Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas Blessings





Christmas is a time of contrasts in many ways.  In the northern climes, one travels regularly from warmth to sometimes bitter cold and back again.  There is commotion all around it seems - frantic rushing to prepare, holiday greetings shared, the raucous laughter of loved ones gathered together.  But in the end - when all the presents are opened, all are tucked in bed, the lights turned low except for the glow of the tree and the last flickering embers in the hearth - there is silence.

Many of my happiest memories of Christmas revolve around those times - when all the work and preparation and effort have come to a successful conclusion and the world closes down to soft music in the background, a candle or two burning low, the tree ablaze in twinkling lights - and the signature Christmas glow of contentment and unbridled hope for the future.

My eyes will fall on the nativity, recalling the hymns sung fervently earlier in the evening, and I will allow the profundity of that simple scene to put things in perspective and remind me once again of the purpose of the season.  The candlelit, a capella 'Silent Night' that ends our church service every year will play again in my head - and I will shed another bittersweet tear, recalling how that moment always touched my mother so deeply and how she so dearly loved this season. 

But its not a moment of sadness at all.  Its a time of fond memories, blessings recounted, warmth that spans generations and time and astral planes - a moment to share in the heart with all those who's physical presence can no longer be shared.  I will be alone in the room, but surrounded by those I love and have loved.

After a time, I will quietly move to the closet, bundle up warmly, and then venture forth for a walk in the crisp night air.  This year, there will be snow and - if the skies are clear - some moonlight to mark my path.  My eyes will search the heavens, and rest upon that same star of legend and lore that has guided countless souls before me to their destination - and perhaps to their destiny. I will listen to the night and attempt to garner all it has to teach - and through it all, I will offer countless quiet prayers of thanks for all the blessings bestowed upon me, chief among them the people who touch my life, who offer their hand in support, who buoy me with their smiles, who fill my heart, who give me reason and hope.


To all who may read this, I wish a season of blessings and smiles, joy and hope, peace and happiness, health and love - and perhaps a quiet moment alone with your thoughts to contemplate and appreciate them all.  Merry Christmas.  Happy Holidays.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Warmth of a Winter Sun




For the past several days, its been grey and cold.  Every time the driveway has been cleared of snow, a new batch has arrived, and the roadways have – at times – been less than welcoming.


But late last night, as the last of the snow fell silently to the ground, the clouds began to part – and a brilliant patch of moonlight bathed the blanket of white with a radiance so pure as to bring tears to one’s eyes.  The silence of winter made the moment even more captivating.  For a moment, the world had stopped - frozen in time – pristine and beautiful and unspoiled.


With the dawn came blue sky and bright sunshine, casting shadows and highlighting the tracks of animals large and small, marking their journeys through and around the property, feet and sometimes only inches from the door.


On days like this, the soul is easy, the heart is full, the eye is delighted – and all the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations seems easier and brighter and so much more purposeful.  It’s a day when smiles come easily and people – no matter how rushed – take the time to share one with friends and strangers alike.


Many have chosen to flee this climate, seeking warmth and sun year-round – where 50 feels cold and a passing cloud makes the evening news.  There is much to be said for such predictability – and during times when its hard to remember what the tips of the fingers actually feel like, such locations do sometimes sing the enticing song of the Sirens – but there is also nothing there to compare with a day such as this.  No Caribbean sky is as blue as that which contrasts with new-fallen snow.  No palm tree is as graceful as the fir which sheds its coat of white as the sun warms its branches.  No beach can provide the same tingle to the skin as the bracing nature of frigid air combined with the warmth of a winter sun.


It's a day that makes one feel alive and vital – happy and grateful to know such a day.  It’s a day that makes one feel warm from the inside out - which is always the best way to be warm.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Memories and Smiles





This is not the entry I planned to make today.  Perhaps that will come at another time for it’s a message I’d still like to share, but for now here’s a little snippet of my life:


I decorated the house today.  The outside decorations were done a few weeks ago before the temperatures dropped and the snow fell, but today it was time for the interior to take on a semblance of the holiday.


Christmas is my favorite time of the year and I cherish all the memories and traditions it holds for me.  That does not translate into lavish decoration, however – only things that have meaning to me, despite their understated appearance.  Each year, I search for the smallest real tree I can find.  In this era of bigger is better, finding a tree in the 4 to 5 foot range is many times a challenge, but this year I found a scotch pine that called my name – measuring a whopping 56” from trunk to tiptop.  It was off to the side and already in a stand – probably to demonstrate that, despite its crooked trunk, it could still stand straight and proudly.  While others wrestled mightily to secure nine and ten foot monsters to the roofs of their SUVs, I quietly slipped my little treasure into my trunk - and closed the lid.


