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Aug 22, 2013 - Kind of Random    No Comments

Day 63: Vacation

Person resting on grass

Photo credit: http://morguefile.com/creative/hotblack

Dear Pope Francis,

Well, we’ve hit the summer doldrums of late August. As I wrote in this post last weekend, I’m doing a bit of pondering and taking stock as summer draws to a close.

As part of that, I’ve realized I need a wee break from anything that resembles a routine. So, I’m going to be a little absent from the blog over the next week, until the day after Labor Day.

I may post now and again as things come up, but it won’t be every day. Rest assured, though, I’ll be back on my regular daily posting schedule come September. (I like the blog’s tagline too much to mess with that schedule.)

In the meantime, I hope you have a good rest of August. I know you worked all summer, so I hope you can have a little downtime. Even Popes need to kick back and relax now and again.

Your friend,

Kevin

Aug 18, 2013 - Kind of Random    2 Comments

Day 60: Harvest

Peaches on a cutting board

Photo credit: http://morguefile.com/creative/xandert

Dear Pope Francis,

One of my strongest childhood memories is of my mom canning fruit in July and August. First it would be cherries — which we grew on a farm of 400 or so trees — and then peaches, apricots and finally pears. Thinking back, I don’t know how she did it. It would be stinking hot outside and she would be in the kitchen, presiding over pots of boiling water and sugar syrup, fruit juice coating her arms up to the elbows as she peeled and pitted and cut up all of summer’s bounty. (That she also did this after the three weeks of cherry season during which she worked from sun-up to sundown, while also taking care of us three kids, is nothing short of miraculous).

After the steam settled, I remember going into the kitchen and seeing all the jars laid out on the counter, gleaming like jewels. They were actually treasures, to be pulled down from the cupboard during the dreary winter, providing a taste of summer.

As a kid, of course, I took for granted all the work and effort that went into canning. It was just what my mom did. Only now, as an adult, do I appreciate it, particularly since I haven’t had my mom’s canned peaches in awhile. She has, rightfully, retired from canning. I flirted, briefly, with the idea of doing some myself this summer. But, after peeling a couple to go into a smoothie, I quickly decided I wasn’t up to the task.

One thing I lost as I grew up and went out into the world is a sense of the movement of the seasons. As a child, a teenager and even a young adult, my life revolved around seasonal change. School started in the fall. Then came winter and Christmas. And spring and cherry blossoms and Easter. Then the cherry harvest of summer, a month to recover in August, and then back to school. As an adult, I lost that rhythm for a long time. Seasons were more of an annoyance than anything else. I’ve always dreaded fall and that long, slow descent into winter. As it freezes up outside, and the light fades, I, too, slow down and become sluggish and dimmer. I’ve learned ways to cope over the years, but it’s always a bit of a struggle. Spring comes as a relief, and then summer, and then back into fall. As I grow older, these changes seem to happen so swiftly. Where summer once seemed to stretch on for an eon or two, now it rushes by in flashes of heat and light.

Lately, though, I’m trying to lean into the seasons, and accept their unique rhythm as my own. It’s not an easy task. We live in a world where we have to have one speed — rushed — all year long. There’s no patience in today’s workplace for moving with the seasons. Despite that, I’m trying.

One thing I do recognize as August nears its end is that it’s time for me to begin an internal harvest and put up some spiritual preserves. For the last two years, while I worked on my degree, I’ve been doing a lot of inner sowing. I’ve been exposed to countless authors, speakers, theologians, and thinkers and read many, many books. I am, I think, quite full, and laden like an apple tree weighed down with a bumper crop. I’ve got so many ideas, thoughts, inspirations, and possibilities whirling around in my brain that they, at times, weigh me down.

And so, I think this next time for me will be a period of sorting out, assessing and harvesting what’s been growing inside. Like my mom at the stove, I’ll be working hard to preserve all of this bounty — in poems, blog posts, maybe even a book. Who knows. But, I’ll put up my own set of jewelled jars, full of potential and new horizons.

Your friend,

Kevin

Day 55: Stardust

Dear Pope Francis,

A quote today from Neil deGrasse Tyson. (And, yes, I know he’s an atheist. But, he has a good point to make.)

“So you’re made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Your friend,

Kevin

Jul 26, 2013 - Kind of Random    No Comments

Day 38: Spare a prayer for the bees

Dear Pope Francis,

I know you’re busy in Rio, but I was wondering if you could spare a prayer for the bees. They’ve been vanishing and a new study may indicate why.

Bees are important. They are essential to all life on Earth. They are essential to our life on earth.

And we need to pay attention to what’s happening to the bees. And act.

