Monday, December 31, 2012

Wanted: A Hero

"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What makes someone a "hero"?

That question floated into my head this afternoon, and has been peskily bobbing around my mind until I finally sat down and decided to give it some thought.  Not what I would've planned to write about for my final blog of the year, but it seemed timely... more on that, perhaps, later.

Contrary to what we learn as little kids, watching the Saturday cartoons, heroes don't come from another planet.  They don't wear really cool costumes, or carry fancy weapons or tool belts, or have super secret hideouts.  They aren't summoned by special "Bat-phones", beacons, whistles, or calls.

The heroes in the real world, yesterday, today, and always, have been real people.  Just like you and I.  No better, no worse.  Perhaps indistinguishable from all the rest of us, until that one moment.  The moment when darkness descends.  When someone's suffering is seen.  When hope and endurance seem to fade.   When the moment calls for action.

In moments like this, big and small, heroes appear in our lives.  And what makes them heroic is their willingness to express four timeless characteristics; to be willing to "be" these things in the moment of crisis, instead of "being themselves".

1.  A Hero is Bold.

"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for." (William G.T. Shedd)

  • They act when others hesitate.  They step forward instead of stepping back.  They say "I can" or "I'll try" instead of "I can't" or "Don't ask me".  A hero grabs your hand and says "Follow me", instead of whispering "I'll go, if you go".
2.  A Hero is Courageous.

"One man with courage makes a majority." (Andrew Jackson)
  • They aren't afraid to act alone.  They're willing, in the moment that it's needed, to stand for what they know is true, despite the odds, and not knowing their chances of success.  They act despite the fact that they themselves are scared in that moment too.  But they decide that there's something more important to them in that moment than what fear is offering them.  
3.  A Hero is Determined.

"...Hold on; hold fast; hold out.  Patience is genius." (Georges Louis LeClerc)
  • They persist.  They are patient.  They have stamina.  They are optimistic and are willing do whatever it takes to accomplish their goal.  They don't take "No" for an answer.  Their faith is not something that is a belief; a wish.  It is a true understanding, born of the humble knowing that there is something greater than them that they're willing to serve.
4.  A Hero is Altruistic

"A fellow who does things that count, doesn't usually stop to count them." (Albert Einstein)
  • In being willing to do all of the above, the hero agrees to make a sacrifice; to do what's best for another before doing what's best for themselves.  They are generous.  They are kind.  They give their best without seeking reward or recognition, usually saying "You would have done the same for me".
Some say the world today needs more heroes.  But that leaves the world wondering where they'll come from; merely hoping one might magically appear.  And being disappointed when they don't.

I say the world needs more people to act heroically.  To find the small moments, as well as in crises, to be the expression of one of these characteristics.  It doesn't take any great strength or ability.  It doesn't require a thought or a plan.  It simply requires a single act.  Stepping towards someone instead of away.  Remembering that we are one, not separate.  A hero isn't something you become; it's something you do.  It's something anyone can do.

So why am I thinking so much about heroes today?  Well, today I needed a hero.  I faced an unknown pain today and needed help.  For once, the one who thought he was strong and the protector needed strength and assistance.  And lucky for him, a hero stepped forward.
  • Someone who acted boldly and said "I'll take you wherever you need to go."
  • Someone who was courageous; who time and again did what needed to be done despite being scared
  • Someone who was determined; a real warrior in pushing on until an answer was found.
  • Someone who made a sacrifice, saying "You do the same for me all the time"
Who was my hero?

My hero today
I'm lucky to be married to a super woman.

Thank you, Sweetie.  Thank you for helping me and being both my "help-mate" as well as my soulmate.  You are my greatest Pearl.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Five Books That Surprised Me

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." (Stephen King)

Earlier in the year, I wrote an entry called "Five Books That Taught Me", and I always meant to write a follow-up to that entry.  As I said then, I've always loved to read - a love fostered by my parent's love of reading and the large library of books they've collected over the years.

I read and read as a boy.  I remember reading classics like The Red Badge of Courage, The Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, all of Sherlock Holmes' mysteries, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  I even lost my first job as a teenager due to reading!  When I was 16, I was hired to work at a local plant nursery.  I had to ride my bike 4 miles to get there and the work was wet and dirty; I didn't like it.  So, for a week, I left home with my lunch, pedaled until I got to a big fir tree a half mile from home, and then sat there underneath the tree all day, reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (yes, I was that kind of a nerd!).  I wasn't happy with getting fired for not showing up (especially because it disappointed my mother a lot!), but I did enjoy myself reading.

So today I thought I'd write about books I've read that surprised me.  These books were unexpected "jewels":  ones I had no idea I'd enjoy as much as I did.  Ones that made an impression on me.  Here we go!

