Friday, February 25, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XX

I received a telephone call last Friday afternoon telling me that Father Matthew Kelty, aged 95, and one of the monks at Gethsemani, had passed away. He was a wonderful and very holy man. I did not know him well on a personal level but I had several encounters with him over the years. He used to do poetry readings and talks at the monastery whenever I was there. His death made me ponder how few truly holy people there seem to be in the world. Father Matthew was a man who was one with God. Father Matthew was buried in the monastic cemetary with all the other monks who have lived and died at the monastery since 1848. There's a whole section of the cemetery where monks I once knew lie buried. When I was a very young novice monk these were the men I lived with and who inspired me.

My granddaughter woke me up last Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, telling me she was ready to go downstairs and cook breakfast. On her previous visit I had taught her how to scramble eggs. First we cooked some bacon in the microwave. The we pulled a chair up to the range, cracked the eggs, and cooked them until they were done. This simple act of standing side by side with my six year old granddaughter, scrambling eggs, was more fulfilling to me than 99% of all the other tasks I must perform in my life. I was one with her, she was one with me, and both of us were one with the moment. Then we sat on the kitchen floor and ate our meal pretending we were camping out.

Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It's lovely to be silly at the right moment.

I think I am a serious person who has a sense of humor. At this stage of my life I believe I know what is important and what is not. I would love to publish my list of what I believe deserves seriousness and what does not but I'm sure I would offend someone. I don't mind laughing at myself when I do something stupid. I probably take some things very seriously that are unimportant to others and I'm sure that many things that are important to others are not taken seriously by me. One thing that really drives me crazy is people who take themselves too seriously. Whether you are like me or not I think what is important is that you find some kind of balance in your life between seriousness and silliness. In the great moments of life, I know how to be serious and how to act. Too much seriousness, however, is too much for me. I can't be an adult all the time. When I go out to lunch with my friends, or to dinner with my wife and children, we laugh about everything. One of my favorite sayings is "Sacred cows make great hamburgers". The world is full of people and ideas that are taken way too seriously. I don't trust anyone that never laughs at life or themselves. I don't want to die of seriousness. I would rather laugh myself to death. Life is too short to be serious all the time.

Some wise man whose name escapes me at the moment once said that "self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom". I believe there is much truth to this. Typically when we are young we have no clue who we are. We just know who we want to be. In many cases we don't become who we want to be because it's not who we are. If we are lucky, and honest, we acquire inner peace later in our life when we accept who we are. This acceptance requires the sometimes difficult acknowledgement of how special we are. Many people find it difficult to accept their own giftedness. It also requires the acceptance of those parts of ourselves that might drive other people crazy and may drive ourselves crazy as well. Self-knowledge goes hand in hand with self-acceptance. I know I am a good person and that I have integrity and character. I also know I can be lazy, arrogant, obsessive, and a perfectionist. Did I mention that my wife also thinks procrastination would be a step forward for me? I have a personality that generally is peaceful and easy going but I also fight life on a daily basis even when I know it would be easier and less stressful to just "let it go". These seemingly more negative qualities I refer to as my "dark side". In each of us is a side that faces the light and another one which is our "dark side". If you are growing as a person you get to a point where you can see your "dark side" coming from a mile away. When you are really self aware you can head yourself off at the pass and keep this side of you from appearing in public. Both sides are who we are but the goal of our life's journey is to be our best self as much as we can.

In today's reading from the Tao, a book of Chinese philosophy, Deng Ming-Dao says "Problems cannot be resolved at once. Slowly untie knots and divide to conquer". Most problems, whether they be situations or our own personal behavior, do not come into being overnight. Most problems, bad habits, and behaviors build up over time. Yet most of us get very frustrated when they cannot be changed or resolved immediately. I think it was Albert Einstein who said, "The logic that created a problem cannot be used to solve the problem". Fixing problems or changing our behavior often takes time. To avoid the logic that created our problems or the actions that created our behavior, we must think differently or take small steps to change our behavior. Sometimes we keep running into a wall over and over before we finally realize that if we move over a little bit we will find a door. In yesterday's thoughts I admitted to some of my behavior that reflects what I called my "dark side". I have been struggling with these behaviors my entire life and will likely do so for the rest of my life. You will do the same with your own behavior. Hopefully as we go through our lives we get a little smarter and wiser and we avoid the thinking and behavior that has caused us problems in our past or present. At some point we even start to realize that our parents aren't as stupid as we thought they were. My sons, who are 30ish, even seek my counsel these days. Occasionally they take my advice so they don't have to untie a knot later.

