A Thought For the New Year

Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue
I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it
I take it back
Strike it from the record

What is as irreversible as murder, violates its victims more than theft, is as deadly as an epidemic? And is a lot closer to you than you want to think?

Gossip, slander, and thoughtless speech. Gossip is a million-dollar industry in our country today. We tend to think of it as a sport, harmless and fun. After all, it’s only words. We even have shows devoted to it.

As Christians, we are called to see it differently. Which is worse, we must ask, to steal from someone or to speak ill of someone? To defraud a person or to humiliate him? Answer: Property can be restored, but the damage done to another can never be undone. In fact, our Jewish ancestors compared slander and humiliation with murder: the destruction is irreparable and enduring.

You can’t take it back. What we say about each other is terribly powerful: words have a long, long half-life, and they can destroy in unseen, unhealable ways.

Our words are a footprint we leave for the world. What will they reveal about the way we treat our children, our parents, our friends, students, co-workers, employees? How we treat ourselves?

It’s a new year. Perhaps none of us will find a cure for cancer, or feed the world’s hungry, or bring about world peace. But nearly every day we find ourselves with someone’s reputation or sense of worth in our hands.

We can improve our world in a powerful, pervasive way; we can act as though our words had the power of life and death.

They do.


About this reflection

When I was a child, there was an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal with the headline and text above, though I have edited some of the text. The ad was in celebration of the Jewish New Year, I believe. My mother, wise as she was, cut it out and posted it on the refrigerator. If you said or did something that warranted further reflection, you got to stand in front of the full page of newsprint. In time, I had it memorized. When her children moved out of the house, my mother made sure we each got a copy. Mine hangs on the refrigerator and I can still say it by heart. We learn slowly as children…and sometimes more slowly as adults.

Happy New Year Mom. Happy New Year One and All.

What Rules You?

Last Sunday (not yesterday), we celebrated Christ the King. It is one of those great feasts that gets lost on the calendar. As much as we would like to pay attention to it, the world around us has moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas and wants desperately for us to do the same. Let’s face it, shortly after the Labor Day sales are over, people are talking about Black Friday and in one store, I actually saw lit Christmas trees before I saw Halloween candy. But I digress…

The feast of Christ the King always reminds me of a homily I heard years ago. “What rules you?” the priest asked. My mind wondered then, as it does every year on that feast day, and I begin to think back over recent days. There is so much going on at work. At home, too. This week will see us juggling the science fair, the biennial adult ministry conference that Maureen coordinates with her team and at which the bishop and I will present, a new babysitter, projects, homework, and getting dinner on the table.

The day before Christ the King, we cleaned the house. From top to bottom, basement to bathrooms, wood floors to the grass outside, we cleaned. For the most part, the children were willing participants. Sure, the promise of pizza for dinner and getting to stay up late to cheer the Irish to victory helped, but so did the “divide and conquer” methodology we employed to get small children to accomplish small tasks and then move on to another job.

As I thought back over the day, it occurred to me that what ruled us was a checklist: the list of chores was created by us, but we were controlled by it. Like so many days and nights, we fly from lists at home to tasks at work and from commitments with family to promises made to friends. We let the work around us consume us, change us, and push us into an amnesic state where the “why” we do what we do gets lost.

We clean because it is important to take care of the place where we live. We straighten and dust and vacuum to be healthy in mind and soul so, later on when the pizza is consumed, and the Irish are up by six, we can sit on the sofa and hold our children as they fall asleep. We go to work, I hope, because we love what we do and, yes, because it pays tuition and the mortgage and the food bill. We keep track of what we do, perhaps, for a sense of accomplishment and to know when our work is complete.

Still, it is nice to be reminded once in a while and just to pause and ask ourselves that tough, embarrassing question: What rules you? From where is your motivation derived? Why do you serve in the way you do at the place you do and with the people you do?

Maybe, just maybe, answering the questions now will make for a more clear-headed Advent and enjoyable Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends.

Of course, by then, the house will be a mess…

~pjd

Ten Seconds

For family movie night, we chose a documentary. It doesn’t happen often and usually includes whining from at least one of the children. By the end, however, we are all hooked and wish we had bought it instead of renting it. That was, perhaps, never more true than this week’s movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.

It is hard not to be nostalgic these days for Fred Roger’s simple message: be kind. Back in 1968, Mr. Rogers, through one of his alter egos, King Friday, talked about how people do not like change and so the king decides to build a wall. He welcomes an African American to share his swimming pool and dares to dry the man’s feet as the documentary’s director juxtaposes the scene with footage of a hotel manager dumping chemicals into a swimming pool to drive the non-whites out of the water. Mr. Rogers spoke of peace and love and hope and other messages I want my children to learn.