1.  Seabiscuit:  An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

  • This book came out in 2001, and friends recommended it to me, but I avoided reading it thinking, "What's exciting about a horse story?".  Boy, was I wrong!  Ms. Hillenbrand's breakthrough book is actually the story of 4 individuals whose lives intersect during the Great Depression in the United States:  Charles Howard, a California millionaire determined to make West Coast horse racing a big attraction; Red Pollard, the hard luck jockey that Howard hires to ride for him; Tom Smith, the laconic trainer whose unorthodox techniques prove so effective, and a horse that everyone thought was too small and destined to be a loser.  Together in 1937-38, these underdogs thrilled millions of Americans with their comeback victories, both on the track and off.  Hillenbrand's account of Seabiscuit's legendary victory over War Admiral in a match race on November 1, 1938 is spine-tingling!  I was introduced to a piece of American history that I had never heard of before, and I've rarely read something so inspiring.  It was the first book I recommended to Deborah, and she loved it too!
2.  Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • I don't remember why I picked this book up in 2007 or 2008.  I'm not usually one who would read a "chick book" (though my wife does say I'm a "sensitive kind of guy"!), but I'm glad I read this one.  Gilbert tells her story of self discovery after her divorce and the deep depression she fell into afterwards.  She travels to three countries - Italy, India, and Indonesia - and in each places renews and refreshes a different part of herself through immersing herself in the colorful cultures there.  In Italy, she revels in all things physical:  food, drink, and "La Dolce Vita";  In India, she visits an Indian ashram for 3 months, and explores her spiritual self; In Indonesia on the island of Bali, she learns to find a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence - and even falls in love, again.  Her account of her experiences was funny, thoughtful, and poignant.  I'll never forget her portrayal of Depression and Loneliness as two "detectives":  a "good cop, bad cop" team that trail her in Italy.  She wrote:  "Then they frisk me.  They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there.  Depression even confiscates my identity...Then Loneliness starts interrogating me.  He asks me why I am all by myself tonight, yet again...why I can't get my act together...asks where I think I'll end up in my old age...I try to shake these two goons, but they keep following me....I don't want to let them in, but I know Depression has a billy club, so there's no stopping him..."  A powerful and talented writer!
3.  River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

  • I read this this past summer.  I hadn't ever read anything about Theodore Roosevelt, but I thought I knew all there was to know about him, having taught about him in my U.S. History classes for years.  Ms. Millard's book, though, told the riveting story of a trip Roosevelt took in 1913-14 into central Brazil after his failed attempt to be re-elected President in 1912.  Roosevelt wanted to restore his confidence through the challenge of mapping an uncharted river, the Rio da Duvida ("River of Doubt"), with his son Kermit, and the famous Brazillian explorer Candido Rondon.  The expedition endures a number of setbacks and challenges - some are surprises, some because of human error - and Roosevelt almost dies!  There is murder and intrigue, and in the end, when Roosevelt returns home, some even doubted his discovery!  This book, like Seabiscuit, surprised me because it taught me about a piece of history that I had never known before.
4.  Lucky Man: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox

  • This book surprised me because I've never been much for reading biographies or memoirs, especially of Hollywood types.  So again, I'm not sure why I picked this up this past August.  But Fox proved to be a thoughtful and honest writer.  He tells the story of his life growing up in Canada, moving to Hollywood to pursue his dream of being an actor, reaching the pinnacle of fame at 30, only to discover that he had Parkinson's disease:  an incurable, degenerative disease that ultimately changed his life.  I enjoyed how funny and honest, and at times, self-deprecating, Fox was about his fame and his life and his own vices.  I agree wholeheartedly with what one reviewer said about this book:  This readable, witty autobiography reminds you why it was generally a pleasure to watch Fox onscreen: he's a nice guy with an edge, and you don't have to feel embarrassed about" liking him."   I especially liked the credit that Fox gives to his family, especially his wife, for helping him face the challenges he now faces, and for helping him grow.  He is indeed a "lucky man".
5.  Wild:  From Lost To Found on The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

  • I think this book was like Eat, Pray, Love to me:  recommended by Oprah, a story written by a woman traveling after a devastating loss (in Strayed's case, the death of her mother), looking to find herself.  Why would I want to read that kind of story again?  But I enjoyed it!  Strayed's memoir of her 1100 mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail was engaging just in the fact that I couldn't imagine a woman doing this all by herself:  especially a woman who had NEVER hiked in her life!  Strayed vividly, humorously, and honestly recounts all of her challenges (her 80+ pound backpack she nicknames "Monster"), her joys, the pleasures and terrors of her journey, and all that she discovers.  She faces down rattlesnakes, black bears; she survives losing her shoes; endures intense desert heat and record snowfalls; meets and makes friends along the trail, and survives scary encounters with unsavory men.  I enjoyed the fact that even though I haven't ever hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I recognized many of the places she described (especially her stay for a few days in Ashland, just down the road!).  Deborah and I both loved this book, and hope to hike a part of this famed trail (just for a day!), inspired by Strayed's book.
Five books that surprised me.  I keep hoping I'll find another Pearl like these!

"The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Lunch Date

"We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink." (Epicurus)

I thought I'd try a new type of entry today.  I was reading a book on blogging last week, (tips on what to write and how to attract an audience, etc.) and it suggested that you come up with a couple of ideas for regular, recurring entries you write.  This way you'd have something to fall back on when you want to write something, but all you do is stare at the blank page (happens to me a lot!)

