Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent

This is a re-post of something I wrote back in 2006 (I don't know if my bloggity muse is napping, on vacation, or gone forever; time, I suppose, will tell. . .)

At any rate, 'tis the season. . . And while I'm at it, I'll give a shout-out to my good friend Suldog, whose 'Thanksgiving Comes First' campaign against premature Christmas-y-ness partially inspired my dredging this up from the archives. . .

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In our culture, the Friday after Thanksgiving marks the more-or-less 'official' beginning of the commercial season of 'Christmas', with the sales, the extended hours at the malls, special advertisements, etc., etc (although, honestly, the stores have been in 'Christmas mode' pretty much since they took down the Halloween stuff; maybe even before that). It's what much, if not most, of our culture thinks of when they think of 'Christmas', but less and less does it have any discernible connection with the actual content and meaning of Christmas.

One time I was visiting family in a large, midwestern city over Thanksgiving, and the following day, the local TV news had several reporters on site at various malls, doing interviews with shoppers. They asked one guy what the 'true meaning of Christmas' was, and he said, "We gotta get out here and spend money to keep the economy going strong." I am not making this up; he actually said that.

I sometimes wish that they would come up with a different name for the year-end consumerist feeding-frenzy. Just leave Christmas out of it. Or, maybe we should come up with another name for the celebration of Christ's Birth and Incarnation. Let 'em have 'Christmas' for the 'shopping season' - admit that we've lost it, and start over with a new name.

(*sigh*)

Anyway, yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Christmas. As I've gone along, I've come to really love Advent, imperfectly though I may observe it. In rough terms, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter, just with not quite the same 'penitential' emphasis. Rightly done, Advent is a time of contemplation, a time to step back from the normal frenzy of daily life, take a few deep breaths, and anticipate the coming joy of Christmas. Advent is pretty much the polar opposite of 'consumer Christmas'. Pausing for contemplation is not a thing Americans are terribly inclined to do (perhaps I should rather say it's a thing that we're inclined to do terribly).

In the larger American culture, the 'Christmas season' runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, but in traditional Christian circles, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and runs until Epiphany (January 6) - thus, the 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. So, when most of our neighbors are finished with Christmas, we're just getting started. It always perplexes me just a bit to see all the Christmas trees out on the curb on the 26th; when Jen was a kid, Catholics didn't even put their trees up until Christmas Eve. And, just as I'm getting pumped to sing 'Joy to the World' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', most of my neighbors are sick of hearing them.

Maybe I should blame it on the Magi - they started the whole giving-gifts-at-Christmas thing. I doubt they had any clue how far it would get out-of-hand, though.

When it comes right down to it, though, I suppose I've got to admit that my spiritual preparation for Christmas is my own responsibility. It's not up to American culture to get me spiritually prepared. It might be nice if the culture were more supportive (or even just less disruptive) of what I'm trying to accomplish, but it is what it is.

So, our family is setting out on Advent. If, over the next few weeks, I seem a little reticent and low-key about Christmas, you'll understand, won't you? And then, if I'm getting all Christmas-y just when you're getting tired of it all, you'd be very kind to indulge me. In the meantime, I'll be over here, singing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', in a minor key. . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gratitude

In honor of the impending Thanksgiving holiday, I'm re-posting a pair of (I hope) pertinent posts from bygone years. I'll actually be giving you a series of re-posts in the coming weeks; I hope you won't mind. I mean, I think they're not too bad. . .

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Sometime around the year 1420, a monk named Thomas a Kempis wrote a book, The Imitation of Christ (in the original Latin, Imitatio Christi), which in the fullness of time would become the most widely-read Christian book besides the Bible. And, in its turn, it also became one of my own all-time favorite books.

The Imitation reads like a medieval Christian Book of Proverbs - wisdom for living the Christian life from a wise old monk. It is simply dense with rich and challenging quotes, several of which have made their way into my 'Book of Favorite Quotes' (not available in stores). One of my favorites, which I commend to the attention of all my blog-friends, is this, from chapter 6 of Book 3:

"A wise lover does not so much consider the gift of his lover as he does the love of the giver."

