Check Your Check Book

As I was recording some expenses in my checking program, it occurred to me that a quick writing-check-1239553-1600x1200measure of the quality of a life is how many checkbook entries are classified as gifts, contributions, entertainment, leisure or personal care.

There will come a day when each of us will reach the end of life. That may come suddenly for some with a traffic accident or heart attack. For most of us, it will come calmly, in a bed, somewhere. We will have some time to reflect on our lives.

I doubt that we will count the number of days we stayed at work late, or how often we cleaned our house. We certainly will not lie there joyously reflecting on our superior credit rating. We probably won’t even care what our bank balance is at the moment.

Most of the things we chase in life will be mostly meaningless in the days or hours that precede our death. We know that even now. You know it. I know it. Yet we struggle on chasing those less meaningful things.

What will we think about in those hours when we are too tired to stand up one more time? I think, we will recall our friendships, our lovers, our families. We will relive our vacations and the moments that we stopped to watch the sunset. What we will mourn is that we didn’t spend more time with friends, more time watching sunsets and more time being good to ourselves and others.

Isn’t that why so many people give away money and possessions nearing the end of life? It’s their last chance to make someone else happy.

I once knew a man who was dying. His wife had made his favorite dinner: spaghetti. He had little appetite yet he devoured a huge plate of spaghetti. I remember thinking. This may be the last time he eats his favorite meal. It was.

For each of us, our day is coming.

grim-reaper-1214596

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less than helpful advice

lake-michigan-sunset-1553019Spend some time imagining your death. Think about what it will be like to know that you have only days or hours left. Really get into it. Feel everything that comes up while you imagine this.

Then do something now that you will wish you had done. Repeat as necessary.

 

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Knee High by the 4rth of July

I always have this sense of “oh crap” on the 4rth of July because, for some reason, it means corn-field-3-1368922-1600x1200that summer is half over. That, of course, is nonsense. The Summer Solstice was June 20 and the Fall Equinox will be September 22. That means summer is ninety-five days. We are at day 15.

Perhaps my sense of doom derives from the perspective of a child. Summer in those days was measured not by celestial events but by the start and end of school, roughly the second week of June to the middle of August. July 4th was about the halfway point of that period.

Farmers used to see July 4rth as a growth marker for corn. “Knee high by the 4rth of July” was an expectation. Today, corn is way higher than that by the 4rth.

On this day, the common thing many of us will do is to stand, like children, watching the darkness above as fireworks burst before us, dazzling our vision. It never seems to get tiresome.

We commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the war of independence that followed. The men and women of the colonies put everything on the line for us. Thomas Jefferson’s words ring out.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are thomas-jefferson-3-1421198-1599x2632endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I have read that these words have no antecedent in previous philosophies. They were original to the Declaration of Independence. They expressed a novel idea, a radical idea. A country was never before founded on such an idea. It denied thousands of years of history. It said there is no privileged class; there is no one better than anyone else. There is no one who deserves more than anyone else, or less.

 

It is an ideal that we are far from realizing even today. Yet, it is the foundation of our social and political values.

Exploding colorful fireworks against a night sky reflected in water

We celebrate today, not a piece of paper, not a war; we celebrate an idea. That idea is as explosive and awe inspiring as the fireworks we employ in its remembrance.

 

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Can Apples be Awesome?

I know you have heard, even said, such things as:APPLE ALONE

“I bought some awesome apples today.”

“I just saw an awesome movie.”

It is not that an apple or a movie could never be awesome. It is that I do not think the speaker really means what they are saying. Sometimes I ask “what was awesome about the apples or the movie?” Usually, I get a blank stare or a fumbling response because the speaker does not know what he or she means. The word “awesome” was a space filler, an automatic word choice, jargon. An apple from a store may be tasty, pretty, but not awesome. Many movies are fun, scary, sad, but only a few movies qualify as awesome.

When we use word as fillers to describe our experiences or respond to others, we drain the vitality form our experiences. We nullify our feelings, our tastes, our reactions. We deny others any insight into who we are.

“But the word awesome has meaning,” you may reply. That is true. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “awesome” as “inspiring awe,” an “intense feeling of wonder, respect, or fear.”

