A Lesson from Massanutten

From July 17 to the 24th of this month, my family and I had a truly marvelous thing happen to us. A church friend and colleague of ours (whom I will not name here) has been going through some difficult times in her personal life and has been doing some ‘wellness’ traveling. In possession of a one week trip to the resort community in western Virginia known as Massanutten, while simultaneously booked onto an Alaskan cruise, she found that she was unable to fit both sets of travel plans into her schedule. The result of this double-booking was that she looked at my wife and said, “How would you all like a vacation for a week?” As ridiculous as that sounds, that really is a fairly accurate distillation of the circumstances. To say that we were thrilled would be an understatement. People don’t usually give vacations away (unless you’re Oprah), and given our tenuous financial situation, and with our son being almost two and constantly in motion, we had no defined plans to vacation; certainly not for a week.

Massanutten, located just outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was really a magical place. For seven days we swam in three different pools including an indoor water park, sampled the Blue Ridge buffet, toured the petting zoo, onsite arboretum, and ate at the area restaurants. We took side trips to the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum on the campus of James Madison University, went twice into Shenandoah National Park, and knocked one off my bucket list by seeing the Natural Bridge of Thomas Jefferson fame. We hiked, grilled, swam, and even rode an elephant named Beautiful, who truly was. All in all it was a wonderful trip in which we bonded as a young family should. And it all was made possible by the generosity of one friend who, while undergoing life’s wild vicissitudes, said, “Have this one on me.”

Nancy, John Adams, and I astride Beautiful

Nancy, John Adams, and I astride Beautiful

It’s very easy to get caught up in the drama of our personal lives; I know this only too well. And the problems of life never seem to lighten, especially the financial ones where my family is concerned. But how wonderful to know and remember that there are people out there who are also ‘going through it,’ but instead of turning inward to ruminate on their own problems they turn outward and try to bring a little joy into the lives of others. There’s no question that our friend did that for my family, most especially for our John Adams, who I think has developed a lifelong love of water slides. So thank you, friend, for a beautiful week of memories. But even more so, thank you for being an example of a good and generous person with a big heart. May we all learn from your example and bring some joy into the lives of those around us no matter what our personal traumas might be.

Thanks for the lesson.

Thanks for the memories.

A parakeet attack at the Natural Bridge Zoo with ticklish results.

A parakeet attack at the Natural Bridge Zoo with ticklish results.

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Haiku Post-Mortem

I’m actually very late in posting this week, but with good reason. I’ve just gotten back from a fantastic week-long vacation with my family in a place called Massanutten that had very spotty to at times nonexistent wi-fi. But better late than never right? So to catch up here’s a bunch of haiku inspired mostly by the passing of my cousin, Sister Florita Gehret, whom we buried last Thursday. Readers of my blog will know of whom I speak. If you don’t, read last week’s post. These haiku are not so much morbid as pensive. But death does make you think. Have a great weekend.

Namaste

Jason

Another passage,
As the death of a loved one
Raises life’s questions.

No one knew better
How to live in the moment
Than my late cousin.

No words can express
How the loss of a loved one
Changes who we are.

Death shall be our end,
And in its approach we ask
“What were our lives for?”

You can’t live backward.
So clean up after yourself,
And do what’s needed.

Try to live your life
Based on the best example
Of those before you.

When your time is up
No amount of medicine
Will delay your flight.

When one lays dying
Are one’s thoughts focused on the
Here or hereafter?

We’re borne to this world
Naked, afraid, defenseless.
We leave no diff’rent.

Sister Florita,
Little flower of my heart,
May you rest in peace.

Sister Florita at the piano

Sister Florita at the piano

Sister Florita aka Jean Gehret

On July 4th of this year I attended a real nice gathering of my wife’s family. Like the party the year before, which we had also attended, there was good food, lots of laughter, and all the pleasantries associated with a simple holiday party. Concurrent to the house party and about two hours away in Camp Hill, PA, my second cousin, Jean Gehret, also known for most of her life as Sister Florita of the Sisters of Christian Charity, was quietly though actively (I am told) celebrating her milestone birthday of ninety years. She had pulled through a bout of pneumonia and was on the mend. I was aware of Jean’s birthday, (not that it was her ninetieth to be fair), since a person’s birthday that falls on Independence Day is easy to remember, but I had absentmindedly prioritized my own fun at the party over calling her for a few minutes on her special day. I have known Jean my entire life. She has lived in my house for weeks at a time when she was home in Reading, PA visiting her family and friends. I’ve never known life without her presence in some way. I would call her tomorrow when I wasn’t busy, when I would have more time to talk to her uninterrupted, when I had decided what I wanted to say to her.