A friend and I were reminiscing about a wonderful experience we had together. We made a last minute decision to go to a concert. Much to our delight the tickets were half price. It was a perfect summer evening with no humidity and a cool breeze that was not normal for the middle of summer. The concert was outdoors and the performer was in top form. All the planets were in perfect alignment with the sun and life was good. I refer to such moments or experiences as "Zen Moments". They're brief times in our lives where everything is perfect if only for a moment. In such times you are happy and one with the universe. You cannot plan such moments or re-create them. They just happen and are a gift. I like to think that the possibility of such moments is great and the potential is all around us. I also think we miss most of them because we are distracted and not present to the moment. One must be awake enough to recognize them. I sure that for many people who attended the same concert as my friend and me, it was just a concert. It may have been enjoyable but nothing special. How one felt about the experience depended on one's wakefulness and perception.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XIX

After many days of cold and snowy weather last weekend's sunny and spring like weather was a welcome change. The sunshine and relative warmth was invigorating. Much of last weekend was spent trying to outsmart the squirrels in my backyard. I recently bought a bird feeder and it's like a magnet for squirrels. Even when I put food out specifically for the squirrels they are intent on eating of all their food and then all of the bird's food. I now have the fattest squirrels in the neighborhood. However, they are also highly motivated. I watched from my kitchen window as one shimmied up the pole that holds the bird feeder. If you put a little hard hat on him he would have looked like a telephone man climbing up a telephone pole.

Yesterday, after a morning wandering through Excel spreadsheets, I decided I needed a walk outside. It was a beautiful day although there was still a chill in the air. While walking around I had a great idea for today's thought. Unfortunately I can no longer remember it. These senior moments are increasing at an alarming rate. When I am sitting in my backyard watching the squirrels run along the top of my fence I don't care about senior moments. Unfortunately here at work there are no squirrels except for the ones running around inside my head. During the work day my senior moments are often balanced with brain overload. The increase of senior moments is interesting to me because I think I am at the peak of my intellectual abilities at this time of my life. Although my mind seems to occasionally take a walk outside on it's own, when it is present with the rest of me it really works well! This is why my wife and I don't talk too much in the evenings. By the time we get home from work we are so brain dead that any remaining brain power is focused on maintaining life supports systems like breathing and keeping our hearts beating.

Most people know that my youngest son attends the seminary and is studying to be a priest. This is a little amusing to me because most of my childhood I wanted to be a priest too and I even attended the seminary for a few years in my youth. I never encouraged my son to do this, at least not with words. When he told me of his desire no one was more surprised than me with the possible exception of his mother. If he stays on track he will be ordained in about 2 1/2 years. He's currently working on his Master's Degree. One of his classes this semester is called "Homiletics". This is a Catholic term for "Learning how to preach". Yesterday he had to preach for the first time in front of his class. The previous evening he sent me a copy of his "sermon". I actually thought it was very good. It was well written and nicely done. You never know what your children will turn out to be. I used to take Nick to wrestling matches to see Hulk Hogan and other wrestling superstars. Then I took him to rock concerts to see bands like Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins. As a teenager he eventually dumped me so he could attend Marilyn Manson and Insane Clown Posse concerts with his friends. I am very happy he did that because I think both of these bands suck. Anyway, you can only do your best as a parent and hope everything turns out OK. You never know what God or life has in store for them. Actually you never know what God or life has in store for you. I wanted to be a priest my entire childhood and now I'm going to be the father of a priest.

I love books. Because of my love of books I am a little sad to hear that Border's Books, one of my favorite stores, has filed for bankruptcy. To make it even worse, they are closing the two stores that I regularly visit. The economy and the proliferation of such things as Amazon's electronic Kindle have been devastating to stores that sell real books. I am old fashioned when it comes to books. I like the look and the smell and the feel of a real book. My house of full of books. There's at least one on every table next to whatever chair I sit in. Right now I have a serious book that I read in the mornings before I come to work and a lighter, easier read for the evenings. Sometimes people ask me things like "How did you get to be so smart"? or "How did you learn to write so well"? The short answer is that I've read hundreds, maybe thousands of books in my lifetime. As one of my favorite musicians, Robert Fripp, once said, "Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy".