Your friend,

Kevin

Jul 20, 2013 - Kind of Random, Mindfulness    No Comments

Day 33: What a jazz-playing rideshare driver taught me about grace

Dear Pope Francis,

I’m always amazed — and dismayed — at how quickly I fall out of being present to what Richard Rohr would call the “really real” or the “naked now.” This is especially hard to bear as it takes so much work to get to such a state in the first place. Just as I’ve finally fought past my ego and am in the moment with an open mind, heart, and body, the whole house of cards falls apart. In an instant I’ve closed down again am focused on my own small, petty self. Thankfully, however, these moments are sometimes accompanied by gentle prods from the Divine to open back up again, focus on the moment, and glimpse a truth about myself. The trick is catching these moments of grace, which are always undeserved, before they pass.

Here’s just one recent example. In December, I spent a weekend attending lectures by Richard Rohr on spirituality and the two halves of life. The talks were based on his most recent book, Falling Upwards. The whole weekend was amazing; I learned so much about myself. I felt truly cracked open and expanded. I not only learned from Richard Rohr that weekend, but also from my Sophia classmates. We really bonded over those few days and I felt a closeness with many of them that I hadn’t before.

So it was in this cracked-open, naked state in which I prepared to leave Sophia on Sunday for the journey home. I should note here that I’m not a good traveler. I stress out. A lot. I worry. A lot. For me, each step in the travel process is just a catastrophe waiting to happen. What if my ride is late? What if my first plane is late and I miss my connection? What if there are weather delays? What if I get crammed into a middle or window seat and have to go to the bathroom? Try as I might, most of my trips are a constant stream of worry from beginning to end. And, it’s really just my ego freaking out because it has no control over the process. From the moment I step out of my door until I return home, things are out of my hands. And my neurotic, control-freak ego has a conniption. (Not being in control, by the way, is how Richard Rohr defines suffering.)

But that post-Rohr Sunday I was in a completely different space as I stood waiting for the shared ride van to pick me up and take me to the airport. I wasn’t worried. At all. I’d pushed my ego aside and was prepared to accept the trip home as it came. And, after all, what could possibly happen? I was in this spiritually enlightened space, and that should protect me, like bubble wrap, right?

You know where this is going, don’t you?

My ride was supposed to arrive at 3:15 p.m. Which ticked by and my watch soon read 3:20, then 3:25. Did I mention I was also flying out of a different airport on this trip and it was further away so it would require more travel time? When it was 3:30 I started to edge into panic mode and called the rideshare company. I was told they’d scheduled my pick-up for 3:15 a.m. that day, not p.m.

Right then I dropped like a stone out of the naked now and became one big ball of hopping mad ego.

What did they mean the car came at 3:15 a.m.? Why hadn’t anyone called me when I’d missed it? What were they going to do about it? I had a plane to catch!

The dispatcher put me on hold for a moment, then came back and said they were sending a new van out. It would arrive in 20-25 minutes. I demanded that it not be a shared ride, as I had a schedule to keep and I would now be very behind. The dispatcher promised I would be the only one on that ride.

I ended the call with another stream of complaints. There may have been unkind words about his mother. And her mother.

Having 20-25 minutes to kill when you’re really angry is never a good thing. It gives you time to stew and for the anger to simmer, then bubble, and then boil over. I was well on my way to Mt. Vesuvius mode when suddenly and quietly a line from Richard Rohr’s lectures crept into my head: “Who do you think you are?” He’d actually used it himself in the context of getting upset over travel plans gone wrong.

It stopped me cold. Indeed, who did I think I was? What right did I even have, my little self, to be taking a plane that day, to travel for my Sophia courses, to be able to indulge my spiritual questioning? It was a grace to have this opportunity, why did I insist on getting upset when the least little thing went wrong?

I started to feel awful for how I’d treated the rideshare dispatcher. Yes, it was a mistake and yes it could cause me problems, but nobody was going to die because I didn’t get to the airport on a timeline that fit with my schedule. My smallness and pettiness were illuminated in that moment. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

One good thing about beating yourself up is that time flies while you do it, and soon my van was pulling up. Even though I had just been shown the dark side of myself, I actually started to get angry again. My ego was not done with the situation; it was going to make this driver pay for the wrongs of the company.

Then, something amazing happened. As he drove by me to get to a place where he could turn around, the driver rolled down his window and called out “Hey man, be right there!” I still don’t know whether it was the tone of his voice, or the simple fact that he wanted me to know he cared enough to keep me in the loop, but my anger started to melt. I felt it slide away, and it was nearly gone by the time he pulled up, put my suitcase in the back, and helped me into my seat.

And we were off. Immediately, the driver reached for an iPod he had wired into the van’s sound system, shuffled through a few playlists, and then selected a song. Motown. Very loud Motown. I’m all for a peppy tune, but this was a bit too much. Just as I was about to say something, though, the driver asked me what I did for a living.