The next day came and went; and the next. I never placed the birthday call. I was never ‘not busy’. John Adams is constantly underfoot and in need of attention, I told myself. There is always housework to be done. Then there was the guilt of not calling on her birthday which only fueled the procrastination further. I really need to call her, I hounded myself further. She’s never met John Adams. She’ll want to know how he’s doing. I should call when I get a chance. The days stretched on for a week. Every day I reminded myself of the obligation. Every day I put it off till the next day, convinced by my self-serving logic that given my schedule I was doing the right thing. No harm done.

On Saturday, July 11 as I was preparing to go to the 40th Anniversary Gala for Upper Darby Summer Stage – a night of celebration – I received a voicemail from another nun, a well-meaning colleague of Sister Florita’s. Sister, Jean, had died. In the days that followed her birthday party her pneumonia had reemerged. She had stopped eating and started bleeding internally. Her last week was not kind to her. She had suffered and was eventually put on extreme pain medication of unknown name that most likely hastened her passing even as it provided her some measure of peace. The nun felt certain that Jean had hung on long enough to celebrate her special day but had been privately aware of her declining health. I had been called because the nuns were instructed to go through her cell phone and alert everyone who was saved in her address book. I was in the book. I got a call. Seven days after Jean’s birthday the nuns had beaten me to the punch. Sister Florita was dead. There were to be no more “Happy Birthdays,” no more “I Love yous,” no more “We’ll try to come visits.” There was just a conversation with a stranger about funeral arrangements for a dead relative that I hadn’t made time for on her big day, and lots of guilt and regret.

As I prepare to go to her funeral on Thursday it occurs to me how ridiculous and asinine our priorities often are. Since her death I’ve been determined to get to her funeral at all costs, but I couldn’t take five minutes out of a relatively relaxed day to speak to her while she was alive. Is attending the funeral now a mark of respect to her, or is it an attempt to assuage the guilt I feel for not having been there for her at the end of her life? Even now, is the priority really about Sister Florita, or is it about me? I’m just not sure, but I suspect I don’t want to delve too deeply in search of the answer. What I do know is that this is a regular pattern in not only my life but in many people’s, and it is one that inevitably brings about regret and guilt. I have done this before with other loved ones who I thought would live forever, and it never turns out to my credit. It’s a hard lesson, but the message is so easy and clear: if you love someone, don’t be a stranger, make time for them, and never fail to show them at each opportunity how much you care about them. For each of us there will come a day when there is no “next time.”

As for myself, I need to remember her and this failure and do better. Jean, Sister Florita, deserved better. And just who was she? Well, she was my mother’s first cousin, and a regular houseguest, babysitter of mine, and influence during much of my early life. She drove my father crazy, ate us out of house and home, and frequently monopolized our television viewing. She was effervescently cheerful, chatty, and social, a folk guitarist, English teacher, and lover of both Sister Act and Nunsense . She was kind, simple, and a bit demanding, but she also bankrolled large portions of my higher education at Kutztown University and the National Shakespeare Conservatory with a private account that she kept through my mother despite having taken a vow of poverty. (Apparently she was also pragmatic.)She was a lover of God and Christ and yet knew less about the Bible than almost anyone I know. When I asked her about this once she laughed innocently, “I’m a nun. We don’t read the Bible much. I just say my prayers.” Nuns, like lay people, I suppose have the right to be complex. And every story I have to share about Jean is the same way: sweet, silly, a bit batty and nonsensical, and filled with a lot of love. And that’s how I’m going to choose to remember her when I go to the funeral on Thursday. A teacher for most of her life, in death she had one more lesson to impart to me on her way out and up. I hope I don’t miss the lesson this time.

Now that said, I hope you’ll excuse me. I think I’ll go call my mother.

I would suggest you all do the same.

RIP Sister Florita aka Jean Gehret and God Be With You

Sister Florita on our wedding day, October 20, 2012

Sister Florita on our wedding day,            October 20, 2012

 

The Whole Man Theory

From time to time, especially around the Fourth of July, the subject of my son, John Adams’s, name comes up. People typically admiringly ask one of the following questions: “Why did you name him John Adams?” “Do you like the President?” “Are we related to the Adams Family in some way?” “Do we know the musical 1776?” The questions are pretty much the same all the time. Only rarely do I get someone who openly challenges our decision. “Why would you name him after John Adams?” “He was the second president, not the first (so first loser, I suppose).” “He was insecure and arrogant.” “He was a Federalist.” “He was the first one-term president because he was so unpopular.” Or most damning of all, “He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts allowing the Federalists to lock up score of political opponents!” “Guilty as charged,” is my usual reply. You cannot alter history (though many in this country try). But where most people tend to judge the lives of others like John Adams solely upon one or two events – he was President of the United States, his letters with wife Abigail and Thomas Jefferson, the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts – the John Adams I’ve come to know and admire is more the product of knowing a little more about many of the aspects of his life, and trying to tease out his overall net worth as a person post-mortem. This approach to assessing the entire life of a person is appropriately called The Whole Man Theory.