There was one scene that moved me to tears more than others. Receiving an award, Mr. Rogers makes a request of those around him. The filmmaker makes the same request at the end of the film.

In Mr. Rogers words:

“Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have loved you into who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. I’ll watch the time.”

Then, looking at his watch, the audience goes silent. The camera pans. People cry. Mascara runs. Eyes close. People look up. People look down. Time passes.

The same is true for the documentary, as the camera pans from person to person featured in the movie: Mr. Rogers’ wife, his sons, his coworkers, his friends, celebrities he befriended. While that happened on screen, the same thing was happening in our basement. On a weekend when we celebrated giving thanks, when we gathered with family and dined together, we wrapped up the weekend by giving thanks for those who influenced us, challenged us, improved us, and loved us.

This week, take ten seconds. Listen to Mr. Rogers and take the time to close your eyes and remember the people who always wanted the best for you.

Ready?

One Mississippi….

 

 

Tending the Garden

Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet who lived from 1875 to 1939. I discovered his work when a friend of mine – a retired bishop who taught me at Notre Dame – read one of his poems in class. It was 1996 and the instructor encouraged us all to memorize a poem that spoke to us. I had chosen David Wagoner’s Lost, which is a powerful metaphor for all that was going on in my life at the time. I can still recite the work by heart and I think about it every now and then, especially the first few lines: Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here…

The poet still speaks to me through those words.

But recently, I have rediscovered Machado’s work – especially, his powerful poetic challenge, The Wind One Brilliant Day. The poem, quite simply, is a clarion call to each of us in these troubled times.

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

We are given so much and often we do not take the care we should – with the environment, the people we meet, the trust that is placed upon us, our children, our friends, the reputation of our coworkers, our faith. The fragility of so many things can be overwhelming and we can fee strangled by the violence of busyness. We forget that everything is gift. It is all unmerited grace. Indeed, what are we doing with the gifts entrusted to us? What am I doing to make sure the garden grows to fullness and life and beauty?

What will our answer be when the wind asks for that which we cannot give? Will we have anything to offer at all?

Or will we weep in sadness having tended the garden so carelessly?

-pjd

First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.

-pjd

Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit…

Fill our mouths with language that is kind instead of hateful.

Fill our homes with love instead of greed.

Fill our schools with knowledge instead of guns.

Fill the halls of power with authenticity instead of dishonesty.

Fill our skies with birds instead of weapons.

And fill our world with peace.

Give our children the wisdom to see that they are loved – and lovable.

Give our parents the courage to say, “no” to that which is harmful to children.

Give our leaders the strength to speak truth to power.

Give us all the fortitude to bring peace to our workplace and homes.

Wash us clean, Holy Spirit, that we may begin again, renewed, resolving to work for what is right, what is holy, what is just, and what is good.

Most of all, Holy Spirit, open our hardened hearts to receive your Spirit. Open our closed minds to receive your wisdom. Open our mouths only to proclaim praise to the Triune God, the giver all of gifts.

Amen.

Outcasts

For the Donovan family, Friday night is movie night. It has been that way since the oldest was a baby. The children (and parents) still miss the seating and the set-up from our family theater in Delaware, but like all first world problems, we muddle through with a large screen and comfortable seating.

Several months ago, we began to watch what we thought was the next movie in the Captain America series but within a few minutes realized we had no idea what was happening. With a little research, we discovered that you are not supposed to watch the Marvel movies in order of release. They tell a story and to understand it, you have to know which movie to watch and in what order to watch them. We are about fourteen weeks into this adventure and some of the movies are just fantastic. They speak of family and sacrifice, loyalty and redemption. They are worth the time and money it takes to rent them.

This weekend, however, we added another movie to the mix as we finally sat down to watch The Greatest Showman. It is a hybrid of Hollywood and reality and tells the story of P.T. Barnum, who lived and is buried just down the road. While it skips most of his time in Bridgeport (as mayor and legislator), it does tell the story of his relationship with those most vulnerable – and detested – in society.

I was a fan of the circus until the day it closed. We used to go every year near my birthday. In those early days, the title “circus’ was given to Barnum’s gathering of oddities as a term of derision. The people he gathered (and exploited) were among those that no one wanted to be around: the bearded lady, the tattooed man, the tall man, the short man, the fat man, and the hairy man, the conjoined and the dark-skinned. These are the people, the movie tells, that Barnum befriended with a smile and who helped him put on the greatest of shows.

In typical Hollywood fashion, he forgets his roots as the poor son of a tailor. He seeks fame and acceptance among the upper class. Only when tragedy strikes is he reminded what family really means, as he is encouraged to come home and rebuild. There is crucifixion and resurrection all wrapped up with songs you will be singing all week.