It sat outside since Monday to let its branches settle, but today was the day to bring it inside.  It fit the stand easily and – as advertised – stood straight and tall.  I fed it some water and watched as it thirstily drank, then brought up the lights and the other decorations from the basement and set to work:


As always, first came the nativity set – displayed in a prominent location and away from any secular trappings of the season.  The star was lit and I stood for a moment in silence to remember once more why we celebrate this holiday in the first place.


Then it was time for the music to play – loud enough so that I can simply immerse myself in the moment – and the rest of the work began.  The stockings were hung, the votive village was placed carefully on the mantle, candles set in place, the small plastic lightup church from my childhood placed on the desk – battered and taped from years of use, but always able to bring a smile to my face.  I carefully wound the key to the music box inside and heard its clear rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful for probably the thousandth time, but still as touching as the first.


Finally, it was time for the tree itself – placed on a small table to give it height but not to overwhelm the room, and allow for presents to be placed easily beneath.  As always, I placed and lit the star first, and then began unrolling the strands of lights.


Now almost all of my memories of Christmas are fond, but it does tear at my heart to remember those with whom I can no longer celebrate – most notably my mother and grandmother, those who always seemed to know how to make the day the most special it could be.  But this year, an unexpected twinge arrived as I uncoiled the first set of lights.  For the past 16 Christmases, that first strand of lights would suddenly attract a grey blur.  It would appear silently and without warning, take the furthest-most bulb gently in its teeth and run, stopping abruptly as I held the other end of the strand, then rolling over and playfully batting at the lights and my hand as I came near.


His name was Pippin.  He was all grey with beautiful green eyes.  His coat was sleek and he had an attitude, but he was also about the sweetest cat I’d ever known.  Every Christmas, he was as much a part of the decorating as the tree and the lights themselves.  Things took longer and a strand or two of lights were destroyed over the years from a bit too much exuberant play, but he was as much a holiday memory and tradition as any I’ve described here.


This past summer, he passed away – and rests under a tree in the yard I can see every day from the sunroom window.  Hardly a day passes when I don’t still see a shadow in the corner of my eye, hear a sound and assume its him making his way through the house on some imaginary adventure, feel him against my feet at the end of the bed. But still it hit me hard when there was no one to pounce on the lights this year – and I sat silently on the floor by the tree for many minutes before I could invoke the holiday spirit again.


When the lights were all on the tree, I took the boxes of decorations back to the basement.  But before I came back upstairs, I searched through the box once more and retrieved a tiny red stocking I’d originally decided not to place this year.  It had come with a small gift from a friend exactly16years ago – and it had immediately found its place on the mantle as Pippin’s stocking.  I brought it upstairs, hung it on its familiar hook – and suddenly it felt like Christmas again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Time To Say Thanks




Those of you who know me already know that Thanksgiving has always been a special day for me.  You may find it surprising that its not really because of family traditions or specific memories, but simply because the purity of this holiday has been largely unsullied.  It provides an opportunity to look back upon our lives, the people and events and experiences that have shaped us and, if we take the time to do so, to pause in quiet reflection and offer sincere thanks for everyone and everything that has blessed us during our journey thus far.


Its sad that Thanksgiving is now so largely overwhelmed by the retail glare of the December holiday - in the eyes of commerce at least, merely a placeholder between Halloween and Christmas - yet traditions do continue on a personal level for so many, and it is the hope those traditions bring that I pray resound within you and yours.


We are all so busy - and the nature of the day itself sometimes brings so much hustle and bustle to cook and prepare and travel and juggle priorities - that its easy to go through the motions, eat the turkey, watch the football games and then fall asleep on the couch or drag ourselves to the next 'obligation'.


But my wish for you on this day is that you take the time to find a place of quiet solitude and close your eyes.  Let the events of your life - and especially the people - unfold before you in a diorama that is uniquely yours.  Look inside the actual events tothose moments you shared with people who really influenced and changed your life.  In many cases, you may find it was not a specific occurrence at all but a longtime association that built the memory.  In others, it will be the pure flash of blue light that occurred when suddenly the scales fell from your eyes and you saw something clearly for the first time - and became a better person for it.


