Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seize the day, or not

The New York Times ran an article this week about the human propensity to procrastinate. This wasn't about putting off dreaded yard work or laundry. This was about saving free airline tickets or gift certificates to restaurants or even a nice bottle of wine for "some day." You know that imaginary day that exists in your mind's eye -- the day that's worthy of a nice Merlot or the event that ranks high enough on the celebration meter to warrant a dinner out or maybe even a trip to some exotic place?

I know some of that feeling. Although I'm the type who wears or uses Christmas or birthday gifts in record time -- often the same day they are received -- I am also the type who deems certain things too special for just any old day. Take, for example, the bottle of champagne that has been sitting in our refrigerator for months. It was originally purchased by Dennis to celebrate the completion of my third book (which will be out in October), but we didn't open the bottle that day for one reason or another, and so I decided we'd save it for some other special occasion. Enter a big win for Dennis at work. But we ended up skipping it that day, too, so now it's on tap for tomorrow night, New Year's Eve. I still have my doubts as to whether this bottle -- which is not that extravagant to begin with -- will ever make it into a champagne flute.

From John Tierney's article "Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow" in the Times:

"When there is no immediate deadline, we’re liable to put off going to the zoo this weekend because we assume that we will be less busy next weekend — or the weekend after that, or next summer. This is the same sort of thinking that causes us to put the gift certificate in the drawer because we expect to have more time for shopping in the future.

"We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of 'resource slack,' as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were asked to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.

"Hence you’re more likely to agree to a commitment next year, like giving a speech, that you would turn down if asked to find time for it in the next month. This produces what researchers call the 'Yes ... Damn!' effect: when the speech comes due next year, you bitterly discover you’re still as busy as ever."

Boy, have I been there. Any time I agree to a speaking engagement, it seems like a fabulous idea -- precisely because it's usually six to nine months in the offing. But once I'm within one month of the date, I start wondering what I was thinking when I said yes.

As I pondered this strange phenomenon, it occurred to me that this misguided notion that tomorrow will be less hectic than today trickles down not only to our recreational lives but our spiritual lives as well. At least it does for me. Despite being admonished through Scripture on a fairly regular basis to be on watch, be vigilant, get ready since we know not the day or the hour, I manage to convince myself that there is always tomorrow. I don't need to pray now because I'll have more time when my work project is finished or when the kids are back in school. I don't need to meditate or spend time with Scripture or get my spiritual life in order now. I'm far too busy. I'll get to it next week, next month, next year.

"'People can become overly focused on an ideal,' Dr. Shu said. 'Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one,'” Tierney writes.

That's exactly it. I'm waiting for the ideal spiritual moment. That magical non-existent time when the house will be quiet, the office will be neat, the incense will be burning, the icon will be in place...Then, if and when that time ever arrives, I think I will sit down and begin the prayer life I've been longing for.

But, as we all know, those perfect moments don't come around very often. Or, looking at it another way, those manufactured moments we imagine don't come around very often. But the perfect moment? That's ours for the taking whenever we decide to stop and savor what we have right now, be it a dinner out at a fancy restaurant or a few minutes of silent prayer stolen between work deadlines and the laundry.

Carpe diem. Now.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas stories of love, loss and life

From my post at OSV Daily Take today:

One year ago the Catholic writing world lost a precious gift and friend, Emilie Lemmons. I didn't know Emilie personally but got to know her, as so many others did, through her moving and honest blog posts. As she faced the challenges of her illness and the reality of leaving behind her husband and sons, she made us all a little more aware of our own blessings, our own mortality, our own opportunities to create moments of joy even in times of strife. So I was thinking of Emilie this morning, because, as I wrote last year at the time of her death, she made a difference in my life even though we knew each other only through the blogosphere.

Then this morning I opened my local paper and saw the story of another faith-filled woman, Laura Schonhiutt, whose strength throughout her own terminal illness inspired an entire community, people who had been total strangers to her before they decided to put aside their own worries in favor of helping someone in need. At this woman's funeral a couple of weeks ago, the women of her local community served as pallbearers, something that was symbolic of what they'd been doing all along. The article put it like this:

"'These women carried my sister and all of us through a very difficult time,' said her sister, Anne Skrebutenas. 'We couldn't have done it if it weren't for these amazing women who came out of the woodwork to help us.'

