Mercy Me! I've got work to do.

Mercy Me — I've got work to do! making the world a better place – starting with me.


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The problem of gratitude

It’s been decades since I have been in grammar school, so when I think of Thanksgiving, pilgrims or Indians don’t generally come to mind. I think of whose bringing what, where am I supposed to go, when will I get my Christmas shopping done and why, oh why, do men watch so much football.

Back in 1621, there were no parades, no Black Friday circulars, and no grocery stores to buy the bounty. There were just groups of people from different cultures celebrating thanks.

I do think I would have liked to be an Indian though – to wear my hair in braids, with a papoose of babies in the front and bow and arrow on my back. I think that would have been super cool. It appeals to me so much more than being a pilgrim girl and wearing one of those confining bonnets tied around my neck.

But whether you wear braids or bonnets or even flat iron your hair, most of us celebrate Thanksgiving. It makes us feel good to count each one of our many blessings from hot coffee to warm hugs, and having an excuse to eat copious amounts of food is like adding gravy to the mashed potatoes. It just makes everything that much better.

I only wish the spirit of this holiday lasted more than a day – that I could remember to be thankful all year long

But somehow, I usually forget.

I tried to start a gratitude journal once. I committed to write down three things everyday that made me thankful. On the days that I did it, I never wrote just three. There was no way I could limit myself when so many came to mind.  By the time I wrote three blessings, three more came to mind and then six, and then nine. At some point I realized math was happening- that gratitude was increasing exponentially and that the more I acknowledged my thankfulness the more there was to acknowledge.

I wrote about such moments as holding my nephew, going on a trip with my husband, coming home, lunch with my mom, walking with my friend, a song that reminded me of being pregnant with my first born and for times when his younger brother gently playing with my hair.

I also wrote some dubious things on my gratitude list that included sweating, hiding under the covers (no doubt from myself) and cleaning mildew.

It didn’t matter that it sounded kind of hodge-podge. It mattered that I felt gratitude and it mattered more that I took a few measly minutes to acknowledge it.

If it were an algebra problem, and it is perplexing enough to be one, then the unknown in the equation would be if it was indeed so great, so magical to recognize all the things I had to be thankful for — then why did I quit?

It was the giant X in a problem that ultimately had a very simple answer – choice.

To know gratitude is a blessing in itself, but it doesn’t happen on its own. Like so much in life, it is a choice. It is a decision we make, time we take, and selfishness we forsake. (That has a nice rhyme to it, so don’t be surprised if it shows up in a rap song someday.)

But when we don’t take time to choose gratitude, we choose otherwise.

Perhaps the lyrics of the song Freewill by the rock band, Rush, say it best “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

We have to choose to pause, to notice, and to acknowledge, otherwise by default, it seems we’ve made an entirely different choice. We inadvertently ignore the blessings of gratitude.

Each day we have the chance to notice all the abundance in our lives, all the beauty in nature and all the hope in humanity. 

It’s easy enough to make the choice on a day such as Thanksgiving when we are surrounded by food, family, and if you are a fan, you could even add football to that list. It’s the rest of the days that the choice of gratitude often gets left undecided.

I am thankful that the Indians and pilgrims chose gratitude and for the generations who followed them who kept the tradition thriving all the way into a new millennium, so that centuries later, I am reminded of my own choice.

The legacy of thanks is one that can expand into infinity, if we choose to decide, and if we don’t, well, we would do well to remember that we still have made a choice.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to list the three things I am thankful for today.

  1. Sleeping cats
  2. Goodbye kisses
  3. No mildew to clean

 

And of course, each of you.

What are you thankful for today?


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Don’t Stop Believin’ — the Magic of Christmas

We all know Christmas is about an innocent baby born in a manger. But for me, what embodies the spirit of the season this year has to do with a 49-year-old man who will be getting out of prison this week.

I know that doesn’t make you all warm and fuzzy the way your footed pajamas and hot cocoa by the fire does.

I get that.

The birth of our Savior is the greatest story ever told, not to mention it has baby lambs in it too.  There’s no way I can compete with that.

Certainly, the man in prison is no Christ-child.

He is an addict.

He is an ordinary Joe.  Well, kind of anyway.

What I mean by ordinary is he made a mistake, and how much more ordinary can you get than making mistakes – it seems to be at the essence of our humanity.

I guess what is unique about his mistake, unlike so many of mine, is it landed him in prison.

Thirteen years ago Joe was arrested for buying cocaine for personal use, and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker.  His punishment was 20 years with no chance of parole.

Kind of harsh.

The world is full of addicts though. It seems everyone’s addicted to something — drugs, fame, possessions, power and oh, how I could go on.  So, Joe is kind of ordinary that way.

