Dutiful Freedom

“Why can’t I have freedom to do what I want?” complained my eight-year-old grandson when he was asked to perform a task given him. “There are too many rules and duties,” he whined further.

One of my goddaughters at age 16 complained and said she couldn’t wait to go to college in order to have freedom from the restrictions imposed on her by well-meaning parents. “I want to be free from duties; free from beliefs and our culture,” she whined.

Little do the children of today know that there is no pure and perfect freedom. They will grow to realize that in order for them to pursue “freely” what they want in life, they will have to make choices that come with a set of rules and limitations and consequences to their actions. They will learn that the definition of a free society is not where people are free to do what they wish, but it is one in which they freely choose to surrender certain behaviors in exchange for the benefits of living within that society.They will learn that freedom requires sacrifice. It requires an understanding that certain rules are necessary to create a society in which people of different skills and ideas work together in a mutually beneficial exchange. They will have to become citizens who will find a way to balance or reconcile their civic duties with the personal yearnings of their spirit.

When we are children, our parents impose our schedule, duties and the rules we must live by. Our possible choices are limited, and our beliefs and goals often come with a cultural inclination from parents and family members. As children, we often lack self-mastery; we have poor impulse-control and we are required to take ownership of our actions. Then one day, we turn 18, graduate from high school, and perhaps leave home and go off to college, ridding ourselves (or so we think) of the cultural rules. We are pretty much free to do anything we’d like except violate societal rules and the law. We can party all night, sleep in and be free from well meaning rules. We may fail, stumble and fall, and we learn further that our actions have consequences. We learn quickly that freedom to do what we want doesn’t mean we’re free from the repercussions of those choices. We choose our actions, and with those, for better or worse, we must take ownership and responsibility for our freedom to choose. Today’s children will soon learn that the really important kind of freedom involves developing an understanding of how one thinks, being able to speak one’s mind, to be fearless, to be tolerant and to be conscious of the needs of others. It requires attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care truly about other people (society) and to sacrifice for them over and over in countless petty, unappealing ways, every day, while achieving their goals.

Yesterday, when I was younger, freedom was not a notion I considered unless it was free time/play time where I could run the streets of my childhood home. I was dutiful. If my mother expected me to make the coffee after lunch, I made coffee. If it was expected of me to wash dishes, I washed dishes. If it was cleaning day, I helped clean house. If I brought in stray pets, I was expected to take care of them. I did what was expected of me, whether I wanted to or not.
However, being dutiful got me through childhood, then college. Dutiful accompanied me in balancing priorities while making life choices. Dutiful bound me to my roots. Dutiful impressed on me to care about children, the elderly, society and those around me. Today, freedom is a notion I understand as I dutifully serve the yearnings of my spirit. I am free to spend time with loved ones; help others, practice my faith, be fearless in the truth. I am free to be in a steady, unyielding relationship that works when we spend time together or apart. I am free to speak my mind, to make choices and dutifully take ownership of the consequences. Freedom also means wrapping my hands around a steaming mug of coffee while I watch waves lapping the shore. It means staying up late into the night to indulge my pleasures and still waking up early the following morning to perform duties. Freedom means putting words on paper for no other reason than because it makes my heart sing.
After all the whining and complaining, I’m blessed with the tools gifted to me by well meaning parents who got me there, to where I manage my freedom to serve the yearnings of my spirit.

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Graduation Season

It’s graduation season. It’s that time of year when social media is inundated with posts of proud parents celebrating one of the most rewarding moments of their lives as they watch their children walk across stages, receive certificates, diplomas and trophies for promotions, graduations and commencement exercises. And proud they should be, because the world into which today’s students graduate from elementary through college and universities is fundamentally different from the one in which many of us grew up. We’re increasingly living in a globalized society that has a whole new set of challenges and expectations. These are challenges that come by way of economics, science and technology, health, security from external threats, and an ever changing demographics. There are expectations that come by way of parents and commencement speakers telling the graduate what he/she must do to move on to the “next chapter” of life… “Chase your dreams, be bold, take risks, it’s ok to fail, be true to yourself and live your passion.” The message that each speaker is trying to convey to young minds is near universal: From here on, life’s lessons are not in classrooms and books of biology, history or math. Life’s true lessons are in the arena of experience.