This is inspired by something I saw on a blog I follow, written by a young chef, called "Eat, Live, Run".  Occasionally she writes what she calls "Virtual Coffee Dates":  entries where she chats, as if you and her were sitting, having coffee together - shooting the breeze. (Here's a link to her blog, if you're interested)

"Eat, Live, Run - Celebrating Life One Crumb At a Time"

I'm calling this "A Lunch Date".  I'm not much of a coffee date kind of guy (I think that's more a female thing?).  But I could see myself inviting you over to lunch.  I'd fix us something, and while I'm bustling around the kitchen, we'd talk, and then continue over a nice lunch.  Lunch dates seem like such a luxury to me after 30 years of rushing through lunches at school!  Throw in the fact that I love to cook, and there you go - a perfect chance to visit!  Plus it'll give me a chance to write from a different perspective - more conversational, more informal.

So let's start!  First, what are we having for lunch?  It's a cold, gray day today, so I'm fixing a classic lunch - a favorite of just about every "red blooded American".  Grilled cheese sandwiches and vegetable soup!

Hmmm, hmmm...good!
What would we talk about while I'm stirring the soup and slicing the bread, and then sitting down to eat?
Let's see...
  • "How was your Christmas?"  I had a very nice - very different kind of Christmas than usual.  Christmas has usually meant a big family gathering at my parents' house in Scholls ("The Ranch").  A long drive there and back for me and Deborah; tons of siblings and offspring; lots of tradition; loud and boisterous; something we've been doing for almost 50 years.  But this year Deborah and I couldn't go.  So we had a quiet, simple Christmas Eve to ourselves.  We went out to dinner; we saw a movie.  We came home and opened our presents for each other in our "jammies".  It was a very intimate and warm celebration.  I enjoyed it!  For once, it felt like "my" Christmas - not a "Schnorenberg" Christmas.  Sooner or later, Christmas at the Ranch will come to an end when my parents pass.  Learning how to enjoy the day in a new way was refreshing.
  • "Get any good gifts?"  Oh yeah!  My wife spoiled me!  She gave me the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD! I've been a giddy little boy for the last two days, playing with this magical device!  Surf the Web, play games, watch videos, check email, play music.  The only thing I haven't really done yet?  Read a book on it!  But the Fire wasn't my favorite gift.  The gift that she gave me that touched my heart (made me cry) was a pretty glass jar with a cork top that she called a "Year's Reflection Jar".  Along with the jar, she gave me some nice note paper.  Over the next 365 days, she invited me (and her) to write down anything that makes us happy or inspires us, and then stick it in the jar.  Next Christmas, we'll empty the jar and read to each other all that we remembered.  What a wonderful, touching idea!  Perfect for the "sentimental historian" that I am!  I love how she knows me so well!
  • "You're still looking pretty good!"  Yeah, but I've put on a few pounds this last month:  not enough exercising as it got colder (and I got busier at school), and enjoying a few more treats.  Bad combination.  Here's something that bugs me.  Why is putting on 5 pounds so effortless??  I don't even notice doing it.  But losing those same 5 pounds?  Definitely takes blood, sweat, and tears!  Something about "nature's math" just doesn't add up here! (especially as I've "aged")  Oh well, I'm back at the gym - working at regaining my "schoolboy" figure.  
I'm not quite as "perfect" as Calvin!
  • Go see the movie "Life of Pi"!  Deborah and I loved it!  We both read the book a few years ago.  It was amazing seeing this story of an Indian boy shipwrecked at sea, alone in a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker come to life!  It was uplifting; it was inspiring and spiritual.  The cinematography took you to a whole new world.  And the ending left us chattering all the way home!

I love this quote from the book...don't know if I remember it from the movie.

"The world isn't just the way it is.  It's how we understand it, no?  And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?  Doesn't that make life a story?" (Yann Martel)

Time to clear away the dishes...what will we have for dessert?  My favorite cookie, Snickerdoodles, and tea.

And as we ate our buttery, cinnamony, crinkly cookies and sipped our tea, I would probably tell you how much I enjoy having another week off before heading back to school.  I love puttering around the house, and taking care of my wife (since she has to work still most days)

But I know when the New Year begins, and it's officially 2013, the fact that I'll be retiring in 6 months will become more real and concrete than it has been so far.    And that will be both exciting and uncomfortable.  I'm excited about what that means:  all the new possibilities, new changes in my life, etc.  But I know there'll also be some discomfort and worries:  What will the future bring?  What do I do now after having done something else for 30 years?

But that's life.  I read this quote and liked it.

"Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow, and reach new heights." (Pauline Kezer)

I'm ready to sprout a few new branches.  That'll be something to write about in the future.

Thanks for coming over!  No, don't worry about the dishes - I got 'em!  Look forward to our next lunch date!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Twenty Six Eternal Candles

"What good is the warmth of the summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?" (John Steinbeck)

Today is the Winter Solstice; the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Slowly, the light has been retreating and darkness advancing, as winter has once again enveloped the world.

And darkness has come this year in more than just a figurative and seasonal sense.  Our country...I...have been in shock and mourning over a tragedy at a small school in Connecticut a week ago.  Evil, dark and full of itself came, and 26 bright lights:  young and innocent, loving and dedicated - were snuffed out.  Coldly.  Suddenly.  Gone.

