February 24, 1998

Votive Motive

I am lighting candles again and I am surprised. Candle lighting periods appear in my life at infrequent intervals and always out of nowhere. This time it was probably the flu. Shall I blame it on the flu or shall I thank the flu?

Candles were important in my Roman Catholic youth. As an altar boy I would light the two candles on the altar for a regular mass and all six for a high mass. Funerals and weddings would often include a high mass so they would receive the full treatment too. But all of these were just plain white candles. The real action was in the back of the church.

When I was young, all Catholic churches had votive candles. Tiers of red glass containers held candles stationed in front of a statue of a favorite saint. A candle was lit, a prayer of intercession recited and a price paid. Most of the time the donation was monetary. A dime was the going rate.

I am not sure how much time a dime bought you. You did not get the whole candle and my guess is that you probably got to the end of the day. My hope is that the candles were not left burning over night, but they might have. After all, you are talking about linkage to the real higher ups here, so perhaps the feeling was that calamity would not be a threat.

The custom of votive candles waned in the churches, most likely hastened by insurance companies, but it did not die out completely. You can light a candle at the mall. Yes, I said the mall - at the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. For more than thirty years, a Carmelite chapel has been a part of the mall. It is now located in the basement and most mall worshipers do not know that it exists. But the faithful know. And the lovers of votive candles know.

The chapel at the mall has several arrangements of candles to choose from, all honoring different saints. Time has brought a few changes to the custom. Red glass has been replaced by red plastic. And it is no longer a real flame. An electric imitation of a flame suffices. And inflation has arrived in this sector too. It costs a dollar to push the button to light the candle. But there is a bargain on the other side of the chapel. For a smaller light, a quarter can be inserted for a coin activated flame. I love that one. The merger of the commercial and the sacred is complete.

When I was living in Arizona, I was a frequent visitor to the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona. The chapel, a cruciform of stunningly simple design perched on the red rocks, has many visitors from all over the world. It contains racks of the old red glass votive candles, but with no saints hovering nearby. A beatific head of Jesus Christ is gently lit above the altar, but most of the rest of the chapel is bare. As I sit there, and as I think about it now, the sounds, the aromas and the feelings of my youth flood back.

I held a faith in the sacred, a faith that was somehow lost along the way. Back then the faith was tied to a set of complex beliefs about what was sacred and as those beliefs untied, my faith also unraveled.

As my definition of what is sacred has changed, and my faith has returned. My faith is much different now and cornering my idea of faith is difficult, but the sacred takes me to the place of faith. And the sacred is all of the everyday and ordinary things, people and events of life.

Daily life itself is the sacred and my small votive candle reminds me. It sits on my desk as I read or write. It sometimes moves around the room with me. It reminds me of where I have been, where I am going and, most of all, where I am now. And it reminds me that I am not alone.

February 22, 1998

Color Bind

An unfamiliar twinge hit me. Maybe she had hit a bad note. Maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. No, the clear and sharp melody of her voice and her guitar had not faltered. The source of the twinge was in me and it was jealousy.

But I do not think that I was really at fault. I think that it was the rug. Yes, it must have been the rug. The rug made me do it.

The voice and guitar belonged to Dar Williams, a favorite singer songwriter of mine. She performed to a sold out, adoring audience at a church in Salem, Massachusetts. The church underwent major renovation a few years ago and it emerged glowing as a classic colonial structure. The interior was vintage New England with simple lines throughout. The walls were off-white and the trim of the quiet fluted columns and the balconies were a pale green.

During the renovation the color of the new carpet in the church became an issue. A red carpet had graced the church for as far back as anyone could remember, but the designer was recommending green. The church, a liberal democratic bunch, would put it to a vote. But who would vote. Members only? Let everyone vote! What about the children? Sure, let the kids vote too.

If you were one of the kids, would you vote for red or green? When did a child ever choose anything green? No, the kids all voted for red, but the parents had learned their decorating lessons and the green rug won a narrow victory.

It was good that green won, because it completed a beautiful design. But it was not good for me. It was the green that did me in. Green is the color of jealousy. I did not have to go to one of those Color Me Beautiful For Men courses to know that. It was like an aroma therapy result without the aroma. The color green wafted through the air and I was changed. I was instantly jealous.

Red would have been so much better for me. We all know that red stands for love. I could have embraced that emotion and joined in the love fest for Dar. Instead, I listened to her chat with the crowd about all the places she had been and the people she had met and I was jealous. After all, I have not been to as many places or met as many people. She has more than I do - more of life.

Oh, to have her life. Traveling all of the time. Going to work at eight thirty on a Saturday night with people you do not know. Singing the same songs night after night after night.

My twinge of jealousy did not last too long. I have more freedom than Dar, and I have chosen a different way of being in the world. Maybe the message is that I am yearning for more different kinds of experiences in my life, but not a different life. I have chosen the life I lead for a reason. It is mine.

As I processed this mini-crisis in my life I saw her purple dress. Purple is for passion and she wears it well. She sings of the love and pain of growing up, loving, separating and going on, with force and conviction. She is passionate about who she is and how she is in the world. A colorful lesson learned.

February 9, 1998

Feathered Friends

The Olympics have not yet embraced bird watching as an official Olympic sport, but I am sure that the day will soon come. Millions worldwide participate in this activity. Although I would not classify myself as a “bird watcher,” I enjoy watching birds. They can provide great entertainment. My bird watching is pretty much confined to my back yard. I can recognize only the plentiful birds of my region, the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and cardinals. My favorite is the bright red cardinal, the male of course. The female cardinal is just another gray bird. Everyone prefers a flash of color.