I had never heard of The Whole Man Theory until I started listening to The Thomas Jefferson Hour several years ago. As a matter of fact as I was researching for this article I found a related article written by Clay S. Jenkinson of The Thomas Jefferson Hour fame for The Bismarck Tribune. Here is the link to that article if you’d like his specific take on the subject:

http://bismarcktribune.com/news/columnists/clay-jenkinson/life-shouldn-t-be-judged-by-one-foible/article_36103974-ce2d-519f-b949-f09343ec3f92.html

As I understand it, The Whole Man Theory asks us to consider all of a person’s positive attributes and contributions to civilization, and then do the same for their negatives, weigh the two against each other, and finally assess their life based on the balance, or imbalance of the two. That’s it. No secret formula. No drawn out plan. Just look at the big, entire picture before you judge. It should be easy. But our own biases of right and wrong frequently skew our tallies and cloud our judgement. And then there’s the fact that often overall good people have seriously bad baggage. Consider the following:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he owned slaves. George Washington defeated the British to secure us our country, but he owned slaves. FDR all but won World War II and got America through the Great Depression, but he imprisoned all the Asian-Americans in concentration camps. Though I’m citing extreme cases here, I firmly believe that no one who has lived a life of some significance has no dirty laundry in their past. Please believe me when I say I’m not making light of their faults, I just don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect human.

US_Navy_031029-N-6236G-001_A_painting_of_President_John_Adams_(1735-1826),_2nd_president_of_the_United_States,_by_Asher_B._Durand_(1767-1845)-crop

President John Adams as painted by Asher B. Durand

We have a troublesome tendency towards vilifying our public figures over singular incidents, Nixon and Watergate for example. And sometimes, rarely thankfully, there is an Adolf Hitler who tips the scale so far toward the “dark” side that there is no hope of looking for balance. But most lives are made up of good and bad, successes and failures, periods of light and darkness, and we would do well to remember that until the day we die the sum total of our experiences has yet to be tallied.

As for naming my son John Adams, well, Nancy and I do admire the second president with all of his faults. He was irascible and vain, insecure and at times an elitist, and he did sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, putting the Alien and Sedition Acts aside, he was a loving husband and father, a brilliant rhetorician and statesman, arguably the most well-read man in the colonies, first vice-president, second president, first United States Ambassador to Great Britain and, most importantly, without his dogged tenacity in Congress we would very likely not have our own country. It’s true that the Alien and Sedition Acts must be researched and wrestled with if you really want to know the man and not just lionize him. But based on my own research, within the context of history there are very real and unfortunately valid reasons why he gave in to temptation on this one issue. It’s a decision that stained his character, marred his presidency and subsequent legacy in the eyes of generations after him, and he regretted it the rest of his life. But I have the benefit of time and historical context on my side and so see the mistake for what it was (or at least what I think it was), and in my final analysis I can still greatly admire the rest of him. I have forgiven John his tragic error in judgment, and slowly much of the rest of the country has come around to the same conclusion.

The larger challenge is applying the principles of The Whole Man Theory to people who do us personally wrong. Is their decision to harm us unique from their overall character or is it a hallmark of their overall personality? How can the world at large admire those who hurt us? Can we move past a personal injury to see the big picture that is another person’s life still in progress without the benefits of time and distance? It’s not easy. And even as I write I can think of several individuals I still struggle to see clearly through the pain. But President John Adams is not one of them for me. His life balanced well in my book and, despite his flaws, I’m proud my son is named in his honor.

Now, for my son’s middle name, Tiberius…

Well, we’ll save that discussion for another day.

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My John Adams Tiberius Michael

Summer Haiku, and Some Are Not

This week it felt like a good time to take a short break from essaying and get back to sharing some of the month’s better haiku. Work is well underway on my next collection of haiku. Titled A Haiku a Day this next book, due out in a month or so will feature gorgeous photography by one of my oldest friends in the world, Carolyn Leshock. Anyway, enough with the commercial.

Enjoy and namaste,

Jason

“Love one another”
Why in the world is that hard?
Just love each other!

I think little boys
Exist as an excuse for
Their dads to play games.

There are no answers
When one asks the question of
Man’s stupidity.

In a hundred years,
The problems of the present
Will be so much dust.

Miracles exist
If you know where to find them,
And believe in them.

If you change your thoughts,
Your reality will change.
It’s cause and effect.

Part of the Journey
You’ll have to walk by yourself,
But not all of it.

When you are lost think:
“Where do I want to go?” not
“How did I get here?”

Each tomato seed
That bursts forth is a promise
Of God’s abundance.

Love is the answer.
If so, what is the question?
Makes no difference.