Joe is one of six boys whose family grew up next door to a dear friend of mine.  Their moms were best friends for 40 years.  Even the way my friend described her childhood, that Joe was so much a part of, was kind of ordinary.  They carpooled together, teased each other, and played with all the other kids until way past dark.

When he was arrested and given such a severe sentence, my friend said all she heard everyone say was “what a shame.” Two years later, when talking about their beloved friend Joe, old friends would still say “what a shame.” Six years later… “what a shame.”

I guess she got tired of the hopeless sentiment and decided to do something about it.

Joe had already made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.  Each one was denied.  The only hope he had was clemency from the Governor to commute the duration of the sentence, which was basically the equivalent of a snowball’s chance in hell.

My friend and his brothers took that chance.

So I guess that’s when the ordinary became extraordinary.

She had worked tirelessly on trying to get him out of prison since 2006.

When I say tirelessly, I assure you she was tired.

She has three kids and didn’t have time to dedicate driving six hours round trip in a day to meet with clemency aides.  But she did.

Several times.

Perhaps as remarkable, she had another friend who had no ties to this family working just as diligently on the case.

As the years passed I saw how much time, effort and prayer, that she and the others involved put into the effort to get Joe out of prison.

Finally after six years, Joe was granted a clemency hearing.  Sadly, Joe’s mom passed away less than a month before it would be held.  After learning of her death from a prison guard, Joe was not allowed to attend her funeral.

The tragedies of it all, hardly made me think of the word believe.

Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s on 34th Street was a huge sign in brilliant white lights that said just that word.

Believe.

believe2

Earlier that morning, I was rushing to get dressed.  We were going to meet another couple that traveled with us for breakfast, and then a day of…well, everything.  We were in New York City, after all.

At 7:39 a.m.  I received a text from my friend back in Florida with the novena prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe.   I was just one of the many prayer warriors she had commissioned to pray on behalf of Joe.  His clemency hearing happened to be on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was the last day of our novena.

I told my husband that I wanted to go by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle for Joe, his family, my friend, and all of the other people who worked so hard to get to this point and yes, for his mama too.

altar

While I was putting on my umpteenth layer of clothing for the clearly we-are-not-in-Florida-anymore cold, my husband pulls out his Ipad.

The clemency hearing was going to be broadcast on one of those boring government channels that no one watches, and my husband (who is clearly not boring) knew where to find it!

Suddenly, I was nervous.

The night before I left for New York, I saw my friend and she was anxious about the upcoming hearing.  I told her she had to have faith – she had to believe. I told her that this was about so many more people than Joe.  God had a plan for each person that had been affected.  However it ended up would be just another part of His plan.

We all talk about letting go and trusting God, but it’s scary as hell when you have to do it.  She had done her diligence.  I had no doubts about that.  Truly, it was time to let it go.

Still, I was scared for her.  I knew the chances were slim.  This Governor had never commuted a sentence before.

As the clemency hearing played out in real time, I intermittently watched and walked away. I was anxious.  I couldn’t imagine the pressure they were all feeling.  For the first time ever, I thought how hope is a terrible thing.

I didn’t want to believe.  Believing was causing me to pace and cry and fix my eye make up all over again.  Believing caused a pit in my stomach that wouldn’t have been there if I could just walk away.

I listened to Joe’s good friend tell the Clemency Board and the Governor about how he visited him in prison and brought his children along on many of those visits.  He spoke of the time his daughter was asked to choose the catholic she admired most and she chose Joe – the prisoner.

Apparently she saw Joe embody Christ, not a cocaine addict.

One of Joe’s brothers spoke of how his parents never regretted the time they spent visiting him in prison, sometimes driving as long as 10 hours to see him.  He also read a letter from Joe accepting responsibility for his crime and its consequences.  He asked for mercy.

Mercy.  That is the word Joe used, if you can believe.

My eyes pooled again when my friend’s 80-year-old mother spoke, after her 8-hour commute to the Florida Capital, about the little boy of her best friend.  I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to honor the legacy of their friendship than speaking with a mother’s love on behalf of the friend she had just buried.

She said Joe was a good man who gave in to the temptation of drugs.  She testified that indeed he has a good network of friends and family who will support his transition out of prison, but that his mother has an even greater network of friends both on earth and in heaven that would make sure he stays on the right path.

I didn’t think there was much that the Governor could say about that.

The last speaker on Joe’s behalf was the woman who became familiar with the case through my friend.  I am just going to quote her because there is no way I could say it better.

“As I understand it, clemency is mercy or favor or grace, and a relief from a just penalty.  I am reminded of that definition during Advent as we approach the commemoration of the birth of Christ.”

manger

So, I thought some about the birth of the baby in the manger and all the years and generations of believers who have come and gone since then; all those who brought petitions, pleas and pardon before Him since that momentous night in the stable – THIS was just one more in a flurry of billions which He has heard.