I wish I was home reading a book right now.....

How do we get the most out of life? Some people seem to live large and exciting lives and we often envy them. What about us regular folks? I'm talking about salt of the earth type people who get out of bed everyday, get their kids ready for school or the daycare, drop them off, go to work, and then come home to cook dinner and help with homework. I am also talking about people like me who have done all of the above and now find their life much quieter but a little emptier too. I know I sound like a broken record sometimes but I think the answer is relatively simple. The way to happiness is to recognize and enjoy the simple things in life and to always be grateful when something goes your way or something good comes your way. I think gratefulness is the key to happiness. Happiness is not always getting what you want or having everything go your way. I find myself often whispering the words "thank you". Who am I thanking? God, life, karma, and people. If I wake up in the night and realize I have four hours until my alarm goes off, I whisper "thank you" and go back to sleep. If I get a green light when I am in a hurry, or even when I am not, I whisper "thank you". If it snows, or it's sunny and 70 degrees, I whisper "thank you". If another person does something kind or thoughtful for me, I say "thank you". I am also grateful for all the bad stuff that doesn't happen to me. When I see pain and suffering in other people or on the evening news, I whisper "thank you" because it is not happening to me. When I do have pain or suffering I whisper "thank you" and am grateful it is not worse.

Father Matthew Kelty, a monk of Gethsemani, died today at age 95. He was a wonderful monk and inspiration to many. For many years he did poetry readings and talks after the monk's evening prayer called Compline. He touched many lives with his holiness.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Random Thoughts Volune XVIII

Unless you have been living under a rock you have probably heard of Facebook. It's an on-line social network that was originally geared towards young people but now even old people like me are out there. Each person can indicate what they like in terms of products, entertainment, and many other kinds of things. You can also update your "status" so all your friends and connections know what you are doing. You can learn a lot about people by looking at the kinds of things they post on their Facebook page. Whether or not we are on Facebook or not, all of us put "status updates" out on a regular basis. When I come to work in the morning I have a co-worker who can immediately know my status by the look in my eyes. When my wife gets in our car at the end of our workday and sighs it's a pretty good indicator of how her day went. We do this all day with our moods, our body language, and the kinds of things we say, not to mention the way we say them. What is your status today?

We hear many voices in our daily lives. Most of the voices I hear are positive, affirming, encouraging, and loving. The rare voice is negative, critical, and life draining. Unfortunately, the critical and negative voices can seem like a shout while the positive voices are more of a whisper. The voice of God and the voice of love are gentle sounds. Most of the time we may not even hear them because the negative and critical voices can seem so loud even if they are few in number. This is why it is important to be centered and awake so that the ear of our hearts can hear and listen to the gentle voices that remind us that we are loved and that we are good and that we are appreciated. Turn away from the critical and negative voices in your life. Tune your ear and your heart to the voices of those who love you and who build up your life.

"There is no instinct like that of the heart".
-Lord Byron

Although I have a gut type personality who sometimes overreacts to situations, I frequently feel caught in the middle of a tug of war between my head and my heart. My head is the intellectual and analytical part of me. My heart is the intuitive, caring side of me. Sometimes data and facts will point you in one direction but your heart pulls you in another. I must admit that I always lean towards my heart. I trust my heart. It tells me what is right and not just what is correct. I've heard it said that you should always use your head in all decisions that don't involve people and to use your heart in all decisions related to people. Of course this does not always work. Sometimes the right thing to do is also the difficult thing to do and while your head might agree, the decision may break your heart. On the other hand, I have never made a decision with my heart that gave me a headache.

Here's something my granddaughter said to me this past weekend.

"It's not fair that adults have to go to work everyday and kids have to go to school and pets get to stay home. They should have to go to school too so they can learn not to pee and poop all over the house".

