Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

As I count down the hours now to 2014, it's kind of fun to look at the time zones map of the world and think of all the celebrations going on across the globe - kind of a 24 hour party! As I write, Western Europe and parts of Africa have already welcomed the new year and are probably dancing and making calls and receiving text messages with big smiles. That makes me happy just thinking about it. England is next, where some of my friends are counting down to midnight. People, no doubt are at this very minute making sure they are where they want to be and with whom. This also makes me happy.

In fact, celebrations in general, are what help to make life special. Occasions to which we look forward and can fondly remember with wonderful people are the color on the canvas of life. Days and years go on, and things change, but the dried paint on the magnificent masterpiece we create will always remain. 2013 has roughly eight more hours for me, and I'm pretty okay with that. We can look back and be happy or sad, have regret or have pride, be moved or be apathetic, but what we need to remember is that this was all part of a journey. Every journey has it's ups and downs - its difficulties and its triumphs - yet, these were all necessary to make it through. Take it from a traveler: this is how we reach undiscovered territory - by stepping out and making the trip. For the people who don't see the big deal - who think it's just another day - I really don't get it. I'll take all the special days I can get... and the special people who come along with it.

Happy New Year, and I hope to see as many of you in 2014 as I can. Have a good journey.

Monday, December 30, 2013

To Honor

What a year it has been, and it has been no easy task thinking of a topic with which to close it out. Yesterday morning in mass, it hit me. One line struck me and rang a familiar tune - one of painful hilarity. In essence, we are to honor those around us. In fact, if we honor our fathers, our prayers will be answered. I had to chuckle for private reasons, and it made me think. Then, last night on television was the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual gala to highlight the lifetime achievements of individuals in the performing arts. Surely the two incidents were meant to coincide for some reason.

Washington Monument
When we honor, we exercise humility. We celebrate value in someone else by placing them above us and respecting something very distinct about them. However, honor is not simply a thought or a feeling, it is a decision and a course of action. Parents are special people who act on a duty that is to dedicate their lives to their children, but there are many people who have many different roles in the world and are also deserving of honor. Whom do we honor, and why... and how? These are important questions, and they should not be reserved for Mothers Day, Veterans Day, funerals, or birthdays. The example from the biblical message is important, because anyone, in theory, can fit into both the categories of parent and child in their lifetime. The point is that we all must have reverence and duty in order to be revered and distinguished. It is a cycle that continues for a lifetime.

Brother Shamus at the Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center
I have had the privilege to not only visit the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, but I had a private tour with my mom, my good friend Rich and his band played there, and I can be found dancing in the audience of a Creole band in the archives of the memorial. The Kennedy Center is the presidential monument that is a living showcase for the performing arts. It exists to elevate unknown talents and provide them a stage with free performances every day of the year as well as to bring in the well-established musicians, actors, and dancers to celebrate their accomplishments. This place is an ode to artistry, and it honors the nobody as well as the star.

First Meal in My Empty DC Apartment
We may think that we do not have the occasion to truly recognize with any effect the greatest among us, however we all have plenty of opportunities to elevate those around us, make good on our duties to our relationships, and live lives worthy of honor. Many times we achieve this through persistence, yet other times it is by letting go. We honor with our promises, our integrity, and by our own example for those who follow. It is not necessary to have a great ceremony or special occasion to honor others; we simply have to put forth the effort to fulfill our duties - to our parents, to our friends, to ourselves, and to the world. It may be a long-term dedication, or it may be a phone call or an invitation out to lunch. All it takes is to place others above ourselves - selfless giving - and we honor those who receive the kindness and indeed those who came before us. What if that was our resolution for the new year?

Goodbye 2013.

2012 Blue Mass Honoring Fallen Law Enforcement

"God sets a father in honor over his children; mother's authority he confirms over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother."
-Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 

Brother Shamus at Kennedy Center (Jan 16, 2010) 

Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas at Kennedy Center (Oct 15, 2012)
*I'm in the audience

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Joy to the World

Think of the best of today. No matter what you have going on with your life, probably at some point you have at least one positive memory. Hopefully, you have plenty - gifts and family around the tree, no place to be but with the people you love, food and song and happiness... This is a day designed for joy.

I have many great Christmas memories: such as being with some great people who are no longer with us, the magical carols sung by a whole congregation in a huge Washington cathedral, going to Santa Barbara overnight to pick up my best friend who would otherwise be alone and bring him back to San Bernardino (5 hour round trip), having the best time with family-less friends in my apartment for a Christmas evening brunch, and just sitting with my nieces while they pounce around the living room from gift to gift. When done correctly, we use this day to both give of ourselves to ensure those around us feel joy, as well as open our hearts to the sometimes difficult task of receiving it. Imagine a single day specifically designed to create joy in this world.