But He heard.

The Governor did what he had never done before.  He granted clemency to this man who made a bad a choice, and paid the price for 13 years for that choice. This man, who had lost so much more than his freedom behind bars, will be set free

Joe will be given a second chance – just in time for Christmas.

Extraordinary.

After turning off the live broadcast, we went to a crowded bagel joint for breakfast and I kept crying tears of joy, gratitude and humility from the goodness of it all.  And, the beautiful thing about crying in New York, is no one tries to hug you or ask if you are okay.  They just leave you alone to cry salty tears over your toasted bagel with salmon spread.

This just made me love New York all the more.

I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and like an eager child, I lit a candle at the first altar I could, just besotted with gratitude.  Afterward, I visited the many altars at the beautiful cathedral including the one to our Lady of Guadalupe which was covered in flowers and surrounded by people who had come to honor her feast day.

Guadalupe

It was a beautiful sight and how grateful I was to have prayed for her intercession on behalf of this man.  The power of prayer is as strong as ever, reminding me that even though I may just be a speck on this universe, I am a speck who God thinks is quite special.

That night I had yet another religious experience – rock and roll.

No, not the Elvis kind –the eighties kind.  You know Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake and  Quiet Riot.

We went to see Rock of Ages, the musical where they glorify 80s rock music.

It was almost impossible for me to sit in my seat as the talented cast belted out songs from the decade of my youth.  It was both hilarious and irreverent.  I enjoyed every single minute of it.

rockofages

The final song of the production embodied not only the spirit of Christmas, but that of faith.

It was the song by Journey – Don’t stop believin’.

As it filled the theater, with its pleas to hold on to that feeling, I was on my feet and celebrating that feeling of faith that had been renewed in me.

It’s easy to stop believing.

One day you realize there is no Santa Claus.  There are no talking snowmen or elves or reindeer.

That magic is gone, and we think that it is okay because it’s childish and silly and there is no room for that in our grown up, real world lives.

But it’s in our adult lives that faith is paramount.

We have to keep believing even when the odds are against us.  We have to stay soft and open to the gifts that await.  Gifts that have nothing to do with Macy’s, despite the brilliant sign it boasts this time of year.

This Christmas, for the first in such long time, I can say that I believe.

While I have never lost faith in that baby boy born in a manger with the sweet lambs nearby, I did somehow lose the magic of this time of year which has nothing to do with lists and everything to do with faith in the people in my life.

The people who stand by you at your darkest hour, who petition for you, who forgive you, who believe you are worth a second try, who get what it’s like to emulate the life of Christ no matter the time of year, those are the people who make the season magic, merry and bright.

So if you have not found that magic yet, don’t stop believing.  I promise it’s out there.

And if you are fortunate to already believe, find a way, no matter what life throws at you, to hold on to that feeling.

Each of you who have taken the time to read, comment and share have added to the magic of my year. May your faith in God, goodness and mankind spread with each kindness you share, so that others may believe.  Merry Christmas to you!


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Memories of Mama, Daddy and Baby Tomato

Mama tomato and Daddy tomato are walking along the road (presumably to shop for a new topsy-turvy for their growing family), when they notice that Baby tomato is quite far behind (probably from admiring the cute cherry tomatoes they passed.) Daddy tomato yells to Baby tomato, “Ketchup!!”topsy-turvy_enl

Get it?  Like Catch Up — ketchup?!

I didn’t get it at first, because I am kind of slow (like Baby tomato).  Once my husband explained it to me though, I thought it was kind of funny.  Of course, I added the part about the topsy-turvy and the cherry tomatoes to spice it up a little bit – salsa anyone?

The priest used the tomato joke to explain a tradition in the Filipino community that includes a Novena to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in anticipation of Christmas, called Simbang Gabi.  It is nine days of going to mass, and then celebrating after with food, traditional dance and songs. The last day of the Novena falls on Christmas Eve.

While my husband is Filipino, this has not been a tradition in his family.  However, this year, one of the nine nights of the Novena was at our parish church, so we attended the celebration for the first time.  I didn’t really know what to expect.  Most of the mass was in the Filipino language, Tagalog, which I don’t understand so I let my mind and eyes wander.  I was amazed at how packed the church was, and how the few Caucasians stood out like white rice in a vat of black beans.  (I am mixing ethnic food here, but that’s what ignorant white people do – especially when they really like black beans and rice.)

I was relieved that the priest did the homily in English, and I quit thinking about beans and rice, and shifted my attention to Mama, Daddy and Baby tomato.

Simbang_Gabi_2002Perhaps because I was just excited to understand anything at this point, I appreciated the simplistic way he explained Simbang Gabi, two complicated words for a white girl who only knows 5 words in Tagalog: grandmother, grandfather, thank you and butt.