A season, normally filled with light and joy at this time - a remembrance of birth, now seemed empty.  Cold.  Lifeless. Dark.

But then I remembered this quote from Mahatma Gandhi.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.” 

And it led me to think about all that I know is still good about this world.  Those things that fill my world with beauty; with a sense of wonder, gratitude, magic, and most importantly, love.

Here are 26 of those things; one for each of the bright lights doused.

1.  Sunsets at the ocean's edge.  Proof of the magical effects of God's palette on one's soul.
2.  Our choir at the Life of Learning.  Their music and spirit always lifts me.
3.  Izzy's "Welcome Home!":  Jumping, wagging her tail, our chihuhua's love is wonderfully irrepressible.
4.  Hot soup on a chilly night.  Food for the body, the soul, and the heart...all in one.
5.  Walking in a wet forest.  A quiet pilgrimage among the pines.  There's no better cathedral.
6.  The touch of my wife's hand.  Warm. Strong. Tender. Loving. Sweet.  A gentle reminder that I'm never alone - anymore.
7.  The view from Cape Perpetua on a clear day.  Guaranteed to take your breath away.
8.  A visit from an ex-student.  Always a surprise.  "I just wanted to say Hi", they say.  But deep down, they're really saying, "Thank you for helping me".
9.  The first snow falling.  Silently and gracefully.  A divine blanket that softens and stills the world.
10.  Bright and positive people.  Like my doctor, Heather Kahn.  Compassion and enthusiasm spills out of her - as healing as her advice and skills.
11.  My wife's laugh.  It tickles me; it warms me; its echoes are like sunshine for my heart.
12.  Raindrops on the roof at night.  Gently soothing.  Whispering "All's well.  Close your eyes.  Tomorrow will be fresh and new".
13.  Time spent with my brother Dave.  All too rare.  In him I see so much that is good; as a parent; as a man willing to serve his country; as a friend.  Courage and strength.  Honor and humor.
14.  Fires in a fireplace.  Comfort for my chilly toes;  the flames are always warm and welcoming friends (and they don't mind me fussing over them!)
15.  A mother's love.  I'm twice blessed.  By my own mother's eternal love, sent in her letters; and by witnessing my wife's love for her son, through all the challenges they've shared.  In both cases, the power of such love is breathtaking.
16.  Summer twilight on the hills.  "Golden Time".  Further proof that God's artistry is year round.
17.  Being taught by a good teacher.  One who challenges and inspires.  I'm grateful to have found one in Guy Finley.
18.  People who volunteer.  Like the two little boys who helped me pick up litter in my hallway yesterday.  People who say "Yes" when asked, not "No"; or who just help, without being asked.  Rare jewels.
19.  Michael Buble.  Voices like his have got to be gifts from angels.
20.  My wife in a LBD ('little black dress") and pumps.  Guaranteed to ALWAYS make me stop.  And look. And smile.  Can't help it.  And think, "What a lucky guy I am to be married to her!"
21.  Morning glories.  I love their enthusiasm in the morning.  Wish I could wake and be so bright, so early!
22.  Good neighbors.  Like Dennis and Carol.  Always generous.  Always friendly.  Lucky to know them.
23.  Chocolate cake.  You may think this one is silly, but if you've ever had a bite of a really good piece of dark chocolate cake; moist; rich, smothered in chocolate frosting - you KNOW you've tasted heaven!
24.  People who make the extra effort.  Like my newspaper guy.  Drives up and places my paper next to my garage during the winter when he could easily just chuck it at the end of the driveway.  His thoughtfulness is a nice start to my day.
25.  "I'm sorry.  I made a mistake.  How can I make this right?"  Perhaps the 12 most powerful words in the world.  Saying them myself, or hearing them, has always been redeeming.
26.  My wife's love.  Eternal and ever growing.  Nothing has changed me, or made me a better, stronger, more honest man, more than this.

Why did I write this list?  I guess I did it to remind myself that darkness can never extinguish the Light.  It's impossible.  What's light, bright, and true cannot be dismissed by what is dark.  If ever I believe that's the case, it's because I've forgotten where to look for the Light.  Or I've neglected to act as a reflection of that Light.  

"We are the world we live in. And for every measure of Light we agree to be (embrace, act out, etc.) that is one less measure of darkness that can impress itself into our collective Soul." 
(Guy Finley)

So, on this dark and stormy night, I'm reminded of a timeless Truth.  The birth of something innocent and pure, strong and loving, didn't just happen in a manger outside of Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

It can happen with me.  Today.  If I will remember and act.  To be humble.  Grateful.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Patient.  Loving.

And it can't be vanquished.  Ever.

That's a Christmas Pearl worth remembering.

Buon Natale!  Hyvaa Joulua!  Frohe Weihnachten! 
(and a Merry Christmas to you all, God bless us, everyone!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lighting The Way

"Someday perhaps the inner light will shine forth from us, and then we'll need no other light." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I'll tell you a little secret; nothing dark and devious, but something few people know about me.  I was once a Catholic altar boy, and one of the jobs I took most seriously then was lighting the candles before Mass.  Carefully igniting each of the tall white candles on and near the altar was a very sacred duty to me.  I was bringing light and warmth into the church, and believed that with that light also came God....very serious stuff to think about when you're 12!