There will be moments of pain during this time of reflection, but I encourage you not to dwell on those feelings - for pain is a great teacher in and of itself and even those who hurt us can sometimes help us to learn and to grow even if that was never their intent.  Pain from loss of those closest to us is also inevitable - but the bitter is also always sweet for the memories and the love it invokes even as we mourn the physical presence that will not return.  Instead, focus on the happy memories large and small and the feeling that person still evokes within you whenever you visit them in your soul.


This has not been the brightest year of my own life - yet I find myself with a multitude of things and people for which to be thankful.  Some are longtime and permanent.  Some are new, but as or more special than any I have held close to my heart for as long as I can remember.  Some things for which I am thankful might surprise you, because to the casual observer they might seem painful or difficult.  But the aspects of those events I summon in my heart are the aspects that taught me, that helped me to grow or that allowed me to savor an ongoing relationship with my father which will not be with me forever - and which needs to be celebrated and appreciated every day no mater what.


I wish these quiet moments and purity of reflection to each of you.  But then I ask you to take things one step further and to take the time to contact those people for whom you are thankful and who are still with you - to tell THEM how much they mean to you and how much they've helped you become who you are.  Don't hide your thanks - share them with those you hold in your heart.  Thank you is such a simple thing to say, yet most of us never take the time to truly stop and recognize those important to us.  Take the time and you may well be surprised at the kind responses you receive in return as well.


Finally, I ask you to take today's moments of thankfulness and to let them influence your lives in a positive manner EVERY day - to take small breaks from the commotion of daily life and to look for the blessings around you.  If times are good, this will come easily.  If times are currently less so, I guarantee that you will still find more blessings in your life than you can imagine - and the more you count, the more you will find.


Happy Thanksgiving - today and each day.  And THANK YOU for reading!

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

An Altered Perspective; A Wider View




Sometimes life teaches us lessons in ways we never expect.  And sometimes if we take what we learn too literally, we may not receive the full value of the lesson at all.  So many times as we careen through the corridors of daily existence our focus is so much on the task at hand that we don’t see the life lessons displayed before us – and if we do not sometimes take the time to step back and truly absorb what is around us, our lives are the poorer for the blinders we wear.


A few years back, the company for which I worked brought in a safety trainer in an effort to reduce the number of minor vehicle accidents in our fleet of cars for salespeople. I’ll share the instructor’s lesson with you here – try it the next time you drive and I think you’ll see it’s a simple and effective way to improve your awareness and overall safety (and I won’t even charge you $300 an hour!) – but also please take the time to read this entry to the end.


When we drive, we tend to focus – even fixate – on the vehicle in front of us.  We may think this is not necessarily a bad thing because we are alert to any sudden changes and will hopefully have time to react should an unexpected avoidance maneuver be required.  But the instructor asked everyone to look beyond what stared us in the face and to work to absorb the bigger picture.


He took a person at random and asked her to sit in a chair at the front of the room.  Then he asked her to stare into one of the corners of the room, near the ceiling.  When she did, he moved his hand partially into her field of vision.  Her eyes instinctively moved to follow his hand.  He then asked her what she saw and she replied that she saw his hand.  He asked if she also still saw the corner of the room and she truthfully replied ‘no’, because her gaze was fixated upon the closer object.  Then he asked her to shift her vision back to the corner of the room and not to allow her gaze to come back to his hand.  As she did, he began moving his hand back and forth slightly within her field of vision.  He then asked her what she saw and she replied that she saw the corner of the room, but still saw his hand moving near her.


The lesson here is that if we set our gaze at a far point down the road, we can see stopped traffic, a tight curve or other obstacles well in advance and have time to react to them – while still being able to see if the brake lights of the car in front of us come on in time for us to stop suddenly if necessary.  Conversely, if we focus simply on the vehicle in front we lose the big picture perspective and need to rely solely on our reflexes and constant attention to keep us safe.


It takes a little training to shift your gaze to the horizon – and it takes many internal reminders before this skill becomes second nature.  But the fender-bender accident rate for the people who took this course dropped over 30% in the first year after the class was held and frequent reminders were issued.



Now there are many things I’d ultimately like to convey in this journal, but driving tips really wasn’t at the top of the list - so I’ll ask you now to take this lesson and really learn from it.  While this simple shift in thinking works well in the context in which it was taught, it is also a metaphor and a lesson in how to live our lives.  Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day routines that we focus only on the next task.  Worse, when life turns in negative directions, our vision is almost always consumed by the challenge before us and we lose the perspective of the larger whole.  And it is exactly at those times that we need to stop and raise our eyes to the horizon, still seeing the task at hand, but keeping our vision fixed on the new dawn in front of us - and not on the clouds directly overhead.  Easy to do?  Not at all.  Effective in helping us cope with the down cycles of life?  You bet – try it for yourself and see. 


