The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir. 

Saturday Mornings

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I can still recall those glorious Saturday mornings when I was still a child. My mom often slept late after a hard week of working, but my brothers and I anxiously awoke to watch the cartoons and shows made expressly for children. We’d sneak quietly down the hallway in our pajamas hoping not to disturb Mama’s slumbers and then tune in our television to our favorite programs in glorious black and white. We had to be careful to keep the volume low because the house wasn’t that big and too much noise would alert our mother that it was time to do the weekly chores. As long as she was snoozing we were free to spin the dial in search of wondrous shows that kept us glued to our seats for hours.

I’m too old to remember the exact order of the shows that we watched but some of our favorites were My Friend Flicka, Kit Carson, Superman, Sky King and Rocky and Friends. Television was still in its infancy but the programmers had already realized the power of devoting hours for children. We’d watch the advertisements for cereals and toys and then urge our mom to purchase them for us. Our mother was never one to be swayed by popularity, so it mostly never worked in our case, but we were nonetheless as enthralled with the silly rabbit longing for Trix cereal as we were with the latest adventures of our favorite heroes. Saturday mornings brought us unadulterated joy, and if Mama was especially tired we reveled in the freedom to just glue ourselves to the screen.

I enjoyed by own childhood memories of Saturday mornings so much that I taught my daughters the wonders of lounging in front of the center of entertainment for a few hours on weekend mornings. By the time they were enjoying the fare designed for their generation everything was in living color and most of the shows were cartoons featuring characters like Scooby Doo. They too found the magic of those early morning dalliances with fantasy while me and my husband enjoyed the luxury of a few extra winks while the electronic babysitter kept our children safely occupied.

Life isn’t quite as simple these days. For one thing there are hundreds of channels from which to choose and most of the big three of my childhood offer very little aimed toward children even on Saturdays. Kids now have to tune in the the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which feature twenty four hour programming that doesn’t seem to be nearly as fun as what we got to see. Most of the shows are variations on the same themes with “hip” youngsters making fun of their elders and seemingly raising themselves. I grow weary of them after only a few episodes. The writers don’t appear to  be making any great effort to create stories that inspire. There is an inanity about them and a kind of condescending attitude toward young people that assumes that they are incapable of understanding stories with deeper meanings.

As a parent today I would have to install controls and be present to monitor the dialogue and the themes to be certain that they are in keeping with our family’s values. It’s a far more challenging world than the more innocent one that I experienced as a child. Back then care was taken to be certain that children were not exposed to material that was unsuitable. Of course I laugh when I think of Soupy Sales from my generation or PeeWee Herman from that of my children. We kids secretly knew that there was something not quite right about some of their jokes but we kept our thoughts to ourselves because it was exciting to live dangerously without our parents knowing what we saw and heard on those programs.

I still have a difficult time going into action on Saturday mornings. I don’t watch television anymore. I enjoy the quiet and I lounge in my pajamas for hours. Sometimes it might be noon before I choose to get going with the routines of life. Saturday has always been the one day of the week over which I have been able to rule without demands from school or work or my mom or even my children. These days I sit with a cup of tea and read or just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood in my favorite room. Saturdays make me nostalgic. I remember how easy it was to be a child when my innocence made me fall in love with the whole world. Soon enough I would grow and learn of the ugliness that lurks around us, but back then I didn’t have to worry about such things.

I truly believe that those Saturday mornings taught me more than most people might think. My brothers and I learned to be more self reliant as we made our own breakfast and chose our own programming. I found out how to care for animals and what justice is really about from my shows. I enjoyed laughter as a way to relax and feel good inside. My independence was rooted in those long ago mornings and the characters whose stories I watched are still my heroes. They widened my horizons and taught me about honor. I feel quite lucky to have had such experiences that brought happiness and routine to me at a time when I was still feeling uncertain about life without my father.

I suppose that today’s children have their own way of doing things, but I truly wonder if all of those scheduled activities that they do are as wonderful as the leisurely times that I enjoyed. In truth I suspect that when we are young we adapt to whatever is our reality, but I would sure love for youngsters to enjoy a taste of what we had. It was glorious.