And to this day, I'm still the little altar boy around our house during the winter:  lighting candles in all rooms, happiest when there is a glow and warmth in the room; gently blowing them all out when we head to bed.

I'm drawn to light, just as I think we all are.  We like light when it warms and comforts us.  But what about the times when the light glares and reveals something we don't really want to see?  Ahhh... that seems different.

These thoughts have been inspired by the latest book I'm reading, Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.  This novel describes a sad and mostly forgotten tragedy during the Holocaust of World War Two, when the French police rounded up 1000's of French Jews and brutally shipped them to Nazi extermination camps.  The climatic event in this deportation was known as the "Vel d'Hiv Roundup", in which 13,000 Jews were taken to a bicycle stadium near Paris before being shipped to Auschwitz.  It is an event that few Frenchmen wanted to remember, ashamed that the government had aided the Nazis 70 years ago.

The story brought back a very vivid memory from a trip I made to France 8 years ago.  While in Paris with a tour group, our guide took us to a small, seemingly unremarkable park near Notre Dame to visit the "Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation".  It was an underground memorial built to commemorate the 200,000 French men, women, children (mostly Jews) who were deported to Nazi camps during World War Two who never returned.  

As I approached the memorial I remember thinking when I saw the flat gray concrete structure, "This isn't much.  Why would anyone want to see this?".  But then we descended down a staircase, taking us below the Seine River.  The staircase became narrower and narrower, forcing us into a single file.  When we reached the bottom, we could no longer see most of the sky.  We then entered a small door that took us further down into a small, dark room.  Our guide whispered to us that the architect had deliberately engineered this to give visitors a feeling of claustrophobia, and impending darkness, just as those who had been taken away must've felt.

As we entered the small dark room we saw an eternal flame burning in the center of the room.  Inscribed in brass around the flame was the somber message:

"They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return."

Inscribed in the cold walls around us were the names of the camps which were the victims' final destinations.

We were hushed and sad at what we were seeing and feeling.  And then we saw the highlight of the memorial - a sight I'll never forget.

In that tiny dark room, a beautiful corridor stretched away from us.  Lining its narrow walls were 200,000 crystals - one for each of the victims - back lit to reveal a heavenly glow - all leading towards a single light.  A nearby inscription read:

"Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps.  Forgive, but never forget."

I have been in many churches and cathedrals, but I've never felt a place more sacred and holy than this.

I think it was the light.  The architect's use of the light to both reveal that which was tragic and horrible, and yet at the same time commemorate and celebrate its triumph over darkness.

I want to remember to always welcome the Light and to remember that it's always present, even on a dark day.  A dark day can be a rainy and cold December afternoon, or it can simply be a day when I'm feeling stressed and filled with anxious thoughts.  It seems so easy at times to go down that narrow staircase, just as I did that June afternoon in Paris, and feel like all that is bright is gone.  The walls of "I've got too much to do! and "What's going to happen next?" can be just as claustrophopic as the gray walls at the Deportation Memorial.

But the light is always there.  Sometimes to warm and comfort us.  Sometimes to show us when we've taken a wrong turn, and to beckon us back.  I think that's why I also love lighthouses.  They remind me of that.

Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of my favorites!

And I want to remember one more thing as the holiday season approaches.

"There are two ways of spreading light:  to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."  (Edith Wharton)

The best gift I can give anyone this season is a little more patience; a little more attention; a little more compassion; and to be willing to reflect a little more light.  Those are the Pearls that can make a change in my world.

I guess the world still needs a few more altar boys (and even altar girls!)

Friday, October 26, 2012

I Love The Fall

"Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn." (Elizabeth Lawrence)

The neighbor's trees on Crown Street above our house
I've occasionally written about the seasons here...haikus and random musings.  But I was surprised to discover that I had never written anything about fall!  Winter, spring, and summer had all drawn my writer's eye towards their wonders, but not autumn?  Autumn has always been my most favorite time of the year, especially as I've gotten older.

I love the fall, so let me turn my attention to my seasonal sweetheart and explore all that makes it special to me.

The "Jon" maple in my parents' back yard


The trees all aglow in rich reds, glowing golds, and opulent oranges.  Every tree is a Roman candle, bright and warm...each a fall firecracker, their leaves an explosion of color....The hills around my home are a rolling checkerboard of green and orange - pines and oaks scrambling to outshine each other....  The golden carpet that our birch tree lays down on our backyard each year for me to rake up...fog gently wrapping itself around my world on a Saturday morning and whispering "Stay inside - it's cold out here!"...A shy green acorn squash, flashing an orange underside to me, like some saucy Parisian mademoiselle.


Leaves crackling and crunching under my feet...raindrops pitter-pattering on my roof, dancing a jig on their way to the ground...the roar of a crowd at a Friday night high school football game, erupting as the home team scores...The skritch-skratch of my rake as the two of us round up a rambunctious herd of leaves into a meek mountain...