My bird watching took on an entirely new dimension when we were living in Arizona, the land of the hummingbirds. Two red feeders hung on our front deck and the hummingbirds, with dazzling colors sparkling in the sunlight, would entertain us. We learned quickly that hummingbirds are territorial. Our porch was owned by “BD,” short for Bad Dude. He waited in the nearby spruce and would attack any other bird who would dare to approach one of the feeders. The others would learn to work in pairs. One would feint an approach to the feeder and BD would chase him off over the rooftops. The other would sneak in for a feed while BD was off on his mission. This went on all day every day.

We were in a new house this Christmas and one of my gifts under the tree was a new bird feeder and a bag of sunflower seeds. Obviously, my wife was ready for the birds again. But why was this a gift to me? I enjoy watching the birds but I do not enjoy feeding the birds. That was a job which she always performed. And sure enough, after many days went by, she put up the nail, hung the feeder and filled it for the birds.

It takes the birds a few days to find a new feeder, but eventually they appeared. We sat on our sun porch as the birds carried off the seeds to devour them in the pine tree nearby. A steady stream of chickadees and nuthatches appeared day after day. Then one day I noticed that the feeder was empty. My wife is working full time and the weekend was a few days away. I thought about filling it, but I was feeling really lousy at the time and I was not in the mood to be entertained by birds. In fact, I new that I was incapable at that time of enjoying the birds, so I left the feeder empty.

As the day and night went on, somewhere in my mind I continued to recall a recent conversation with a friend. His basic philosophy is “life sucks and then you die, so life is about entertaining yourself.” I remember feeling the same way at periods in my life, but now I am in a different place. Life is not about entertaining yourself, I had argued. It is about serving others, thereby being part of the connection of the web of life.

To me, serving others meant serving people. But what about the birds? Why did they deserve less from me? Why were they there solely for my entertainment? The ground was completely snow covered. Their sources of food were diminished. So the next day I fed the birds because they needed food. I did this for them, not for me.

The amazing part is now that I feed the birds for them, I feel more connected and I get even more entertainment from their flights to the feeder. As I was watching them, I lamented that we have not attracted any cardinals. Maybe I am not ready yet. My heart has opened a crack, but there is more work to be done. Perhaps, when I am ready, the web of life will reward me with a flash of red.

February 5, 1998

Time Out

Parallel lines and parallel lives - that is all that I can think about. We talk about different people leading parallel lives. I have two friends from high school, Brian and Kevin, who went to college together, then law school, both did a judicial clerkship, joined the same law firm, were married in the same year, bought houses in the same town and then had two children, the same ages of course. Now that is what I call parallel lives.

But can one person have parallel lives? I am not talking about multiple personality disorder. I am talking about having days or periods of a life which seem to be completely different from other days and periods. You begin to wonder if you are the same person.

On a recent trip to Florida, on a Monday morning I hurtled my body in a car down Interstate 75. I was traveling from Ocala to Fort Myers, about a four and a half hour trip. I started the trip with enthusiasm but after a half hour I began to start looking at the clock to see how long I had been driving. Only a half hour! It felt like two. I was worse than a little kid asking, “Are we almost there?”

The radio had few stations out there in the middle of Florida. And the stations that I could find played lousy music. It was a gray day. Who cared? I had a lot of thinking to do. I had come to Florida to visit some relatives and during my spare time to plan the rest of my life. That is all. But I was not coming up with any answers! The next four hours were repetitive questions and an endless self-induced torturous lack of answers.

Five days later I repeated the same drive but this time headed north, traveling the same highway on a line one hundred feet parallel to Monday’s fiasco. The sun was shining. The one radio station I found was great and I was whistling and singing along. The scenery and signs along the way were interesting. My favorite one was “Construction Next 21.98 Miles.” Those people in Florida are precise.

I stopped for lunch at Reuben’s Eatery in Wesley Chapel, Florida, avoiding the chain restaurants. It did not disappoint. The decor was pizza shop minimalist, the food was great and the waitress called be “baby.” As in, serving my lunch with “There you go, baby.” I had just about become used to being called “honey” every where in Florida, but “baby” was way beyond that and it warmed my heart.

I made some other stops along the way, finding a great gift shop with schlocky Florida souvenirs. The whole trip flew by and was a great success. Why? What had changed from Monday?

The answer is that I changed. The middle three days of the week I had spent alone on a retreat. I knew that I needed some time by myself and for myself. I checked into a hotel on the harbor front and spent some time just crashing and letting my body recover from the stresses of life. But then I ventured out and explored the city on foot.

I did not do anything wildly exciting. I visited coffee shops and a museum. I walked the waterfront and watched the boats. I sat behind the third base dugout in the empty winter ballpark of the Boston Red Sox. I watched the owner of the pizza buffet give harp lessons to her four blonde little daughters behind the cash register. I lived simply and I simply lived.

I take these retreats periodically, usually about twice a year. I wish that I could say that I schedule them in advance, but they happen when I have hit the wall and I need a time out from life. The sites have varied: an inn in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a healing center in Sedona, Arizona, a Holiday Inn Express on the strip in small Payson, Arizona. The nature of the place is not important. The content of the activity need not be planned. Sometimes I read a lot and at other times I walk a lot. What I need is always provided. I somehow always get what I need.

I did not ask myself penetrating questions on my trip back up the highway, because I had discovered that the questioning was not the activity which I needed at this time in my life. For now, I needed to get back to noticing the bounty of the life all around me. My retreat brought me to that place where I needed to be.

It really was not a parallel life. It was more of a three dimensional hologram. I learned from my friend, Jack, that even if you cut a hologram in half, each half still contains the whole. The parallel lines of that interstate contained the whole, the multiple parts of me. As I drove south I contained the seeds of what I needed to change, and as I drove north, with the help of a time out, I embraced the day with a perspective that only the darker days can provide.