"In her eulogy, Skrebutenas said her sister spoke in her final days with gratitude about the circle of friends in her adopted town. She had searched unsuccessfully for that sense of community and connectedness in Ohio for many years.

"Laura asked me, 'Why do I have to go to heaven? I've found heaven right here in Niskayuna,' her sister said."

As we prepare for our Christmas celebrations and rejoice in our own sense of community and connectedness, it's good, I think, to remember how precious this time on earth is and how these preparations we've been making throughout Advent are not just about getting ready for a joyous party here on earth but about getting ready for a joyous eternity in heaven. And we never know when that day will come, as the tales of these two women remind us.

Please visit Emilie's blog, lemmondrops, which is as she left it, by clicking HERE. Read the inspiring story of Laura Schonhiutt by clicking HERE.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Resurfacing for the Advent finale

I was out of the Advent starting gate like a shot this year, with my book of daily Advent reflections tucked under my arm and the words of the prophets ringing in my ears. The Advent wreath was aglow, and so was my Advent heart. I was sure that this year would be an Advent for the ages. Things were moving along nicely until somewhere between weeks two and three I hit a wall. Not only wasn't I using my Advent reflection book; I couldn't even find my Advent reflection book, which was, in many ways, symbolic of my entire Advent spiritual experience. It was fading fast, lost beneath the rubble of the responsibilities of the season and work deadlines that threatened to overwhelm me. Where other offices slow down in the days before Christmas so that people can attend parties and trade Secret Santa gifts, my office of one speeds up, and the faster the work piles on, the faster my Advent spirit begins to whither. I could feel a sense of sadness setting in, not because there was anything going on in my life that was particularly sad but because I was feeling disconnected from God at a time when I most wanted to feel that connection burning brighter than ever.

So here we are at the start of week four. Our Gospel reading today brought together so many important figures and pieces of our faith story: Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and Jesus. And although we didn't hear it read at Mass, what rounds out today's Gospel if you keep reading are the powerful and poignant words of the Magnificat.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant.

"From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name..." (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary's words give substance to the awe and wonder that our spirits can sense as Christmas draws closer. We have just a few days left. Maybe our Advent didn't turn out exactly as we had hoped. Maybe our plans got sidetracked along the way. That's OK. There's still time to get ready, time to prepare, time to rejoice. As the four candles of the Advent wreath fill our homes with warmth and light, let us open our hearts to the Light that is ours not just on Christmas but every day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

No-muss, no-fuss Christmas shopping ideas

If you are anything like me, right about now you're making a list and checking it twice and realizing that you have way too many Christmas gifts left to buy. Some of this has to do with very hard-to-buy-for loved ones. (You know who you are.) But more of it has to do with the fact that I hate shopping malls, hate shopping in general, to be honest. If I could get everything at our local bookstore, and, believe me, I've tried, I would do it in a heartbeat. But it would look a little odd if I gave every person a book, and beyond that we're talking about wind chimes, recycled stationery and some other cool but not-for-grandma kinds of gifts.

So...We need to get creative, right? Well, the good news is that I've got some alternative gift ideas that will not require you to leave home. In fact, you don't have to leave the chair you're in right now. How's that for easy? And the gifts are better than anything you'll find at some lame-o super store.

For the coffee lover, head over to Mystic Monk Coffee. As you NSS regulars know, this is a favorite of mine. They have sampler sets and value packs, mugs and sweatshirts. And there's a blend for every coffee lover on your list -- from the "light-bodied" Breakfast Blend for the coffee wimps, er, I mean, light-weights, um, never mind, to the Midnight Vigils Blend. If it can keep the Carmelite Monks of northern Wyoming awake for prayers in the middle of the night, it should keep you awake for the drive to work.

And then, of course, there are the Trappists. Yet another favorite of mine. You can go for the Trappist cheese (made by the monks of Gethsemani) or Trappist preserves (made by the monks at Spencer) or for any number of Trappist food items (like fudge) dipped and soaked and rolled in bourbon.

Close to my neck of the woods geographically but ever so slightly over the border theologically are the Orthodox Nuns of New Skete, who make kickin' cheesecake in oh so many flavors -- amaretto, chocolate, chocolate amaretto. You get the idea.