Our backyard in October

Smoke lazily tickling my nose...from the neighbor's chimney...from the burn pile in the field of my parents' home on Oktoberfest...Cinnamon and spice...from buns baking and candles flickering...tomato and herbs bubbling in a soup pot, stirred by my wife, welcoming me home with an aromatic embrace...The scent of the first raindrops...I bet you didn't know that "wet" and "green" had a unique smell!  It does in Oregon....The endearing elixir called "A Home at Thanksgiving"...roast turkey and pumpkin pie...cranberries and rolls...sage and spice...all rolled together, which spells "love"...

"Delicious autumn!  My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the Earth seeking the successive autumns." (George Eliot)

So before the world puts on its grim grays and wooly whites of winter, I hope you get outside and enjoy the fall, wherever you live.  You wouldn't want to miss the party! (this poem made me laugh, and reminded me of my Mom!)

October's Party (George Cooper)

October gave a party
The leaves by hundreds came-
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand.
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Beauty Is In The Heart

"In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty" (Christopher Morley)

To begin with today, before you read any further, I have an assignment for you. "Rats!", I hear you mumble under your breath.  "I just sat down!  I hate homework!  What kind of rotten blog-ographer are you?  I just wanted to read something light and funny while I sipped my coffee!"... 

Please continue on.  It'll be worth it.  I promise - it won't hurt.

Click on this link below and watch the entire video to the end.  It'll be good for you.  Trust me.

A Surprise Celebration in Sabadell, Spain

Did you watch it?  Good!  I told you you'd like it!  I did too the first time I saw it this summer, and it's stuck with me ever since.

Sabadell, Spain is a city of 207,721 people in NE Spain - about 12 miles from Barcelona.  On May 19, 2012, a banking organization organized this flash mob performance in homage of the city (and the bank's 130th anniversary!).  The city's orchestra and choirs all agreed to perform Beethoven's final movement to his 9th Symphony, known as his "Ode To Joy".

The whole performance was stunning and inspiring - the music was bright and lifted my heart - and I'm sure it did the same for you.  Which led me to ponder this inescapable question:

How is it that Beauty seems to be Universal?

Watch the video again if you like, and notice what I noticed:

  • How just the very first notes played by the cellists stopped people in their tracks.  Young and old.  Men walking to work.  Women with their strollers.  Tourists with cameras.  Grade school kids. The little girl in pink who stands stock still in front of the players.  It didn't matter.  All were brought to a standstill by the beauty they heard.  They knew it as beauty.  As something very special.
  • As the other musicians, cellists and strings, join in, the crowd grows larger, but you can also tell they grow even quieter, stiller.  Amazing!  Smiles begin to appear on their faces.  Latecomers run to the music, afraid they'll miss what they know is something special.
  • When the rest of the orchestra, the choirs, and the conductor appear, the symphony erupts and cascades over the people.  You can tell they are stirred by the beauty!  People waving fingers to the tune, singing words that they may never have known that they knew; little children bouncing and swaying; and still that little girl in the pink stands motionless, in rapt admiration.
  • In the final minute, the crowd (and me!) hang in suspense as the players gently slow down, and then burst once more into a final explosion of joy, which sweeps across the people like a wave, taking their breath away and washing them in love.  Wow!
I used to think that "Beauty was in the eye of the beholder" - meaning it was subjective, up to the individual.  I love short, sassy Italian blondes (which I do!).  But you may like tall, sultry Argentinian brunettes.  You say "to-may-to".  I say "tow-mah-to".  You're a Mac guy; I'm a PC guy.  Dog person.  Cat person.  

My sweet Italian blonde

All of which may be true.  But when it comes to what is truly beautiful in Life, I know now it's not a matter of taste, or of circumstance.  It's all a matter of attention.  

Beauty is found within us.  Beauty lives within us.  And its home is not in our minds or in our thoughts about it.  Beauty lives in our hearts. woven into us by our Creator, just as he neatly stitched it into the fiber of everything else on Earth.  

There it sits, just waiting to come to life.  A note to be struck, a whisper of a breath to gently stir it, the color of an autumn leaf to ignite it.  And then beauty is alive within us, and can spill out of us, to be shared with all.

"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I want to remember this.  To try to be open to the beauty that is part of Life and surrounding me all the time. And to not get caught in my own little world of thoughts, "scurrying after nuts like a squirrel", as my wife said recently.

There's hope for the world if we can do that.

I know that would make even old Ludwig smile!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Watching While I Stroll

"Memory is a child walking along a seashore.  You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things" (Pierce Harris)

Our minds are funny things.  Why do they hold on to the things that they do, but let slip away the things that would seem most useful to us?

Yesterday afternoon something unexpected happened, which triggered my question.  After coming home from a lunch date with my wife, I let our dog Izzy out into the backyard to do her usual sniffing around and leaving her little "Pee-Post It" notes for any visitors.  When she returned to the sliding glass door, I saw she had something in her mouth.  Puzzled, I took it from her, but then recoiled in shock when I realized it was a big piece of a chocolate brownie!

My mind began racing:  "Chocolate can kill dogs!  How much has she eaten?  What do you do?  Do something!  Don't just stand there!  Deborah's gonna freak!  Ok - get a grip on yourself, you ninny!  Think!"