And while you’re at it, the next time you’re taught something - take the time to think of that lesson in a larger context as well.  Clear your head for a moment and look tothe horizon - you may well be surprised at what you’ve really learned…….

Monday, October 17, 2005

Embracing Change



You smell it in the air - a tang that was not there only a week or so ago.  The breeze is a little sharper, the nights more crisp and perhaps a bit more clear.  The chirp of the crickets diminishes by almost imperceptible degrees each night - portending the silence to come.

The sound of acorns randomly bouncing off the deck adds a staccato beat to life - and the movements of creatures large and small outside the window appear more furtive, more purposeful.

The earth prepares for slumber in a thousand small ways - and all who call her home make their own preparations as well.

I walk amidst the turning trees and absorb the changes all around me.  My heart laments the passing warmth of days, but welcomes the cool refreshment of the nights to come, the quiet contentment of a crackling fire, the imminent blaze of nature's color all around us - the anticipation of the quiet awe of the first unblemished snow.

Life changes around us every day.  If we try to hold to the past and the now, we miss what the future holds or at least fail to appreciate it.  All too soon, our own time of endless slumber will arrive - we do ourselves and all in our lives a disservice if we do not accept and embrace each change until then.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Passing




I lost an old friend yesterday.  She wasn't a person, but she was important in my life in a special way.


I am blessed to live surrounded by nature's beauty.  My home is nestled into a ring of wooded acreage. Although close to people and the services that help make everyday life bearable, it is possible to feel and believe that one is alone with one's thoughts and the beauty of God's creation.  The curtains are never closed for there is no one near enough to look in and I choose never to place a barrier between me and the ever-changing wonders just outside the windows.


One of those wonders has always been a lovely Hickory tree outside the bedroom window.  Each morning, she would be the first thing I would see as sleep fell from my eyes and the world came into focus.  I found that when I traveled I missed her calming presence - and I always looked forward to the moment when she would greet me the morning I returned.


She was a sturdy tree, blooming a bit later than most but stubbornly holding her leaves almost a full month after those of others had burst into color, faded and fallen gently to the earth.  But her tenacity was also her downfall, for when early ice or snow fell heavily, her branches, still laden with leaves, would sometimes buckle under the weight - and I would watch helplessly as major limbs were torn from her sides.


Twice over the years her shape was altered in such manner, and each time I would treat her wounds and learn to love the new face she presented to the world.


This past Spring, however, she endured the worst indignity to her proud form yet.  I tried to tell myself that she would survive, but something inside me made me treasure her presence each morning a little more.  As Winter now undeniably approaches, I sighed in the realization that she would not survive another harsh season - and yesterday I bit my lip and lovingly brought her down to earth.


This morning, the dawn came as it relentlessly does.  But something was missing when I cast my first glance through the window.  Where she always stood was what appeared to me a gaping void, although others would never notice her absence.  There was a small emptiness inside me, but I pictured her in my mind - as I know I always will, no matter how long I live, or where.


Soon, however, she will warm me once more - and something tells me her heat will be just a little more intense, her flames just a little brighter than any of the rest. 




I am a man blessed in many ways.  I have people in my life who love me despite my many flaws.  I have friends who have stood the test of time and those who may not yet have the longevity of years, but who add value to my life and smiles to my heart.  I have health and the blessing that with age also comes a kind of wisdom.  I am blessed to be able to see the beauty in simple things and the best in people - and to appreciate both and never take them for granted.  I am also blessed in ways that may not normally be considered blessings, but we will talk of them at another time.


As this document grows and breathes and takes on a life of its own, I will hope to share bits of life with you - simple truths, lessons learned, life in its raw power, sheer emotion, cacophony of voices and messages and opinions, and perhaps an example or two of the indomitable nature of the human spirit as it unfolds before me, demonstrated by family, friends, even strangers.


This will not be a mere chronicle of events - the mundane details of my existence are best left unshared (unless of course you're looking for a sure cure for insomnia). Rather, I hope to share with you stories of this life's journey - and hope that perhaps my experiences, thoughts and words may strike a chord in your life from time-to-time as well.


Let's see where this takes us - let the journey begin......