At 93, my father was still an avid reader. He said that one’s education never ended even to one’s last breath on earth. He told me that while he practiced making a living with what he learned in college, he continually found greater joy in changing the shape of his education. He was passionately curious and kept an open mind with his eagerness to read, listen, watch and share. Dad was right. His education didn’t end with a college degree. In fact, dad never really left the classroom. Here’s what I learned from my father.

With every book or article you read, with every person you interact, with every situation in which you find yourself, you open possibilities that stretch the imagination beyond the expected. You discover a sense of awe, knowing that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers. A sense that we can stand right at the boundary between the known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.

There will always be a new lesson life has to teach you, if you’re willing to listen. Be conscious. Be aware. Think about who you are becoming at every corner or road you take. Do not lose sight of your North Star. What inspires you to live in the present based on your values? What makes you hold on when all else is pulling you under? Be patient. Reflect. Offer your soul the quiet it needs in a world where you are expected to seek happiness through your material self-worth. Expectations tend to make you rigid, narcissistic, and uncreative. Seek a life of integrity as the source of your personal worth. You will feed the opportunities and starve the problems in your life.

Seek joy rather than happiness. Happiness is boring. Happiness is when everything around you seems perfect and you must stand still so as to not change the situation or yourself. However, the one constant in life is change. Seek change and know joy in facing challenges and moving forward. Pay your debt to life through deeds of love and service. Give before it is asked. Take care of others. Before you pursue your own dreams, serve someone else’s dream because you will learn much and remain humble. You will have many signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, but there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of humanity. Become an apprentice. Help someone else climb the ladder before you do. You will become less egocentric when you reach that “AHA” moment, the moment of success.

Be bold. Question the status quo. What’s right today may not be right tomorrow. Take risks. Move out of your comfort zone and discover the world in new ways. Do not become victim to “failure.” Become the hero. Because failure is an opportunity to learn; it rewires the brain and gets the creative juices flowing. Root your life in justice, compassion and humility and listen to the voice of your heart’s knowledge even when nobody else is looking. The trophies you earn may lose their luster and the merits on paper may fade but the true measure of your award is to remain the humble student of life’s universal classroom.
Congratulations parents and students.

 

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Father Made Spaghetti

Every so often my father made spaghetti.
For four or six, it mattered not.
He’d bring to a boil the largest pot
filled with water well seasoned with salt
And throw in a pack (and sometimes two) of macaroni.

He’d stand in front of the stove,
Fork in one hand with arms akimbo,
Eyes glued to the boil, stirring the froth
Patiently waiting a minute or two.

Then with a smile he’d pick with the fork
a few slippery strands
Blow air on them as though to seal with a kiss
And together, we’d test for doneness knowing full well
that tasting was half the process.

He liked to see results.
Somewhere in his youth he’d heard the ultimate spaghetti doneness test
Was to throw a strand or two against the wall.
If it stuck it was beyond al dente
If however, it slipped and fell, it needed more of our arm toss.

Finally when half the spaghetti was in our system and across the wall
He’d drain and throw in hefty block of butter.
A quick swirl on the stove top once more and we were served presto.

Years later the mood would strike him with my children.
I would shake my head and get out of his way
While my kids took part and cheered him on without delay.

I’ve no idea what started him off on spaghetti making
But I’m glad he did.
It was exciting.
It made him non serious, mysterious
And our particular one of a kind father.

I cheer him on.

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Beautiful Hands

“These very hands, a mother’s hands, These old and new hands
These very hands… …That have been worn out And also become rough
But for all of us They are as tender as silk
These perfect hands, A mother’s hands.” (Excerpt from Mother’s Hands, by Baroyr Sevag)

I was having my fingerprints taken for official business. The well-manicured lady assisting me looked disapprovingly. She said there were too many horizontal lines in the whirls of my thumbs that blurred the clarity of the print. I looked at the familiar whirls and loopy circles of my fingerprints. It was true that there were quite a few lines dissecting those little hurricane patterns, but I didn’t see the problem she was seeing.
“Isn’t that what fingerprints normally look like?” I asked, defensive of my apparently non-standard fingerprints.
“Oh no! You have way too many cracks!she said with a genuine smile. “Honey, you’re too young to have hands that look like this. They should be smooth.”