“I work in PR,” I said.

“Ah, you mean like you do TV interviews?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m behind-the-scenes. Setting that kind of thing up. I have a face for radio.”

He laughed, then asked “So you must have to be good with people?”

I found myself feeling very glad he hadn’t witnessed either my call with the dispatcher or the internal raging monologue that followed it.

“Yes, I guess so,” I said, neutrally.

“That’s great,” he said. “I love people too. It’s why I love this job. I’m not even supposed to be working today, but I came out of a meeting and they needed someone, so I said yes. I love this job that much. I get to talk to interesting people, and I get to play my music.”

Before I could say something to the topic of that music, that loud, loud music, he went on.

“I’m in a band, you know. Jazz. Big Band. I record everything we do. Want to hear something?”

Great, I thought. Now I’m going to have to listen to bad loud music. And jazz. I really, really don’t like jazz. If I say yes, will he ask my opinion? What if it’s horrible? And I don’t know anything about jazz! What if he asks me to comment on some technical riff the second sax player does?

“Sure,” I said. “That would be nice.”

He grabbed for the iPod again, rummaged through his playlists, and the music began.

“This is from a concert we did last year,” he said. “Sold out show.”

And I don’t know why, but I was instantly captivated by that music. As I said, I’m no jazz aficionado, but something about the song transported me into another state. My brain and soul got quiet again. The loudness didn’t bother me; in fact, I was glad of it so I could be completely surrounded by the music. The driver didn’t ask my opinion, he didn’t ask for any kind of commentary on my part. He just let me listen as we made our way to the airport. The world took on an unreal quality, and reality kind of dropped away. It was just me, the driver, that van and his music. We floated and time stopped.

He played through several more songs, and talked a bit about his band.

“I really do record everything,” he said. “Even when we mess up. Want to hear that?”

“Sure,” I said.

“This bit is from a practice in the garage where we rehearse. It’s hilarious, man. The drummer completely loses the beat and we give him such a hard time.”

And I listened. And the drummer did, indeed, completely lose the beat. It was obvious even to me. And then I heard the low rumbling sounds of men talking trash to each other, giving each other a hard time. Chiding voices filled with masculine affection. The voices of men at home with themselves and each other.

“Yeah,” said the driver. “It’s just the best when we get together. Some of these gigs we get pretty good money. We do one each year for an oil company and I’ll maybe get $500 that night. But, you know, I don’t do it for the money. Not anymore. I do it because I love playing and being with the boys.”

And here, I thought, was someone truly living in the naked now. In love with life, with people, and with what he was doing at every moment. Someone who was willing to share both his talent and his screw-ups. OK, they were technically the drummer’s screw-ups, but what kind of person is proud of when the group they belong to fails in some way — and then shows it off? Someone who had a lot to teach me, obviously.

We entered the airport roadways as the last sounds of the band members laughing faded from the van’s speakers. A feeling of peace and tremendous gratitude flooded through me. This, I thought, was grace at work. I certainly hadn’t deserved such a transformative experience. Really, what I deserved was a long, miserable van ride with an insolent driver who made me late for my plane. What I got, however, was a musical magic carpet ride.

When we pulled up to the curb outside the departures area I realized I didn’t want that ride to end. At all. I didn’t even want to move, out of fear I’d break the spell. But, the driver got out and went to fetch my suitcase so I had to get on with things. I realized then that I hadn’t looked at my watch the whole drive. I had no idea what time it was. So I quickly glanced down.

Imagine my amazement when I realized we’d arrived five minutes sooner than I would have had my original ride shown up on time.

Your friend,

Kevin

Jul 16, 2013 - Kind of Random    No Comments

Day 28: Don’t stop believing

Dear Pope Francis,

Corey Monteith, star of a popular U.S. television program called “Glee” passed away over the weekend in Vancouver. He was 31. No cause has been released yet, but he had a long history with substance abuse and was recently in rehab.

I don’t know why I’m writing about this today. Maybe because the other main story in North America right now has been 1) covered way too much and 2) is not something I could begin to know to write about.

But I can write about Corey Monteith. Sort of. I don’t know him personally. I’ve never met him. I couldn’t tell you if he was a nice guy or not. But those who have met him have said nice things about him.

I only know that he starred in a show that celebrated difference, and he played a character who was, above all, true to himself. And, he and the other actors performed songs guaranteed to brighten your day. At least they often brightened mine. Is “Glee” high art? No. Was Corey Monteith special? No.