I first came across this many years ago, but it has become one of the favorite 'bywords' that Jen and I will quote to each other. It bespeaks a kind of humble gratitude, which has served us really well in building our marriage over the years.

On the face of it, it's pretty simple, really - sort of like etiquette for opening presents on Christmas morning - be grateful for the gifts you get, even if they're not exactly the ones you were hoping for. But you know, Thomas doesn't present it as etiquette advice; he just says, "A wise lover. . ." More like, "this is wisdom beyond what meets the eye. . ." And it works, on multiple levels. . .

As most of you know, I'm adopted. At some point when I was in college, I connected the dots, and the realization dawned on me that I had been somebody's 'unwanted pregnancy'. It occurred to me that my very existence was due to somebody I'd never met, taking the trouble to see me through nine months of pregnancy. Jen and I got married and began having our own children (1F was actually the first person I ever knew who was genetically related to me), and all the while, the realization of what it had cost my birth-mother for me to be alive was growing stronger. Until finally, the sense of gratitude for my own existence became my strongest motivation to find and meet my birth-mother.

My birth-mother and I have always had a great relationship. Not so much because either of us are such wonderful people, but because at the bottom of it all, our relationship is one of mutual gratitude. I'm grateful to her for giving me life, and putting up with everything that went into that, including relinquishing me to be adopted by a family that could raise me. And she's grateful, even after all the years, to have a relationship with the son of her womb (and a fine son he is, if I may say so myself). We're both fairly quirky individuals (shocking as this may seem to you, I know), and there could be a lot to be annoyed with in each other, if we were so inclined. But from the beginning, our relationship has been founded on gratitude, so the quirks just seem really minor.

And likewise in my marriage. I'm so grateful to Jen for throwing her life in with mine, for the love she gives me every day, and for the richness of the life we share together, that her quirks (and yes, alas, she has one or two) just aren't a very big deal by comparison. And I know it works the same way from her end. It's not just a matter of 'seeing the glass half-full' or 'looking on the bright side', although both of those are good advice. Temperamentally, I'm just not a 'glass-half-full' person. But being able to receive with joy 'the gift my lover brings', just because I know how it's expressive of her love for me (quite a separate question from how good a gift it is) (but let me be clear - it is a most excellent gift), brings deep joy to my whole life. I'm certainly not meaning to hold myself up as a shining example of superior virtue, or anything like that. But I do believe we've learned something really good and valuable. . .

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Continuing with the theme. . .

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The conviction has grown within me, over the years, that gratitude is, on a very fundamental level, the most appropriate response we can make for our lives. Gratitude to God, certainly, and most fundamentally. But even on a more mundane level, gratitude to our parents; to our teachers, coaches and mentors; to our brothers and sisters, and our friends.

Existence itself is a gratuitous gift, for which there is no appropriate response except gratitude. Loving relationships; food, clothing and shelter; all the mundane, daily circumstances that, individually and collectively, bring joy and meaning to our lives.

Every one of us has his/her own set of things to be thankful for, and people to be thankful to. Rather than riff off into my own 'list', I'll just encourage all my blog-friends to, however briefly, give some thought to what you're grateful for, and to whom. . .

Monday, November 15, 2010

He Knows What He's Doing. . .

I just recently came across this marvelous quote from John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90) (newly beatified, I might add). It captures wonderfully the sense of being faithful to God, and steadfast in faith, even though the path ahead can be maddeningly unclear. And so I share it with you. . . ------------------------- "God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. . . Therefore I will trust Him, whatever I am. . . He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still, He knows what He is about."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thanks, Sparky