Here are some awesome apples:

APPLES ON TREE

 

 

Apples that inspire wonder at the miracle of nature.

 

An example of a movie that inspires awe in me is “Apollo 13,” with Tom Hanks. I’ve watched it ten times. It inspires wonder in me about the technology. I experience fear for how dangerous the situation was and a deep sense of empathy for the families of the three men whose lives are at risk. I am left with admiration for the astronauts and people at NASA who got them home safely. I am truly in awe of these people. What movie inspires awe in you?

A mountain is awesome, as is a sunset, or a masterful song or poem. They inspire us. When we use words such as “awesome” for ordinary things, we rob the word of its power.

When we use words that do not accurately describe our experience, we mute our feelings and our thoughts. We become indistinct and vague. We cheat ourselves and our listener out of the depth of our inner world.  Perhaps even more damaging to us is that we may not fully experience our experiences because we never reflect on how to describe them.

sunset-1384221-1600x1200The Merriam-Webster dictionary includes more than 70,000 words. They are the colors of our mental and emotional palette. The average person uses about 2500 of them. That’s like painting a sunset using only two colors.

A Different Perspective

Think about the words you use every day, the ones you use without thinking. Resolve to use more meaningful words to give you and your experiences more flavor.

The richer you are in your command of words, the richer your experiences will become and the richer others will be for listening to you. You will have new respect for yourself and bewilder your comrades with your erudition.

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Planning Ahead: Does it Reduce or Increase Worry?

The Hardship of Accounting
Never ask of money spent
Where the spender thinks it went.
Nobody was ever meant
To remember or invent
What he did with every cent.
-Robert Frost

Recently I caught some interest in attending a three day seminar in June. Cost was $550. I diligently started projecting my expenses in June to see if I could afford this additional outlay. That is when my anxiety started. For those that are self-employed, June can be an expensive month.

This set off an internal conflict. I really want to do this seminar, but what if I can’t cover all my business costs in June? I dumped some wet tea leaves on my kitchen counter to see if I could read the future. All I got was a tea stain on my counter.

Planning ahead makes sense especially where money is concerned. I think that is an axiom of the universe, like the speed of light being a constant.

Isn’t it amazing though how often planning ahead leads to worry that leads to anxiety that leads to endless thinking and re-thinking?

If planning ahead really reduces your worry about something, by all means, plan on. Sometimes it is better to take another route: following your gut instinct. My gut says this seminar will be interesting, useful, and might actually help my clients and lead to new clients. It also sounds like fun.

I realize that, to a worrier, I am suggesting the unthinkable. What if I sign up for the seminar and let the chips fall where they may? What if I have a little blind faith that I’ll get through the month of June, and I will be happy that I took the seminar.

What if I decided to accept the optimistic side of “what if” and assume that things will go right rather than wrong.

Less Than Helpful Advice

Sometimes you gotta just roll the dice.

 

 

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Our Collections

I write, play the violin, make soup, dance.  I have a wine I like, some porcelain statues, a bunch of neckties, two cats.  I could go on. These are all shards of the mosaic called “ME.”

Some people collect stuff, cars, houses, gadgets, bottle caps, old magazines. Other people collect things they do, things they like, yoga positions, ideas, places, foods, more shards in their mosaic. It is not about how much we collect but about keeping our mosaic complete, no gaps.

Whenever there is a gap, we tend to run out and find something to fill it.

If only we could hold onto all the shards, all the time, our mosaic would be solid and we could feel successful, complete, full, at peace, lovable, likable, wanted, whole.

We have two hands, two eyes, two ears and one mouth, and just so much time. We use our hands to grasp, our eyes to watch out, our ears to be vigilant, and our mouth to tell others about our mosaic. We are  never enough.

We collect from birth and worry what will happen to our shards when we die. It is exhausting but to let a shard go is like cutting off a finger. Our shards are us. We grasp, desperate to hold the mosaic together.

In the end, we are two hands, two eyes, two ears, one mouth, one heart and our tears. We look in the mirror at a wrinkled face and think of what we collected. We wish we could slip quietly back to where it all started because next time we will do a better job collecting.

Less than helpful advice

Celebrate your gaps.

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Silent Night by Christmas.