But I’m inexplicably sad all the same. Because, on the surface, Corey Monteith never showed the pain he must have been in to abuse drugs the way he reportedly did. He showed up to work, sang his heart out, did his lines, and put on a brave face. Of course, he got paid well to do it, and became famous — with all the perks that brings. But you never read stories in the press about Corey Monteith devolving like other celebrities who were eaten alive by drugs. He just sang. And acted. And went to rehab. And came out. And appeared to be OK and getting his life together.

And then, one day in Vancouver, he died. Like many others who fight addictions and don’t make it. When the news first came out, someone wrote on Twitter that the overdoses happen every day and the police do not hold press conferences, so why should they for Corey Monteith. I guess that’s true.

But I’m still a little sad. And I don’t know exactly why.

Here’s one of the first songs Corey Monteith and his castmates did on “Glee.” It’s still one of my favorites.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WxPyUzWSPA

Your friend,

Kevin

 

Day 20: Frames

Dear Pope Francis,

I think I’ve written more in the past 20 days than I have in as long as I can remember. The reason? I’ve got a frame for my writing. OK, it helps that the tagline for this blog says I’m writing every day. But it’s more than that. Writing to you focuses my mind on something I can easily comprehend and tackle. Keeping a regular writing schedule has been a problem for me in the past. Once I’m sitting at my laptop, the words usually flow. It’s getting myself to the chair that’s tough. I think part of the problem is that when I’m thinking about sitting down to type, before I go anywhere near my laptop, I worry I won’t have anything to write about. I’ll tell myself the words aren’t there today, so why bother.

This is where the frame of writing to you, every day, helps. It gives my mind something to focus on. In fact, it gives my brain something to noodle with all the time when I’m not at my laptop. What will i write to Pope Francis today? What should  I tell Pope Francis today? It helps get me going, and makes the process manageable.

Frames are helpful. They let our minds put boundaries around things so that we can puzzle them out. They give us focus. They let us explain what we feel is inexplicable and do what we think is impossible. Keep in mind, though, that the frame isn’t reality. I could actually sit down at my laptop every day and probably produce something. But, I don’t. It’s the frame I’ve put around this stage in my development as a writer that gets me to the laptop. And, for me, it works. For now. I may outgrow this particular frame an need another one, but, right now, it’s what works.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. OK. Fair enough. I think religion, to some extent, is a frame. It helps us understand something that is and will always be mostly a mystery to us — God. This is OK. There’s nothing wrong with trying to explain the mystery that is the Divine. That’s our lot as humans, I think. As powerful as our brains are, we can’t comprehend all that God is in one fell swoop. It overwhelms us. Our souls can, but that’s also a deeper, mysterious kind of knowing. It’s not a complete answer kind of brain-knowing. And, as humans, we are not good at the not knowing. It drives us nuts.

So, we build frames, and call those frames religion. And this can be good. We need those frames so our brains don’t short-circuit when trying to comprehend God.

There’s a problem, though. We often get so attached to our particular religion that we fall in love with the frame and lose perspective. We add onto the frame, making it heavier, more robust. We use sturdier wood, and perhaps add layers of adornment, maybe a little (ok, a lot) gold leaf. Then we put the frame in a museum and post a guard who checks everyone’s identification and goes through their pockets before they’re allowed to even glimpse the frame. This is to make sure only the right kinds of people get to take in the frame. Occasionally, maybe we might even notice that, oddly, the canvas in the frame has somehow expanded outside its boundaries. So we snip it off to keep things tidy. And, we go on, admiring our frame. Yay us! We’ve created an awesome frame for God. Aren’t we clever .

Meanwhile, nobody has paid any attention to what’s  in the frame. The frame, after all, has been the focus of all the upkeep and security. And so the painting fades and gets kind of tatty and sad-looking. After awhile, though a few stalwart admirers endure the lengthy security procedures to see the frame, many others have noticed what’s happened to the picture. They begin to wonder what the point is of putting all that work into the frame, when the painting has become so, well, stagnant. They might start to think that God is no longer even in that frame.

So, we’re left with a lovely frame that is completely and utterly useless. A frame, after all, is defined by what it holds, not itself. Without something worthwhile to display, the frame is kind of beside the point.

I think we, as Catholics, have put too much attention on the frame we call religion, and it’s starting to show. After Jesus was crucified and then ascended, the early Christians were left to start a Church to keep what Jesus did and who He was alive. Over the millennia, though, we’ve lost Jesus from the picture, and put much too much emphasis on the frame. To be honest, I think He might have walked out of the frame long ago, searching for folks who’d pay more attention directly to Him than the human-created hoops some feel are needed to gain access.

Frames are good. Religion is good. They both let us focus on one bit of something that seems unfathomable. But I think we run into trouble when we confuse religion with the Divine, and refuse to update our frames on a regular basis.

Your friend,

Kevin

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