Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day

It is a cold and very wet Thanksgiving night. By morning it will be much colder and we may have our first snow flurries of the season. Christmas Day is exactly one month from today. Like many people I am amazed that it is once again this time of year. It seems like it was only weeks ago when we were sweltering in 100 degree heat. In this moment I am sitting here with a hot cup of "Sleepytime" herbal tea while listening to the Band's famous 1976 Thanksgiving night concert they called "The Last Waltz". It was their farewell performance. It has been a good week, mainly because I have been on holiday the entire week. Last weekend I went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee with my wife, two sons, and granddaughter. The town was very festive and decorated for the holidays. Above I am including a few photos from the trip. We had perfect weather. Admittedly I often felt exhausted and my real vacation, in terms of rest and relaxation, began when I returned home. It's been a while since I had any real time off so the last few days, when I could rise at my leisure and savor morning coffee while reading the morning paper and looking out my window, were real bliss for me. I love my solitude.

Today is a day to give thanks and to be grateful. I try not to judge my life by how I feel. I have slowly learned that my feelings are not always a good barometer of my life. Although happiness sometimes seems elusive, I know I am blessed in many ways. I am sitting here in a very nice house, with my own special room, on a cold and wet night. I am warm, dry, and well fed. My pantry is full and earlier today I shared in a great and traditional Thanksgiving feast at my sister in law's home. My refrigerator now has several containers of tasty leftovers. I was with family who have been part of my life for nearly forty years. Earlier this evening I had a visit from my granddaughter. She was very excited and full of questions because of the appearance of a Christmas Elf on a shelf in my living room. I told her he was sent here by Santa Claus and you can't touch him. This Elf will magically move around the house between her future visits. I just know that the first thing she will do every time she comes over here in the next few weeks before Christmas is look for the Elf. She already thinks my wife and I live in a magical house. Don't all children think that about their grandparents?

I did have a crisis earlier this evening when high winds from the rainstorm blew Santa and Rudolph off my front porch and into the bushes.

So on this Thanksgiving night in the year 2010, the 59th Thanksgiving of my life, I sit here as a content and reasonably happy man. There are people I love and people who love me. I have family and good friends in my life. I am surrounded by things I love. I have books to read, music to enjoy, and coffee to drink. I have a nice balance of solitude and time with others. My brain still works most of the time and I can still walk up and down stairs although my knees often hurt and if I sit too long I feel like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. To alleviate this problem, I always keep several oil cans around the house.

I hope all who read these notes have all you need and most of what you want. I hope you are able to live with grateful hearts and that you feel blessed. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Random Thoughts Volume IX

I am dragging a little this morning. Some of it is because it is Monday. Much of it is because my granddaughter, who is six years old, appeared in my bed at 7:30 AM Saturday morning and she didn't go home until Sunday afternoon. When she comes over it's like a workout at the gym. She loves to play make believe and she never gets tired. She once said to me, "Paw Paw, your house is like magic. That's why I never get sleepy when I am here". Well, she may never get sleepy but Paw Paw does. I don't care because she's my only grandchild and I love her. Being her Paw Paw is my favorite thing to do.

I cannot give you the formula for success but I can give you the formula for failure...try to please everybody.
-Herbert Bayard Swope

This is one of the first things a person learns when he or she moves into a leadership position, whether it's in the family or in the office. Parents learn it with their children and employers learn it with their employees. Some people are happy with anything while others are happy with nothing. Abraham Lincoln learned early in his presidency that "you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you cannot please all of the people all of the time". I have a friend at work who began working there the same day as me. One day I encountered him on the street. He had a look of contentment on his face so I said, "You always seem to be happy. What's your secret"? He said, "I have no expectations about anything so I am never disappointed". There's a lot of wisdom in his words. My philosophy is similar. I strive to see everything in life as a gift and this enables me to have a grateful heart. It's been my experience that living with gratitude for everything makes even the little things seem special. When you appreciate the little things it is easy to be pleased.

The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
-Zen Saying

I love Zen. What is Zen? Well, it's a way of seeing and experiencing life that has it's roots in Buddhism. A simple explanation of Zen is "being where you are and doing what you are doing". Sounds simple, doesn't it? Have you actually tried it? It's difficult. Even while I am typing these thoughts I am thinking about what I want to do when my workday is over, I am listening to music that takes me back to good memories of my past, and I am wondering what I need to do next after I send out this email. Basically, I am everywhere but where I am. I am not truly present to the moment that exists right now. My mind and my body are in different places. It is a never ending goal of mine to have my mind and my body together in the same place at the same time. Another name for this is "mindfulness". It is the ability to be fully present to the moment. When one is truly present to the moment you often lose track of time and space. Psychologists call this "flow". Children like my granddaughter are masters of mindfulness and flow. They are totally in the moment. Most adults in this world of multitasking and needing to be in multiple places at the same time are terrible at mindfulness. We are almost never where we are. The playful side of Zen has riddles called koans. Today's quote is such a riddle.

Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control. We can love and care for others but we cannot possess our children, lovers, family, or friends. We can assist them, pray for them, and wish them well, yet in the end their happiness and suffering depend on their thoughts and actions, not on our wishes.
-Ryan Burda

The older I get the more I realize how little I can control. It's been painful at times. I am not a control freak but I like to take care of people and help them avoid bad decisions. Many times this involved my own children. Like many children, it seemed like they never did anything I advised and, like many children, they would never admit that they actually listened to me and that I was a positive influence. Those of you who are parents know what I mean or you will someday. Once children get to a certain age you can only hope you did a good job of raising them. In all of life I have slowly learned that the only thing I can control is myself and my reactions to what happens to me and around me. It really is all about attitude. For example, I could complain about having to work in this department for six months and make myself and others miserable or I could embrace the change and make it a positive experience. I choose to do the latter. It's not what happens to you, it's how you respond. I am generally a positive person and an eternal optimist. I believe things happen for a reason and that good will come out of most situations. Much of our suffering is our own fault because of our own minds, our attitudes, and how we react to things. I admit that I did not learn this in one day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Thoughts Volume VIII

It is in everybody's interest to seek those actions that lead to happiness and avoid those which lead to suffering. And because our interests are inextricably linked, we are compelled to accept ethics as the indispensable interface between my desire to be happy and yours.
-The Dalai Lama

There is one thing we all have in common. That is a desire to be happy. I've never met anyone who didn't want to be happy. Of course there are things even more basic than feeling happy. People need food, shelter, and acceptance as part of a family or community. Within our families and communities we also hope to find love. Love, however, is a mysterious thing because we may be loved but not feel loved. Hopefully, though, we all feel loved by someone. When our basic needs for survival are met, and we feel love and acceptance from our families, friends, and community, we hope this brings us happiness. When we don't have these things we often feel sadness. The Dalai Lama is saying that our chances for happiness are greater if we are also helping others to be happy. In fact, our chances for happiness are slim if we don't care about the happiness of others.

From stillness everything springs forth.

Life can be very difficult and there are many daily challenges and tasks that all of us must face and overcome. It has been my experience that all of this can be even more difficult if we are stressed out and in a frenzy. Every morning before I leave home to come to work I allow 10-15 minutes in my schedule where I just sit and be quiet. Usually I sip on my first cup of coffee and read a motivational or inspirational thought. This ritual calms my mind and allows me to become centered. When I finally walk out the door and face the world, I am ready for my day. Admittedly, sometimes my day gets crazy. There may be a traffic jam on the way to work. When I get to work, maybe the systems are down and I can't get on my computer. People may be yelling my name before I have even taken off my coat. Later in the day I may be pulled in ten different directions. The demands of the day may make me feel frazzled. When that happens I will sometimes go for a short walk or simply go outside to our park and I will sit on a bench. I will return to my inner stillness, regain my composure, and once again be centered. Then I am ready to jump back into the game. When I am still and calm on the inside I can deal much better with whatever is happening on the outside.

Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.
-Anne Frank (written in a Nazi concentration camp)

In various accounts I have read from survivors of concentration camps, many kept their hope alive by finding beauty in the midst of their suffering. It could have been as simple as a single flower growing in the dirt. We will probably never experience anything as horrible as the holocaust but daily life can be very stressful at times and sooner or later all of us will experience some kind of pain. The nightly news is filled with depressing stories about people doing horrible things to other people or someone's predictions of doom and gloom. I have to remind myself that most of life is not well represented by the news media. There is much beauty in life. It ranges from my granddaughter's smile to the splendor of nature during this time of year. The beauty of life is sometimes hidden from us if we aren't paying attention. Many of us go through our lives asleep even when we are walking around performing our daily activities. In the teachings of Buddha, an "awakened one" is someone who is fully alive and present to the moment. When you are alive and present to the moment, you notice things like beauty. When you sleepwalk your way through life, you miss most things unless they smack you in the head. Be where you are and pay attention. Beauty is everywhere.

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is one of my favorite philosophers. He wrote a famous book called "Walden" that I think should be required reading for everyone. We live in a consumer driven culture where most people want more and more and bigger and better. If you don't believe me, think about cell phones, televisions, and SUV's. I admit that I have a comfortable life after many years of working and many years of being married to someone who has worked equally as long. Everyone wants to win the lottery. I would like to win the lottery, too. However, I don't want more money so I can buy more stuff. The more stuff you have the more worries you acquire. I would like the freedom that a big bank account could give me but rather than more stuff, I would prefer a simpler and less complicated life. A simple and uncomplicated life is what Thoreau was searching for when he lived in solitude next to Walden Pond outside of Boston in 1845. He came to the conclusion that being rich is not just about having lots of stuff. The richest people can be those with the fewest possessions. Of course, this is assuming you at least have the basic necessities of life. When one is young, you gather things in. When one gets older, you let things go. I think this is why most people seem more content as they age. You have a greater appreciation for life's intangibles and you learn that it's the little things that matter most.