That was the goal I set when I started violin lessons in September: be able to play Silent Night by Christmas. The Christmas season arrived and Silent Night was there, still shaky, but hopeful. I had to make good on my promise; I had to play it for an audience, worse, the audience would be my friends and family.

My playing skills come and go. One day Silent Night sounds good and the next, not even close. I thought about making excuses for myself and backing out. I’m not ready. I’ll play it next year. I have this rule. When in doubt about a decision, do the thing that requires the most growth.

The problem in all growth is our self-image. I am not a musician. Even saying “I play the violin” is a stretch. I say “I take violin lessons.” Our self-image tells us who we think we are. When we step outside our self-image, we are uncomfortable. That is what keeps us from growing. We want to be comfortable. We do not think in these terms but we want our self-image to be change before we take that first uncomfortable step. Unfortunately, it rarely works that way.

A week before Christmas I told my friends I would play for them. That way I was committed. I arrived with my instrument.

Nothing I could tell myself calmed my nerves. No amount of deep breathing slowed my heart beat. As I picked up the instrument and stood before my friends, I did not get suddenly calm; no great moment of insight rescued me.

Thinking the song in my head, as my music teacher advised, I bowed the first note, then the second and the third. I wish I could say I got lost in the performance; I didn’t. I heard every flat note and every time the bow scratched a bit. I flubbed a phrase but pushed on. Finally. the last note came and my friends applauded. I took a deep breath and resisted apologizing for my mistakes.

That was the first of three Christmas occasions when I played Silent Night for friends and family. Each time, I was as nervous. Each time, I was glad I did it and glad it was over. I feel a little more like a musician now. I can say with a little greater sense of reality: “I play the violin.”

Plain and Simple Advice

We make our road by walking. What new road will you walk down this year?

 

 

 

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A Christmas Carol, 2015

We see them almost every day. They are sitting or walking on the street as if they have nowhere to go and nothing better to do. We look past them and go on our way. If they would only stop asking us for money. Can’t they get a job? Are they lazy? If I give them money won’t they just buy booze? It’s Christmas; can’t the police keep these people off the streets? Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?

In the mid 19th century, Christmas was a holiday when the well-to-do gave to the poor. When Ebenezer Scrooge turns away the men who ask him to donate to the poor, we see him as being stingy. In Charles Dicken’s day, his offense would be viewed as much worse. It was the duty of the rich to help the poor at Christmas time. Scrooge would have been seen as shirking his civic responsibility. Rather like finding out that your neighbor with his huge home and luxury cars is cheating on his income taxes.

I do not remember a time in my life when the poor and homeless have been so visible and so invisible. We have used a poor economy and fiscal restraint as an excuse to cut programs that address poverty and homelessness.

I do not wish to sound self-righteous. When a man or woman asks me for money, on the street, I get annoyed sometimes. This summer I was eating lunch in an outdoor venue when such a man approached and asked me for money so he could buy insulin. He tried to show me a paper to prove he was a diabetic. I was annoyed. Can’t they even leave me alone when I am eating lunch? I was grateful when a policeman segwayed by and shooed the man away.

If I am feeling generous, I give a street person money; sometimes not. Dickens tells us of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“The cold within him froze his own features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”

I have many excuses for those moments when my heart turns cold and the Scrooge in me comes out. I am not rich. I work for my money. There are jobs if you want one. Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?

There is always the nagging idea that I am being conned; the woman with the child in tow, who asks me for train fare. Is this even her child? Good gimmick I think; nothing like a child to make me reach into my wallet. ARE THERE NO PRISONS? ARE THERE NO WORK HOUSES?

I know that many homeless people are mentally ill. I wonder sometimes where they go today for help. Many others have been out of the workforce for so long they are highly unlikely to get a job even if they could marshal the resources to apply. So far I have not taken these thoughts seriously.

The man whose birth we are about to celebrate with abundant food and gifts said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another.” (John 13:34).

My Christmas Wish

There is a Scrooge in all of us. That is why A Christmas Carol has always been Dicken’s most beloved novel. In the end, Scrooge is redeemed; the greed is lifted from his heart.

“I don’t know what to do,” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy.”

Pray it shall be so with all of us.

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