One of my earliest memories of my mother was of her hands. Those slender fingers, with nails clipped short and unpolished, were never idle—from dawn to dusk they were engaged in selfless service, nurturing, loving, and assuring the well-being of family and friends. In the kitchen, her hands performed as “a chef’s most prized tools” as she used them to cut and mix, knead, shape and test for doneness.  As a nurse her hands gently caressed fevered cheeks, measuring with thermometric precision a patient’s temperature. She used those same hands to teach and guide, to labor, to wash and clean, to reprimand and to fold into prayer. Mama had the softest hands. I was never sure as to why or how because she didn’t use creams or lotions. It was an enigma. Every time her hands touched my face or in later years when I held her hand, her skin felt silky smooth as I would breathe in the scent of soap and lemon.  I expected those hands that had been through so much, to be rough, crooked and worn. But for some reason they were not. My mother had beautiful, soft, statuesque hands.

I often look at my own hands, so strikingly different in appearance to my mother’s.  My fingers are stretched wide apart like I’m palming a basketball. The knuckle on my ring finger appears larger than my ring. I am resigned to broken nails and creases, and the fact that I have arthritic hands, curl and knot my fingers like well-established plant roots. Alas, I do not have my mother’s hands.

Looking closely at hands, I see a series of milestones unspoken.  Hands, from the moment we are born have been the tools used to reach out, grab and embrace life. Hands have touched breasts and held onto newborns. They have caressed a lover, struck in fear or anger, brushed aside hair, wiped away tears. They have braced and caught falls. They’ve put food into mouths and clothes on backs. They’ve tied shoes, buttoned shirts, brushed teeth, and nursed scrapes and bruises. Fluffing, patting, retrieving, holding, writing, scratching, building, tearing down and soothing. Hands have trembled when forced to stand back to allow children their independence. They’ve been sticky and wet, bent and broken. Hands have tilled soil, reaped harvest, burned and dowsed fires and cleared snow. They’ve said hello in a hand shake and waved endless goodbyes sending sons and daughters to war. They’ve suffered blisters to raise brave youth. They’ve held riffles; been dirty, scraped and raw, swollen and bent. They’ve been uneasy and clumsy. They’ve been pampered and manicured. They’ve been strong and they’ve been weak. Hands have shaken with clenched fists when boundaries have been pushed and injustices prevailed. From raking the yard to scrubbing floors, pulling weeds to changing tires, hands have moved through life fixing, cooking, nurturing, healing, for the comfort and safety of loved ones. Leathery, creased, silky or statuesque, hands have come together in applause, and folded together in prayer. There is life so beautiful in hands.

I realize that the world has its own idea of beauty and that it may have nothing to do with hands that serve. But my world has shown me that my hands (and “mutant” fingerprints), although strikingly different in shape, size and texture from my mother’s, will still carry the story of my work with me all the days of my life. Because in those creases and imperfections will exist a long and exquisite history of love that only mothers know.

Dedicated to ALL women who use the strength and power of their hands to mother all living things, and especially to mothers who are no longer of this world but there where they have been stroked and caressed and held by the hands of God, HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY.

 

 

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The Simple Life

The 40 days before Easter, better known as the Lenten period, is the time when we focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. For Christians, it is a bench test in changing our lifestyle and letting God change our hearts.   Easter and the Resurrection of Christ signify a renewal of our lives and a promise to reinvent ourselves….very much like Spring. Spring is the season that shouts out through nature that it is time to be a bud again, to revive oneself and bloom.  Like Easter, which reminds me that life is truly a constant beginning, a constant opportunity and a constant springtime, Spring sends a message that I can lighten the load, pack away what weighs me down (just like winter clothing) in exchange for the things that are less burdensome. It serves as a reminder to find meaning in living the simple life.

What does living a simple life mean? Does it mean getting rid of material things to make room for what I consider the nobler…relationships and friendship? Does it mean being more conscious of spending time instead of money in ways that will enrich my life and the lives of those around me? Does it mean living a life that isn’t defined by things I know won’t last? In other words, does it mean trading the material trappings — driving flashy cars, buying designer clothing, or the latest gadgets while attending every social event — for the freedom of creating less stress and becoming more resolute in the quality of relationships instead of quantity?