Finding the Love

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I am a believer. I am certain that there is a God, even when He doesn’t appear to be near. I have felt His presence in my heart on many occasions, and sometimes He has required me to be strong and muddle through really difficult problems seemingly without any sign of Him. I also believe in angels and saints. I think they do much of the day to day work of watching over us mortals, and often they are people that we have known who have earned a heavenly reward. I don’t really understand how it all works, but I have faith that it does. I pray knowing that some of my requests will honored in very different ways than I expected. Always I get the sense that I am never alone, even in my darkest hours, even in those times when what is happening seems cruel and unfair.

I get subtle messages during daily routines that ease my anxieties and allow me to carry on amidst the harsh realities of living. I may recall my mother’s smiling face and be filled once again with the boundless love that she always gave to me and my brothers. I may recall a bit of wisdom that I heard in a homily at church. I may look into the sky and realize the grandeur of the universe that tells me that somehow there is something more to the orderliness than the mathematical formulas of physics.

My brother was a fire fighter. He saw things that were tragic and difficult to process. Much like a military man he was affected by what he witnessed, particularly when it involved death. His work led him to God because, as he tells it, he saw many whose lives ended in the course of his efforts to help them. For some the last breaths were agony, but others looked heavenward with a confidence and even joy that radiated total peace. My brother wanted what those people had and found that it was faith in God that had comforted them as they drew their last breaths. It didn’t seem to matter what religion they had as much as their willingness to surrender to belief in something quite mysterious.

I was a teacher and I found over and over again that children being raised with some form of faith in some form of God tended to be more confident and resilient. It didn’t matter as much whether or not they were rich or poor as how deeply they were anchored by a belief in something bigger than themselves. They navigated through troubled times with heavy hearts just as we all do, but they believed that they were never alone and that feeling made their journeys just a bit easier.

I know many individuals whose faith is imprinted on their faces. They do not proselytize or advertise but instead they demonstrate the kind of inner calm that comes from believing with every fiber of their being. They are special souls whose faith is so deep that they radiate joy. They answer all of life’s problems by counseling with their Lord and then doing what they think to be His bidding. They proceed with an unquestioned knowledge that everything is unfolding just as it is supposed to be. I envy them the glory that they have found because I admittedly become far to impatient with the pace of existence. I want to know why bad things happen to good people.

In the western world of today there are fewer and fewer believers. We have become a secular society relying mostly on ourselves to overcome difficulties. There are both subtle and not so subtle criticisms of religion all around us. Well educated and powerful people almost laugh at the ridiculousness of thinking that there is a higher power or a life after death. They see churches and prayers as a waste of time. They suggest that we use our common sense and lean more on science and the manmade laws of justice to solve our problems. There are moments when they make sense, but then I get one of those messages in my heart that tell me that they are wrong. A little whisper helps me realize that there are mysteries that even science can’t unravel.

I see those who believe making it through terrible times intact while those who scoff at such ideas floundering when life becomes overwhelming. I want the nonbelievers to know and feel what I do, I am reluctant to sound like a preacher. I see their eye rolls if I suggest God or prayer. It seems that all that I can do is pray for them just as St. Monica pleaded for her fallen son. It frustrates me that they do not know the kind of joy that believing continuously brings me and I want to share. I know that they will only find what I have when they are ready. I long for the day when they too might embrace the knowledge that they have never been alone. I want them to find the love that I feel so deeply.

This morning I was worried about people that I see struggling. They are souls lost in a storm at sea. They battle the waves mightily but find themselves being pulled under the water where they choke and feel on the verge of losing hope. I see them fighting for their lives without the benefit of knowing that God is indeed watching over them. They do not sense His comfort. They are angry and hurt. I prayed for them and even that they might one day find the kind of peace that courses through my body and my mind. I needed a sign that my words were being heard, and then I began to see things that set my heart at ease.

There was a message on Facebook from one of the most faith-filled persons that I know. He was calling his many friends to prayer and his pleas included a photo of himself sitting in an empty church waiting for us to join him. Yet another post featured an image of a sunrise over Virginia. As I gazed at the magnificent horizon I found myself thinking of my grandfather and wondering if he had seen such sights as a young boy growing up in that part of the world. I remembered his long and optimistic life and once again recalled his wisdom and how comforting it had always been to me. Somehow I felt as though he was an angel sending me the message that things will ultimately work out and reminding me to be faithful and patient just as he always was.