My mornings and evenings at home bookend my day. It is during these times that I breathe, read, meditate, relax, and remind myself what is important in life. Everything in between, whether I am in the office, or out and about in the world, is task related and work. Work is work and I expect it to be challenging and occasionally frustrating. When I am not in the workplace doing my employer's work, there is the work of taking care of the demands and needs of my own daily life. Life can seem to be a never ending "to do" list. This is not always bad thing. Much of it is truly necessary. I do try to avoid unnecessary work that is generated by other people's agendas. Tuesday night, however, it was necessary that I go to the grocery because my pantry was very low. Although I am grateful I had money to go buy groceries, I find grocery shopping quite an ordeal. Walking through the aisles, filling your cart, emptying your cart at the checkout, loading all the bags in your car, carrying all the bags into your home, and putting it all away is definitely work. We will never have task free lives. However, the tasks of life, all the "doing", must be counter balanced with some time for "being" when we can breathe, read, meditate, relax, and remind ourselves what's really important in life.

While I was taking my daily walk yesterday I found myself thinking of my Dad. He died two years ago today. The night before he died I was alone with him in his hospital room. His last words to me were "I want to hug you good bye". I leaned down over his bed and we hugged. I could see a tear in his eye. It was a very emotional moment for both of us. He died the next morning just moments before I arrived to visit him again. I miss him more than I thought I would and I realize more and more that he was a good father to me. He had many flaws, as we all do, but time is judging him more kindly. When I think of him I wonder whether or not I am a good father to my children. When we become parents we swear that we won't make the same mistakes as our parents but we usually do along with a few new ones. We didn't know it at the time but when my father in law died in 2003 Chloe was in the womb. Since my father died more great grandchildren have been born. Shakespeare was correct when he said that "All the World's a Stage". In the great drama of life, some characters exit stage left while new characters enter from stage right. The stage is always full but the collection of characters is forever changing.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XVII

In one of my conversations last weekend with my friend Father Dennis I said something like "I don't know if my best self has emerged yet". Father Dennis looked at me and said, "Mike, speaking as a 71 year old, I can tell you that your best self has been showing for years. The best part of getting old is that you make peace with yourself. You accept who you are, warts and all".

After thinking about what he said I believe you have "found yourself" when you can look in the mirror and accept who you are. You can see your own goodness and you can accept that you are not perfect. This gets easier as you get older.

At the moment my mind is blank and I am looking at a blank page. This week my mind has been filled with tasks and numbers and data. There has been little space for anything else. It is difficult to be reflective and introspective when you have an overloaded brain. Deep thoughts require space and room to breathe. This week I have had neither. It is not a good thing. Too often our entire lives are like this. We meet ourselves coming and going. We forget who we are and we appear as a stranger to ourselves. This state should be avoided at all costs. When we're running from task to task and our minds are overwhelmed with thoughts we lose touch with ourselves and we find ourselves simply going through the motions of living. A meaningful life requires balance.

The Dalai Lama says that our enemies are our greatest teachers. I would take that a step further and say that people and situations that drive us crazy are also our greatest teachers. When I am not losing it I try to step backwards and objectively ask myself why this person or that situation upsets me. Sometimes it is just me. I can't control anything except my own reaction. That's where self-knowledge is helpful. When I am thinking clearly I recognize that I sometimes have a tendency to "go off" and overreact. It's imperative that I maintain a sense of calm within myself in order to respond appropriately to what goes on around me and what happens to me.

On her last visit my granddaughter told me that when she wants to talk with me and I am not there, she has a puppet that she pretends is me. I would love to be a fly on the wall and hear those conversations.

Why do so many people hate their jobs? I think it is because of all the drama present in most workplaces. Personally, I prefer my drama at Actor's Theater or in a good film. The famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, creator of the "Hierarchy of Needs" theory, once said that "80% of all work is bullshit". Sometimes, when I think of this quote, I wonder what the workplace would be like if we eliminated all the drama. Now, to be fair, I have to say that sometimes it is the company and it's leaders who create the drama and sometimes it is the employees that do it. All of us are sometimes guilty of creating or sustaining drama. Most days I try to focus on "The Work" but even I sometimes get sucked into the drama of the day. Occasionally I create the drama. Like I said yesterday, I can't control most of what happens but I can control how I respond. Being centered within oneself, remaining calm and not being a slave to your own emotional responses, can go a long way in bringing calm, peaceful, and harmonious environment to your workplace. Our perception of what goes on around us is not always reality. Most of what we hear and see is not what it appears. Much drama is created because of our speculation about our perceived reality.