graces that remind me that I’m privileged with food, clothing, and shelter. Why does it take an outage to remember this (especially in this time of reflection called Lent)?

School (s) of Hard Knocks and Soft Touches

If you can learn from hard knocks,

you can also learn from soft touches.

Carolyn Kenmore

[Daily Peace, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, March 3]

Your mother and father smiling at you from your first day in this world taught you what it meant to be human and loved. Your grandmother helping you plant seeds in a garden taught you to see the beauty in earth’s bounty. Friends and siblings teaching you to play checkers, dodgeball, Sorry, and Clue gave you the chance to learn how to win and lose with grace. Walking, talking, tying shoes, using a fork and knife, and going to the bathroom – the basics are best learned from soft touches. It isn’t just handing on a skill, it’s a gesture of love and care that reminds you that you are special and you are loved.

The school of hard knocks isn’t the place to learn the basics – shame is a lesson often learned alongside. But once the basics are known, hard knocks provide the opportunity to learn and practice patience, determination, and judgement. You learn to answer such questions as these: when is enough enough? how does this experience help me understand and help others? where is God in all of this mess?

Hard knocks are powerful teachers if they aren’t ways of disguising cruelty or abuse. You and I don’t have to seek hard knocks, nor do we have to visit them upon others. There are enough difficult things that will come along without any help from either of us.

Soft touches are powerful teachers if they aren’t ways of covering up reality or avoiding difficult truths. You and I can learn their lessons, and employ them to teach in ways that honor and foster the human spirit. How else can we share the love we’ve been given with others?

If you google Carolyn Kenmore, you will find lots of pictures, a few book covers, and several quotes in many different fonts. I had never heard of this model and writer before today, and I had never come across this quote – learning about new writers is one of the benefits of the new daily readings books I’ve been given this year.

Failing, failing, failing

Every time I turn around, there’s another obstacle to restoring adequate library services in Wareham. Lack of money, lack of political awareness and will, lack of leadership and vision -take your pick, they’ve all played a part. I’m not optimistic about the situation because there’s no indication that things will turn out well if everything keeps going the way it’s going now. Optimism is limited by circumstance. That doesn’t mean it will all end in tears.

Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.

 Robert Louis Stevenson

[Daily Peace, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015, March 1]

I don’t think this is about cheerily accepting the demise of hopes and dreams, or standing by while the world goes to hell in a hand basket; this is about the difference between optimism and hope. Hope doesn’t rely on present circumstance: it’s a trust in the grace and justice that knits the universe together, and that will eventually/slowly/painstakingly bring about a compassionate world. Love conquers all, it’s true – or it will be true in the end. The glorious failures of my efforts and in my time are steps in the right direction, even when the end is nowhere to be seen. Continuing to put one foot in front of the other becomes possible, even a blessing, when I do so in good spirits.

And now faith,hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13