But the reason I loved the movie goes beyond the song and dance, though child number two couldn’t stop singing and child number four couldn’t stop dancing. There is a scene where Barnum’s youngest child meets the bearded lady and, while everyone else is laughing, she takes a cue from her father and looks past the lady’s shame and directly into her eyes. Barnum calls the bearded lady beautiful. His daughter smiles and maintains eye contact.

It made me wonder what cues my own children would take from me. Do they look upon those whom society ignores with love or do they change lanes to avoid eye contact? Do they treat others with respect or, like the crowds in the movie, yell, “You are not wanted here; go home?”

As my children grow, will they be among those outside the tent or among those who serve and are loyal to those singing and dancing?

Children watch. They don’t always listen. But children watch.

Sometimes it frightens me to be so powerful.

-pjd

Best Dad Ever

The title of this entry comes from the birthday card my youngest made for me. She is known for her brutal honesty, so I am taking her words for Gospel.

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of fathers (Joseph is also patron saint of the Universal Church, families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general), so he and I share a bond. I don’t have any kids like Jesus, but they try.

Since yesterday was my birthday, the children were extra well behaved. The yelling was limited only to the moments when child number three hit child number four (two times) or when child number two “tripped” on child number three’s outstretched leg (only once). They made cards and gave me a wrapped package of Junior Mints. They used money I had given them for when they go to town after play practice, so technically, I think I bought the Junior Mints.

We had our standard dad’s birthday dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. Apparently, I thought we were having company because I have enough mashed potatoes for a week.

Maureen made sure I got to spend the entire day with the kids and enjoy their company all by myself, having gotten herself checked into the hospital on St. Patrick’s Day. She’s still there, hooked up to pain meds for some mysterious illness that has her doubled over in pain. I told the children she probably forgot to buy me a present.

Nothing is recorded in Scriptures about St. Joseph’s words to his family. He gets a message in a dream, but even the Blessed Mother gets to speak once in a while. And yet, he is a model for fathers everywhere. There’s a lesson in there, albeit an ironic one, about who gets to talk and who gets to listen.

This week, be like Joseph and listen more. Speak less. Work hard. And, like Joseph certainly did for Jesus, teach your children well.

St. Joseph, patron of best dads everywhere, pray for us.

~pjd

Lessons

I remember the day that a little girl fell down a well and the world watched while she was rescued.

And the well got covered and the little girl grew up.

I remember when the Space Shuttle fell from the sky shortly after takeoff killing all the astronauts on board, including a school teacher who won a contest.

And the fleet was grounded for years while protocols were amended.

I remember when a group of miners was trapped underground and people all over the world held their collective breath until the very last one came to the surface.

And mining regulations changed.

I remember when evil hijacked the planes and the towers fell.

And we changed the way we check in and get screened at the airport, we went to war, and we hunted down the guilty party and made movies about the whole experience.

I remember when oil gushed beneath the Gulf of Mexico and people dove into the sea to escape the flames.

And the number of inspectors tripled, and audits of offshore oil rigs became more complicated.

I remember being in a classroom with junior high students watching on television as children in Littleton, CO ran from the building.

I remember Paducah, Tacoma, Knoxville, and the Amish children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

I remember the night and weeks following Newtown and how we held each other and our children so much closer.

I remember people arguing about politics and guns and parenting and I remember politicians crying and celebrities offering thoughts and prayers.

But nothing changed.

So, now, seventeen more children and adults are dead, and the arguing has started all over again.

And parents everywhere wonder…

Will things be different this time?

~pjd

Family Update

Child number two won second place in the science fair this week. Her project had something to do with whether girls were smarter than boys. The irony that a boy won first prize was not lost on her. Still, we are very proud.

Child number one did not place but did an excellent job on her project, “Can you survive a black hole?” The principal said that many of the judges found it fascinating and he wondered aloud if you could indeed survive a black hole. I told him I would let him know when teenage years were finished.

Child number three got a haircut that is too short for him. He complained that the stylist did not listen to his request. Good thing he’s a good-looking kid. He can pull it off. Dad…not so much.

Child number four was painting last week with child number three, when her sibling took the paint she was going to use. Rather than asking for the paint to be returned she whispered, “Sleep with one eye open, buddy, because I’m coming for you.” Too much Internet access for that child.

Maureen got home from a week away so our schedule of staying up late binge watching Monk on a school night will have to end. The kids said I was the best Dad ever every single night. The ice cream might have helped.

As we move towards Lent, we have been discussing what we could do as a family. Child number one suggested that we give up movie night but was horrified when I offered Stations of the Cross as an alternative. When another child suggested Taize prayer at our parish, all agreed, most of all the eldest. We also opted for more time in prayer each night and I have promised to get back on the exercise bike.

To cap out week, we went out to celebrate Dad’s birthday last night. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six and a half years.

May your week be blessed and your Lent begin with humility and peace.