Is the ideology behind those actions enough to help me live a meaningful life? Because no matter how many closets I clean, it appears my struggle is less about deciding how much or how little stuff I have, and more about where I find my meaning in life.

At a recent panel discussion, a well versed speaker mentioned a quote by Joseph Campbell. “If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.” In the early days of time, the biggest buildings in and around the cities were the places of worship, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, temples. By the 16th century, the biggest buildings in mid-city were political palaces of government. Today, the biggest/tallest buildings are office buildings and money market centers. It is the material that has the upper hand.

While I am convinced that, as human beings, it is our natural destiny to grow, to achieve and prosper, to succeed and amass, to find happiness in the immediacy, I also know that as individuals and as a society we want to positively impact and transform the world around us; to give meaning to our existence.  But we won’t find those things that give meaning by looking to either our “stuff” or lack of it. Sure, we can find meaning in our possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from us. We can find meaning in our external beauty, but one day we’ll lose it. We can find meaning in our immediate happiness, but one day we’ll be sad.

My intention is not to denigrate actions that are promoted by material possessions or abundance. Neither is it to promote minimalism that advocates a life of little. At one extreme, we are trying to define ourselves by iPhones, cars, homes, and disposables, while at the other, we’re trying to define ourselves by our own depth of contentment. But neither one alone is sufficient to ground me in a world of refugees, crises, cancer, famine, genocide, human trafficking, and…the list is endless.

I’ve come to the conclusion that simplicity isn’t just about less mindless and needless stuff;  It is about being present, being conscious of a world where nearly 1/2 of its population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day, and more than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day). It is about making a constant and conscious effort to renew myself in the face of changing circumstances and the evolving “biggest” buildings. Simplicity itself demands time, space, and room to question the depth of today’s envied, desired and coveted, trading them with loved, treasured and adored in the living and breathing. While there are plenty of signposts along the path directing us to make money and climb up the ladder of today’s tall buildings, there are almost no signposts except for Easter and Spring reminding us to renew ourselves and to stay connected to the simple things that make life grand, to reach out to others, to pause, to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible…The promise of new life in the Easter Resurrection of Christ, and the buds and blooms of Spring.

 

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Be Bold For Change

A trucker sits in a bar next to a feminist. They’ve both had a lot to drink and they’re arguing. The feminist says women have been oppressed for centuries — the trucker says they haven’t. The feminist says women deserve equal pay — the trucker says they don’t. The feminist says a woman should be president — the trucker just laughs. They simply don’t see eye to eye.

What’s the one thing the trucker and the feminist have in common?  

                                                                       They’re both men.                         

For more than a century, March is a time to celebrate and advocate for women. This year 2017, the International Women’s Day theme, “Be Bold For Change,” is tailor-made for a year that’s been quite turbulent. Women have demonstrated throughout history, their passion and courage in leading the march to gender equality, and we have seen a few men march at our sides, boldly raising their voices together with ours. It’s a no brainer that men’s presence in the movement for gender equality is vital. However, the number of men willing to step forward and take a public stand on behalf of women’s rights — to speak out, to raise awareness — is still simply too small in comparison to the coalition of women that has been forming and reforming for centuries. Why is it so complicated? After all, at its core, it’s about fairness, and real men are usually that. Fair. But the fact that men have historically been the recipients of the better deal in the gender divide seems to lessen their numbers. Where are all the other the real men, the thinking men, the fair men who get it? Where are those who understand that, whatever perks there may be in having their very own “assistant to life” actually works better when it’s shared. Men in 1848 got the idea. Thirty two passionate men joined the 68 women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments in a New York church in July of 1848. They knew that supporting women’s rights was essential for the moral soul and economic health of the nation.

Women have made great strides in the last few decades thanks to brave, bold, fearless and tenacious women and men. In Third World countries, giving micro-loans to women rather than husbands, has benefited these women’s families and in some cases their whole village. More women than men are graduating from college. Television and movie screens are depicting new role models for women, and just recently, commercials have included empowering girls and fighting domestic violence. Yet the work is far from over. Around the world there’s female genital mutilation, infanticide of girl babies, religions still teaching women are inferior helpmates who must submit to their husbands or hide their skin, pray at the back of the room, and wear slippers so even their footsteps are not heard. Women cannot drive or go out without male escorts in some countries. Even here in the United States, while women have desirable access to rights, recourse and resources relative to women in many parts of the world, we don’t live in a gender equitable society. We still have a lot of work to do to bring women into full equality so that they may reach their  reach their fullest potential without losing sight of their authenticity.  We have less than 20% of women in leadership positions in academia, corporations, religious institutions and politics. Women aren’t making equal pay as men for the same job earning an average of .77 cents for every dollar in comparable work. 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college, and 1 in 3 will be penetrated against her will, and women’s basic reproductive rights are (still) contested, stripping her of whatever gains won over the past 50 years while men are still debating if rape is really rape.