One could argue that it is merely three words when you consider that the only difference between grandmother and grandfather is the different vowels at the end. Thank-you is a phrase, so if I had to break it up into separate words, meanings could get mutilated in translation.   Alas, the word butt I learned from my children and as far as I understand there are no nuances with it – it’s what my people always called a hiney.  Apparently my children’s Lola (grandmother) always made sure they wiped their puett (butt) when they were small.  Salamat Po (thank you) God … and Lola!

Anyway, the point which I have long lost, is that those nine days spent preceding Christmas are the Filipino’s way of catching up with Jesus.  It ensures that their focus is on Him, instead of shelf elves and Santa suits.   It is inarguably a beautiful and meaningful tradition.

For me, this time-gap between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a little like Baby tomato playing catch-up, but in the best possible way.  All of the pressure of Christmas has been swept away along with the last bit of tiny pine needles on my living room floor.  (Yes, we take our tree down before New Year’s Eve, and certainly before the January 6 tradition of Little Christmas.  Did I mention the pine needles nesting in 3-inch high mounds from our dehydrated tree whose stand the cat and dog think of as a clever water dispenser?)

That cute little grey and white thing in the middle of the tree is no ornament -- it is a kitty tree-dehydrator.  See the infomercial following the topsy-turvy segment, to get yours.

That cute little grey and white thing in the middle of the tree is no ornament — it is a kitty tree-dehydrator. See the infomercial following the topsy-turvy segment, to get yours.

I have resigned myself to eating extra black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to compensate for any lost luck from this religious and cultural faux pas.

Anyway, with New Year’s resolutions still-forming, but unimplemented, it’s a wonderful time to simply catch up.  So that has been what I have been doing in ways that feel decadent — like spending time with old friends, and reading back issues of favorite magazines that boast all kinds of projects and recipes that I have thankfully avoided from Labor Day until Christmas.  How’s that for strategy?  No need to learn how to concoct witches brew post-Christmas.  After all, Halloween is so passé, and has nothing to do with current trends of organization, goal-setting and weight-loss.

Catching up in more practical ways, I have cleaned out a few closets, cabinets and drawers trying to fill shopping bags with the clutter that accumulated over the past year.  I LOVE doing this.  My excitement for streamlining- as I like to call it, borders on freakish.  There is something so cathartic about stripping down my possessions (okay, and my children’s too) in order to live more simply, with only things that we use or our meaningful to us.

One thing that I don’t love doing, which I procrastinate most of the year, is making a photo-book about family happenings from the preceding year.  These are my propaganda books; they are by design potential weapons for me to pull-out someday if, per chance, my children tell me they are in therapy because of their stinking, rotten-tomato childhoods.

If my boys declare war on the memory of their mostly idyllic childhood, these books are my secret weapon. I will assure them with these hard-copy books that contain nothing but smiling-happy faces on page after glossy page that our family was filled with happy times, moments of fantasy and vacations that no matter how great the destination had their most important component – a souvenir. (Despite whether their trip was to the Magic Kingdom or the Grand Canyon these souvenirs are almost exclusively made in China.)  That’s not what matters though, for them it was part of what made their trip special. For my husband and me, our stint spent in gift shops losing time to their indecision, and money to China will always be memorable.

Really though, the yearly photo books are there to preserve cherished memories and experiences that are unique to our family.  They will be here years later, when we need to catch up with lost traditions, or when they need to begin new ones with their own families.  They will be there when they need to reconnect with their origins possibly to have a better sense of self, and hopefully they will be there to remind them of our devotion to loving them when we have long passed from this world.  Perhaps I should stop calling them propaganda books and call them priority books, but that just makes me too sad.

When the yearly photo-book finally arrives in the mail, it includes all of the best memories hand-picked by mama, precisely arranged and expertly captioned with details of who they are and what they have done, representing countless hours of my time and effort – more importantly representing who they were at a particular moment in time.  Yet, I only read through the book once, mostly checking for typos and that the layout and design are to my liking.  Then, I put it on the shelf in our living room, and move on to making new memories.

The truth is it is too hard for me to look back at past years and see how round their faces once were,  and to see how small they were despite the fact that even then, I was lamenting how much they had already grown.

So, while the world didn’t end as the Mayans predicted, the end of another year and another photo book appears inevitable.  Indeed it all passes too quickly, but with the promise of a new year ahead, happy memories wait to be made. This time with my children won’t last forever, despite how badly I want to capture their laughter, silly dance moves, and even hoard for myself all those tossed aside souvenirs that remind me of so much more than the places we have been.

It is time to live and love in this moment so that the only catching up left to do will be flipping through the pages of old photo books, reminiscing with full hearts of this old joke we used to tell about Mama, Daddy and Baby tomato.

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