If you'd like something other than food, try the soaps and lotions made by the contemplative Dominican Nuns of Summit, N.J. They also sell Dominican books and medals, if you are so inclined.

If you're looking for something religious but you're not quite sure what, head to Monastery Greetings, where you'll find everything from the coffee and preserves mentioned above to prayer shawls, wind chimes, books, cds, incense and lots more.

Christmas shopping shouldn't be about checking off names on a list in record time. It should be about finding the perfect gift for someone special. Forget what all the sales flyers and commercials are telling you, and get something different and fun and meaningful. And if you can do it without fighting someone for a parking space, even better. Happy shopping.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Remembering Thomas Merton

I was first introduced to Thomas Merton's writings by my friend Ken when we were both working for Catholic New York newspaper many years ago. Ken's knowledge of and love for all things Trappist made him an excellent Merton mentor. That early introduction, when I was in my 20s, was the start of a lifelong love for the writings of the famed Trappist monk who died 41 years ago today when he was accidentally electrocuted while in Bangkok for a conference.

I haven't read everything that Merton wrote and sometimes even the stuff I've read feels ever so slightly beyond my grasp, like I'm trying to catch the wind. My head may not be able to make logical sense of everything he says, but my heart understands and responds. It is amazing to read his words and feel as though he is reading my mind, the heart.

Thomas Merton got it. He was flawed, as are we all, and yet he took his weakness and turned it into words that would inspire countless people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to pursue a deeper relationship with God and a better understanding of themselves.

As I've said in previous posts on Merton (HERE and HERE, to pick a couple), I couldn't choose one "favorite" Merton quote; there are too many. So I'll chose two of many favorites, ones that feel right for today. Because what I have found is that there is a Merton for every mood and every season.

From "Thoughts in Solitude":

"To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly traveling from one geographic possibility to another. A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment on, solitude is not potential -- it is actual."
As someone who is starting to crave more solitude and silence as I get older, I take great comfort in the idea, the reality that solitude is not a physical place that I have to try to get away to. Instead it is right here, even in the midst of my crazy and chaotic life.

And here is one of the Merton quotes that I come back to over and over as I pray, one that I've posted here several times because it really speaks to me and I want to make sure no one misses out on it:

"God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.

'We know him better after our minds have let him go.

'The Lord travels in all directions at once.

'The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

'Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rediscovering married passion and joy

My latest 'Life Lines' column:

This morning I got up and hung a little sign on the window over my kitchen sink. It says: “Make a decision to love.” I taped one to the bathroom mirror and over my desk as well. What’s with the cryptic notes? They’re part of my re-entry into the real world after experiencing an eye-opening and life-changing Marriage Encounter (ME) weekend with Dennis.

This was our first ME experience, after years of hemming and hawing about whether we should go. I’d often suggest it, but we would always come up with a laundry list of excuses as to why it wasn’t possible. Mainly, how could we go away for an entire weekend when we couldn’t find a sitter for two hours on a Friday night?

And so we continued on our not-so-merry married way. We were still deeply in love, but it was a little less obvious with each passing crisis and every added responsibility. Our sacramental covenant was starting to look a lot more like a business partnership. What happened to the outward signs of love that used to make our inner commitment so apparent? If we continued to pile on things that pulled us apart, would our relationship eventually crack under pressure? We weren’t about to find out.

We decided to figure out a way to overcome the obstacles and put aside our fears and signed up for the November weekend at Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point. As we drove up to the center Friday night, Dennis and I both wondered aloud if this could be everything it was cracked up to be. Wouldn’t we be just as well off if we took time away at a hotel in New York City? How could a two-day experience transform our lives as promised?

It didn’t take long for us to see that this weekend did indeed have the potential to give us something a vacation away could never give us: the tools we need to traverse the sometimes rocky road of married life with trust, love and anticipation. With every hour that passed, we peeled back another layer, revealing the couple we had been when we first fell in love. By Sunday night we realized that we now had within our grasp the ability to experience the passion, joy and excitement we once felt as newlyweds every single day for the rest of our lives.