I scooped Izzy up into my arms, jumped into the car, brownie in my pocket, and raced to the vet's office.  The vet examined Izzy, and said it would be best to keep her there overnight for observation.  They would try to make her throw up anything she ate and put her on an IV to flush anything dangerous out of her system.  We both agreed that since she's such a little dog (6 lb. toy chihuahua), and since we didn't know how much of the brownie she may have eaten, it was better to be proactive and safe, than sorry.

I called my wife at work and told her what had happened, and thankfully, she took it all pretty calmly (not what I expected!).  As we sat and talked about the "mini crisis" over dinner, I surprisingly found myself getting very emotional.  Tears came to my eyes and my voice trembled as I talked about Izzy.  In an unusual reversal of roles, it was my wife who had to reassure me and tell me "Everything's all right, Jon.  You did the right thing".

I knew I had done the best I knew how to do.  So what was behind this surge of emotion?  Reflecting this morning, I can see there was a rich concoction of images and memories that had all been stirred.

  • Paternal feelings:  Izzy was "my little girl" and I missed her, and wanted her to "be alright"
  • Guilty feelings:  How could this have happened?  Did I overreact?
  • Anxious feelings:  Will Deborah be upset?  How will we pay for this?
And deep underneath all of these feelings was a memory - a dark, sad memory from 8 months earlier.  The very painful memory (still) of taking my cat Buddy to the vet and not coming home with him.

The emotion that welled up in me was a mix of all of that.  Memories, associations, assumptions made about who I was or was supposed to be.  And through all of that, my mind had strolled and picked up a few painful things to stick in its pocket as "treasures"; as "real".

But none of these "treasures" were real.  Izzy was fine.  We will pick her up later today.  Bad things happen in life.  I couldn't have prevented any of it, nor could I have done any differently than what I did in the moment.  Deborah was not upset, and we will be able to pay for Izzy's treatment.

Out of all of this, though, I want to remember one thing, something that Guy talks a lot to us about at class:  the importance of SEEING.

"Right now, you don't know the difference between THINKING and SEEING.  Our lives are meant to be lived in seeing - not in "figuring out" what we're seeing" (GF)

I want to remember the importance of keeping my attention - watching my mind before it goes wandering off wherever it wants to go - to pick up whatever it thinks is valuable.  My memories - whether pleasant or painful; my expectations of who "Jonathan" should be; my predictions about what others will do or should do - are all based on the past.  On thought and imagination.  None of which is real right now.

I know I can be a bit of a dreamer.  But just because my mind picks up a shiny shell while on one of these "scenic tours",  doesn't mean I have to stick it in my pocket and call it mine.

That's a pearl I want to remember, because I know I'll be going on many more leisurely "mental strolls" in the future.  I just want to be able to see all that's being offered me, without relying so much on my "egghead" brain telling me what it all means.

Me and Izzy at the beach

See you soon, Izzy!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Looking Before I Leap: Another Year of Pearls

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an
end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” (T.S. Eliot)

It's funny just how true that quotation is this week for me.  Beginnings are endings.  Endings are beginnings.  Both all at once; the two interwoven like some cosmic morning glory, snaking its way through each day.

It's the last week of August.  My summer vacation has officially ended; another school year has officially begun.  Lazy days of leisure, where making my wife's lunch for work was the grand accomplishment of the day, are gone. 

Once more, I reluctantly "walk the plank" and jump back into the world of work:  meetings to inform, meetings to inspire, meetings to meet new people I haven't met yet and to meet those I've met already;  a million things "I've gotta do now" (and no time to do it), and an ever changing whirlwind of current educational-ese I'm supposed to become an expert on yesterday (proficiency based grading, "scaffolding", "unwrapping the standards", formative and summative assessments, rubrics, relationships, and "raising the bar").  It's no wonder I feel like I've just let go of the tire swing called summer, and done a big loud bellyflop into the ice cold water of work!

But the beginning is also quite likely an end.  This may be my last year teaching, so it's sobering to reflect and realize that each of these experiences that I grumble about and try to scurry past will be the last time I do them.  Perhaps I should try to slow down a bit this year and savor the end of the long and winding professional road that I've been on.  That would be a worthy intention.

It's also the 2nd anniversary of when I began writing this blog:  another ending, another beginning.  So what "Pearls" did I glean in the past 12 months?
  • I didn't write as often as the first year, and I struggled with that.  I know I need to just commit to setting aside a block of time, regularly, each day to write.  Just an hour.  No Facebook distractions.  Don't have to write a masterpiece.  Don't even have to finish a thought - can come back later and finish.  But just write.  More.  More often.  The rewards will come.
"Write down the thoughts of the moment.  Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable." (Francis Bacon) 