Sparky Anderson died yesterday. He is probably best known (among those of us who incline to knowing such things) as the manager of baseball's Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, who Sparky led into four World Series, of which they won two, including possibly the greatest World Series ever played, against the Boston Red Sox, in 1975 (sorry if the memories are too painful, Suldog). But after the Reds fired him in '78 (I mean, the Reds had finished second - second, for cryin' out loud! - two years in a row), Sparky hired on with my beloved Detroit Tigers, who he led for another 17 seasons, winning another world championship in 1984 (in doing so, he became the first manager to win a World Series from both leagues, as well as the first to lead a team to 100 or more wins in a season, in both leagues). And he led the Tigers to another division crown in '87, that capped one of the best pennant races I've ever followed - the Tigers swept a season-ending series with the runner-up Toronto Blue Jays, including a 1-0 gem by Frank Tanana on the last day of the season, with the title on the line. Around these parts, those '84 Tigers are beloved virtually on a level with their predecessors of '68. They had one of the most dominant seasons I've ever seen - 35-5 in their first 40 games, and then 7-1 in two post-season series. Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson (who hit a dramatic World Series home run for the Tigers four years before the more famous one he hit for the '88 Dodgers), Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, et al are legendary names in the pantheon of all-time great Tigers. And Sparky Anderson. It is interesting, looking back - the '68 Tigers had a Hall-of-Famer, Al Kaline, and several really good, solid players; Denny McLain had one of the greatest single pitching seasons any pitcher has ever had. The '84 Tigers didn't have any Hall-of-Fame players. A few of them were nominated, but none of them have yet been deemed worthy of the honor. Jack Morris may yet be enshrined - his vote totals have been rising in recent years; Kirk Gibson hit that legendary homer off Dennis Eckersley in the World Series, but he almost certainly won't be. But they were managed by a Hall-of-Famer. When Sparky left the Tigers after the '95 season, he was third on the all-time list for managerial victories (he's since been passed by three others), and the only manager to have the most wins in franchise history for two different teams. He was enshrined in Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2000. Sparky could have an, um, interesting way with words. Once, when one of his players was bothered by pain in his throwing shoulder, even though he'd been checked multiple times by multiple doctors, and found to have no structural damage to the shoulder, Sparky urged him to 'play over the pain' with the immortal words - "Pain don't hurt you." Sparky could tell stories like a favorite uncle, and he could be as stern or as jovial as he needed to be. I think he hoped to land another managerial job after he left the Tigers, but it never came to pass. And now he's gone. This has been a tough year in terms of historically beloved Tigers, having said goodbye to Ernie Harwell just a few months ago. But it is good to be able to step back and remember the man, and his place in history, and appreciate the opportunity to have seen him closer-at-hand than most, and to appreciate the excellence of his skill, and that he was our manager for x-number of years. George 'Sparky' Anderson, Requiescat in Pace. . .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Minims

I recently came across a copy of an old book from the early 80s that had, in its day, been one of my favorites. Titled Minims, by Tom Weller, it gives the reader a few dozen little bits of truth that don't quite rise to the level of being called 'maxims'. Quite to the contrary, in fact; as the title of the book might imply. If I had found it a couple weeks ago, it might have been included in my last book post, down with Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. So, because I like you all so much, I offer you a small selection of my favorite Minims (which is probably as close as I'm likely to get to a meme post). . .

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Two heads are more numerous than one. . .

The way to a man's stomach is through his esophagus. . .

The bigger they are, the harder they hit. . .

You have to take off your shoes
Before you take off your stockings. . .

You can fool all of the people some of the time;
You can fool some of the people all of the time;
And that should be sufficient for most purposes. . .

Equality is the great leveler. . .

You'll catch more flies with honey than you care to. . .

An apple a day makes 365 apples a year. . .

No one achieves immortality in his own lifetime. . .

Twelve is as good as a dozen. . .

Time heals all non-fatal wounds. . .

Almost any misfortune is preferable to a worse one. . .

The road to Hell is paved
By the same contractors as all the other roads. . .

Fortune favors the lucky. . .

There are more things in Heaven and Earth
Than anyplace else. . .

and my own personal favorite (which, when you think about it, is actually decently pithy, fer realz) -

He who would achieve great things must first be born. . .

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Alas, my Spartans suffered their first defeat of the season this weekend. But it's still a pretty amazing season, the likes of which we have not been accustomed to around these parts, when a second loss would be a disappointment. . .

But I still got a decent bike ride in, even though the wind (23 mph, and gusting higher) made it more, um, arduous than I might have preferred. I'm now at 1452 miles for the year, which is a new high for me, since my weight loss. And I've basically got the month of November (weather permitting) to push my total above 1500, and beyond. . .