The weekend isn’t a magic potion, of course. It’s not like getting an immunization that will protect our relationship from all the outside forces that threaten to tear it down. But it does lay the foundation for helping us live our love in positive, life-affirming ways. And, in case you’re wondering, there is no required group sharing. This isn’t about confessing your deepest feelings to strangers or about rehashing old hurts. This is about looking forward as a couple – just the two of you alone in your room – and finding ways to communicate so that the love you have inside radiates from you both and warms everyone around you. Sounds impossible, but it’s for real.

Sitting there with 18 other couples (and one priest participant) and listening to the stories of our presenting couples and priest, I felt lifted up by their honesty and their commitment to their vocations. I felt surrounded by hope and faith.

As Dennis and I headed home, with the kids talking endlessly about their own adventures away from mom and dad, our renewed zeal for our marriage burned bright between us. Although darkness and fog enveloped the van as we drove north, dawn was breaking in our hearts because we had made a conscious and deliberate decision to love.

To read previous 'Life Lines' columns, visit my website by clicking HERE.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 2: When weather and wonder collide

I can't think of a better way to start the second week of Advent than with the first real snow of the season. A perfect, light snow that coated everything with just enough white to make the yard look like a wonderland. (The photo above is from our back deck.) Now, with the sun shining brightly and glinting off everything in site, with ice and show melting slowly to give an extra layer of shine to grass and trees and railings, it's more than perfect. It's poetic. And that, to me, is just the right touch for this Sunday in Advent, when we hear, in the poetic language of the Prophet Isaiah, about John the Baptist, the "voice of one" crying out in the desert, telling us of the One who is to come, the One who will make crooked paths straight and mountains low.

As we continue our journey toward Christmas, careful not to pay too much attention to all those flashy Christmas decorations and nostalgic carols that threaten to rob us of this waiting time and rush us into a moment that is not yet here, we need to stop and reflect on the desert time of Advent. Unlike Lent, where the desert is obvious and clear, Advent beckons us to seek out a hidden desert, our interior desert, the dry places in our spiritual lives that need to be worked out and made lush before the coming of Jesus Christ -- both in celebration on Christmas Day and again at the end of all time.

John the Baptist didn't mince words. Repent. Get ready. Prepare. The kinds of Christmas preparations that John challenges us to tackle have nothing to do with finding the perfect gift or getting all our presents wrapped early or making enough cookies to feed the neighborhood. These preparations won't result in some fabulous holiday display but in an interior calm, a heart set on Jesus not on a date on the calendar. "Make ready the way of the Lord." Luke 3:4

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Flair: An Advent post too good not to share

Needing a little encouragement as you journey through these early days of Advent? Here's just what the doctor ordered. A beautiful post from The Advent Door. (Thanks, Maria, for the heads up on this one.) This blog is a two-fer: amazing artwork and powerful prose. I'm a big fan of this coming Sunday's Gospel about John the Baptist, but this post has allowed me to look at those familiar words with new eyes. Don't skip this one.

Click HERE to read "Advent 2: The Mystery of Approach."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A new take on the Nativity

Every year at this time, I take out the Playmobil Nativity set, which has always been a big hit in our house since we bought it for Noah years ago. I think it has something to do with the fact that it's out for only one month of the year, so it is eternally new. Chiara, however, has given us an exciting new twist on how to make the most of this toy.

As she plays with the pieces to the set, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the rest of the gang often find themselves in very un-Nativity-like moments -- careening through the house on the back of a flying camel, traversing over the the couch accompanied by My Pretty Pony, joining forces with other toy characters, like Buzz Lightyear.

Yesterday, as I was trying to gather all the tiny pieces -- halos, myrrh, lanterns, stray beards lost by majestic magi -- I asked Chiara to find the halo that belongs to one particular angel. She told me that the angel doesn't always use the halo, that sometimes Jesus uses the halo as a hoola hoop.

So there you have it. The photo above does not show Jesus actually using the halo hoola hoop (he doesn't have the hips for it), but you get the basic idea. Despite the silliness of the play, I continue to love the fact that my kids think there is nothing strange about sitting down and playing an imaginative game with Jesus and his family... I actually had to interrupt the writing of this post to chase down the cats who just ran off with the shepherd's turban. I am not making that up. Everyone is in on the Nativity action in our house. If you have kids, this set is a great addition to the Advent and Christmas festivities.