But at the same time, I was very proud of the 17 entries that I did write.  Some of them were great surprises to me in the depth and creativity that they expressed.  Each of the following were highlights for me:
  • The fun I had with words in writing stories like "Nature's Rebellion" and "A Meeting of the Minds" (leaves saying "It's humiliating to becoming hummus!"; the curmudgeonly journalist arguing that writing should be "Short and sweet.  Like a tweet.  Nice and neat.  Don't repeat.  Take a seat.  Complete!")  I love how writing opens me up - even amuses me, while it teaches me.
  • Two poems that I wrote, both inspired by Love.  One a Valentine to my wife ("One Is Greater Than Two") and one to my mother ("Waiting For A Whisper").  I am deeply blessed by the gifts of Love that each of these beautiful, strong women have given me time and again.  Their love inspires me and strengthens me.  "All that was in you, is in Me.  And I in you.  One is greater than Two."
  • The most valuable entry I wrote this year?  It was also (once again) the most difficult.  "A Promise Kept", the entry I wrote after my cat Buddy died in January, was heartbreaking and painful (still is when I read it).  But it also was cleansing and a comforting tribute, and farewell, to a dear companion.
  • The biggest surprise?  What I wrote in "The Most Important Lessons"!  This entry, in which I wrote about what were the things I really hoped I had taught my students shocked me - not sure why.  I guess I didn't know that's what I thought - until I thought it! "Be Curious.  Be Humble.  Be Courageous.  Be Honest."  I actually went on to make copies of that entry and shared it with some students who had made last year so enjoyable.  I hope I continue to model these things to my students this year.
So, here's to another year of beginnings and endings.  May I remember to let pass that which is passing, and be open to all that is being offered to me.  And I hope to continue to use this blog to discover the little bits of magic, and Pearls, that Life hides all around me.

"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning." (J.B. Priestly)

"On y va!"...Off we go again...on the long and winding road!

Me hiking up Cape Perpetua on my last adventure of the summer

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Magic of A Touch

"To a small child, the perfect granddad is unafraid of big dogs and fierce storms, but absolutely terrified of the word "Boo." (Robert Brault)

What do I know about being a "Grandpa"?  A "PeePaw"? "Boppa"? "Nonno"? "G-Daddy"?  "Wompa"?

About as much as I know about being...
  • A plumber
  • A golfer
  • A white water guide
  • A skydiving instructor
Never really had an interest in being any of those.  Never thought I had an interest in being a grandpa either (though I did have the grumpy gruffness down pretty good already!).

"Never wanted to be a dad, don't see why I'd want to be a granddad", I grumbled grinchily.  "Besides, little kids are noisy and a mess!  That Jerry Seinfeld guy knew what he was talking about!"

"Having a two year old is like having a blender that you don't have the top for." (Jerry Seinfeld)

Then I met my wife, and fell in love.  And she had a son.  And her son had a child.  A little girl named Marley.  And whether I liked it or not, Life handed me an unexpected invitation:

"You are now cordially invited to "Grandpa School".  Attendance is required; doing so happily is optional (but will be better for you!)"

My wife fell in love instantly with Marley, and even though she didn't get to see the baby nearly as much as she wanted to, she became "Wonder Grandma":  capable of super-human feats of love and endurance;  able to answer the same question 100 times patiently, make any boo-boo better, and laugh in delight at the smallest of things.  But I was more withdrawn (big surprise!)

"What do I say to a 4 year old?  She seems kinda shy towards me.  Maybe I should just leave her alone.  Besides, what do I know about what little girls like?  I'm not really her Grandpa anyway.  I'm just a nobody.  She won't even notice me."

But then something wonderful and magical happened.

One day, Deborah and I took Marley to a local park to play on the swings.  Grandma Deby, Marley, and Izzy our chihuahua trooped ahead, and I walked behind - content to be the "official photographer".  But as I squinted through the viewfinder, a small voice chirped up at me.

Walking to the park one summer day
"Papa Jon - hold my hand!"

And in that split second, like the Grinch on the top of Mt. Crumpet who when hearing the Whos in Whoville singing below, something changed in me.

And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say
That the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!

I gently took Marley's hand and we walked together.  The simple touch of Marley's small fingers, dwarfed in my "big" man hands, instantly melted my heart and opened it.  "Papa Jon" was born and I began to be given some of the "super-powers" bestowed on grandpas around the world, such as:
  • Learning how to make the best Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners ever.
  • Being able to watch "Barney:  A Very Merry Christmas" 3 days straight (in August!) and still smile contentedly
  • Make goofy enough faces to laugh at (but not so weird to be scary!)
  • Make putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the United States seem really fun (and even manage to teach a little geography too!)
We see Marley regularly now, and truth be told, I still have a lot to learn about being a grandpa.  But I know my heart is open to doing so, especially when I remembered an equally magical moment from my past.

Seven years ago, on our first date, Deborah won my heart when she reached over and held my hand as we walked into the restaurant.

Our fingers touched and my heart melted.  A small hand, warm and soft, dwarfed in mine, invited me to step bravely into a new world.

And when I did, I found Love there.  Just as I did on that walk to the park with Marley.

Coincedence?  No.  I think it was an angel.  An angel whispering to the "better angels" of my own nature, offering me a great gift in exchange for my willingness to be open and grow.

I never would've guessed that there was such power in the tender touching of two hands.

"Creation of Adam" - Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel
Ah, yes.  Of course.  How could I forget.  How else would Life and Love touch us?  All that's required is we reach a little on our own.  A good Pearl to remember.

Grandma Deby and Marley swimming at the Club