“Be Bold For Change” is a cry for all men and women across the globe to fight for gender equality in their communities. As real fathers of daughters, men should share the vision of a world where every human being is equally respected. Men should share the vision of a world where women and daughters are protected, defended and nurtured. If we are ever to defeat the systems of oppression we are all subject to, men must be involved and must work together with women on these issues. Real men who get it understand that the world cannot move forward using only half of its resources. MEN, “Be Bold For Change.” Help forge a better working world — a more inclusive, gender equal world.

 

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Love is Family

140422-425x282-familyIt is February and among the many happenings globally, the one day that is commonly recognized worldwide is Valentine’s Day. Declarations of undying love, hearts that hope of promises, hearts that are lonely, revelations of broken hearts, separations, unions, in or out of love, February is the month when merchants sell 144 million cards, 35 million boxes of chocolate, and 320 million roses, generating nearly $20 billion in consumer spending contradicting the romantic notion that love is free. But I am not a cynic. I do believe that love is free. It starts with Family.

Family is where we learn the value of love, trust, hope, belief, cultures, traditions and all that in essence give depth and meaning to our lives. It is where we belong and from where our identity originates. It is those with whom we grew up and created a bond from our beginning years. It is those whom we talk to or reminisce about in our adult years. It is those whom we seek in our ending years.

I love family. I’ve come to realize I’ve always loved them. Perhaps it’s because I grew up surrounded by a family of relatives who were close knit and who never missed an opportunity to come together, share the table, tell stories, and give their opinion. My siblings and I, we were children then, just passing time while aunts and uncles came over for an evening or a Sunday lunch after church. Mama was a fine cook with a gourmet palate who could easily prepare meals that fed the standard 8, or on celebratory or festive occasions, 70 family members. Watching her and experiencing the family dynamics as children, we didn’t know we were building memories that were to become the most distilled and meaningful truth in our lives…learning that in the end when the trappings of life dissolve, all that is left is love. And we return to family because we live our lives in our families. The families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through our choosing of friends. This is where we find meaning and this is where we define our purpose. Family is where we first experience love. It is where we first receive it and where we first give it.

As with any collection of people, family is not perfect. Members have their quirks, and like most folk, they may not always agree about things, but family is their foundation of strength.

At a recent gathering of peers, a young friend expressed that his family was in the midst of arguments with one another. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, parents, young and old were in disagreement and some were not on talking terms. Yet, in one of their darker moments, these were the people who came together because of a shared history of family, a long lasting relationship that held a bond with each other as they gathered around a remembrance celebration of their grandmother. I was amazed that even in their silence grown apart, together, their human souls manifested the family foundation of strength. With all their quirks, they were family.

Just yesterday, an acquaintance of mine shared a photo she had found of her young brother taken 47 years ago before he and the entire family would be separated. The brother passed away two years after the photo had been shot. A single photo, a memory of separation, refreshes a bond of love… a safe harbor in which to retreat. It revives and unites even in the silence of death.

I know of a grandmother whose heart was drawn and tugged toward a stranger sitting across the aisle of a crowded bus in a foreign city.  Both she and the stranger had felt an inexplicable fast vibration of their hearts. They had connected to find that they were long lost siblings separated fifty years ago. The heart knows. Family love vibrates.

Some families will thrive more than others. Some families may fail in their objectives, while others succeed. Some families are very close and get on famously well, while others lose touch. Regardless of the nature of your relationship with your inherited or chosen family members, they are an extension of you and the foundation of your strength in love. This Valentine’s Day, return to the family of people that first taught you what love is and feel your heart’s fast vibrations.  May they resonate across families of nations.

P.S. Some chocolate and flowers are always welcome!

 

 

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