I am a believer. I so wish that the gift of faith that I received first from my mother might comfort those who feel so lost and alone. There is a God. There are angels and saints. We are all part of a glorious plan that does not assure us that we will never suffer, but does guarantee that we will find the strength that we need to face our earthly challenges and find the love that will sustain us. 

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions. 

No Quick Fixes

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It’s in our human natures to want simple answers, and yet it is rare that we are able to alleviate complex problems with quick fixes. At best we might patch things together until the time at which we consider all facets of an issue and attempt to arrive at a solution that more closely resembles what we require. Even then there will ultimately be imperfections, instances in which our ideas don’t work as well as we might have intended.

Years inside a classroom taught me that I had to be flexible and ready to change course at a moments notice. Something that worked magnificently with one group of students might backfire with another. It is virtually impossible to have a one size fits all solution for the problems that daunt human beings. Nonetheless we often attempt to quickly cobble together ideas to deal with the challenges that we face. It is in our natures to want to be done with things that irritate us and then move on.

We long for an easy diet to help us lose weight. We desire healthcare that costs little or nothing and also provides world class medicine. We dream of finding the magic bullet of education that will turn all of our youngsters into little Einsteins. We hope to eradicate our debts without pain. We think that it would be great to simply dig into the pockets of the wealthy to fund programs that seemingly would allow everyone to live well. We want peace on earth with no real effort. We long to stop the chaos of the world without pain or sacrifice. We hope to find the magic person or pill that will make our lives almost perfect without all of the hard work that our day to day experiences now require.

Thus we have politicians on the right and on the left who are hawking plans that may seem so wonderful until we actually take the time to analyze them and to consider the many downsides of them. Knowing that we may balk when we use our critical thinking skills they play to our fears, our jealousies, and our prejudices. They cause us to worry and then unveil their solutions with the flourish of banging drums, little different from the traveling salesmen who entice us with promises of stress free lives if only we buy into their “flim-flamming.”

There is no free lunch. Everything that we attempt has a price in effort or emotion or money. We must decide which sacrifices we are willing to make for the common good even as we understand that we may not be perfectly happy with the results. We may have to revise and edit our decisions once we see the flaws. It is a rare thing to get exactly what we need on the first try. We must proceed with caution while understanding that there will be bumps in the road.

We are not that unlike our ancestors in attempting to settle our differences and lessen our fears. Most of us have little or no desire for power, but we do require a sense of freedom, safety, security for ourselves and those that we love. We invest time, money and energy into to providing those things for ourselves. We send our children to school each day. We travel to jobs to earn the funds to use for food, housing and our most basic needs. We agree to follow certain rules to alleviate anarchy in our midst. Mostly though we just want to be left alone to be ourselves, so we elect leaders who appear to reflect our views and then hope for the best as they represent us.

Of late there has been a style of governing that makes many of us uneasy. It is built not so much on certain common desires, but more on radical thinking that makes us uncomfortable and tears us apart. Many of our politicians appeal to our basest fears and divisions. They are more rabble rousers than diplomats. They are steadfast in creating chaos rather than compromises. They suggest simplistic ideas without research or data or logic. Thus we become agitated and then turn on one another only reinforcing their vacuous power. Each side wants us to believe that they are good and their opponents are bad. When we fall for their tactics we too become engaged in never ending battles with our own friends or we simply turn our backs on the whole tragedy and hope that by ignoring the rancor we will ultimately be okay.

If we are honest we will admit to the problems that concern us and also agree that neither side of the discussions has it completely right. We have work to do, but we will never move forward in the direction that we need if we settle for simplistic ideas. A wall will not solve our immigration problems any more than the Affordable Care Act has made healthcare more available to everyone. Our schools will not become better by throwing more money at them nor will the cost of higher education be mitigated if we make it free. Our planet needs our help and denying that fact will not halt the destruction that we have wrought on it nor will grandiose plans to eliminate fossil fuels without searching for other ways to power our industries and our homes. Respecting the freedoms and the diversity of mankind requires talents that far too many of our lawmakers lack. As long as we keep sending individuals to our nation’s capitol who are unwilling to budge and work together we will be wasting our time and our national treasure. If we can’t even get along within our own communities, we can hardly expect good outcomes in Washington D.C.

There are answers to each of the concerns that we may have but they will require a level of calm and rationality that is in short supply these days. We the people have to admit that we will often have to compromise, give a little to get a little. This is the message that our leaders need to hear. This is the reality that we must all understand.