Monsignor Sal, my pastor at Saint Patrick's in DC, likes to recommend that every day should be Christmas. Christmas is the model for our lives and our world. We should be giving every day. We should be trying to make people happy. We should seek peace in all that we do. We should allow love to flow into our hearts. We should be guided by the best of principles and hopes every day. There should be joy and it should be our mission to seek it on a regular basis. Take the best of today, and find a way to make the other 364 days not so ordinary. The original gift of Christmas was to save us from ourselves and the chaos that we make of an otherwise magnificent place. Hopefully, we can accept that... today, tomorrow, and the next.

May your Christmas be filled with peace, love, family, friends, and the joy that inspires your heart to persevere. God bless us all.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Keeping it Real

Controversy! We are not supposed to like heated conflict, but for some reason, we feed off of it... even at Christmas time. I've never seen the show Duck Dynasty, but I'm told it's quite good. Evidently, a guy on the show said something in an interview that got him suspended from his job. Liberals are bashing him and happy, conservatives are upset and defending his right to be free from religious persecution. Pretty much?

But, isn't this show a "reality" show? They're not actors playing roles, right? The thing about reality is that every once in a while you're going to hear and see things that you don't want to hear and see. Sometimes things get "a little too real." Aren't there times you wish you could just cut to commercial or call in the extra? You don't always get the girl in the end, there may not be a good punch line, and things don't look as beautiful as they should when the light of day shines brightly. I know I used to wish there was a mute button when I worked with Grace at Jaleo when she was in the singing mood - definitely not Julie Andrews. You don't get an applause sign, and the ending isn't always happy. (I'm still waiting for my soundtrack.) Unfortunately, in reality, you just have to deal with it. 

Sorry, I wasn't trying to be a downer. On the flip side, reality takes you outside of your living room. You can't feel the sea breeze with Bette Midler on the beach, nor can you smell the aromas of the spice market that James Bond rides through on a motorcycle, and you sure can't taste his martini in the movie theater. In life, a love story is very seldom confined to 110 minutes, and you don't always have to wait until Thursday night to see your favorite people. Reality, in a way, is boundless in that the story can take you in any direction, yet life is bound by a single take. Real life has conflict, and there is not always a naturally following resolution. 

What worries me is not so much this thirst for conflict, but the thirst for blood when thought is policed. Mr. Duck Dynasty Man apparently committed a hate-crime with his mouth and it is widely considered in this country worthy of penalization. We better be careful that we recognize the danger of failing to separate the concepts of a point of view and an action infringing on liberty. Furthermore, the forces that benefit from dividing us on every controversy have allowed us to do a great disservice to intelligent dialogue and rational civil debate. The opinion of one man who is not entrusted with a position of power has absolutely no power over you and your real life, but the societal branding that is going on is dangerous and truly needs a reality check. We need to get back to the value of an opinion being something sacred; absent that, this reality show called "America" is reduced to bullies and the shamed unpopular minority on the playground. For real. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

'Tis Better to Receive

We've got it all wrong.

To cut to the chase, yes, Christmas is about the celebration of Jesus' birth. I know, I know. No one wants to talk about that - it's on the hush-hush, the down low, on a need to know basis. Well, you all need to act like you know.

I get it - Americans will celebrate any foreign holiday that comes down the pike if that gives us an excuse to drink beer in the daytime: St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day, The World Cup... We like to celebrate, and we are a melting pot nation, which means that our culture involves any holiday we want and see fit to take time out of our busy lives to proclaim our own. Christmas probably used to be a Christian holiday. Now it's for everyone - even the non-religious - and we are by nature inclusive, so fine; everyone can be in on the fun. Perhaps at some point, our forefathers thought inclusion equaled an open door policy that might steer some non-believers to "salvation" and then maybe we all just got lazy and decided to cave and make the commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth some religiously sterilized event that joined the rank of the Easter Bunny as a night when a jolly old fat man brings presents to kids all over the world in a single night. At least in theory, Santa seemed to use to discriminate among the naughty and nice children, as to whom would receive presents, but I bet even that farce has ceased to carry any weight among the gift expecting youth of today and even yesteryear. Now we have tramplings and stabbings every "Black Friday" as the commercial equivalent to the beginning of advent ensues, and this has somehow become the norm for the most wonderful time of the year. Meanwhile, the storyline has been established that "Xmas" is a time for giving.

NO, IT'S NOT! If we can, let's rewind a couple of millenia before all of the propaganda and look at this day honestly. Christmas - the day of Christ's birth - is a gift from God to all of us. Yes, Baby Jesus did receive gifts from certain travelers, yet the message was - whether you believe he was/is the son of God or not - that Jesus was a gift to the world that day. As Christians, the profound message of Christmas is that God sent His Son to Earth to teach us the way to live and then die to prepare us a way to eternal life. Because of this belief, we believe that Christmas is the day we celebrate receiving the gifts of peace, life, joy, and love. Scripture does require that we give many things throughout our lifetimes, however the story of the first Christmas makes no reference to us writing down lists of things that we want so that we may (earmuffs, kids) mail them off to a fictional character at the North Pole, nor spend all free time stressing to buy everyone you might see on Jesus' birthday a gift that proportionally equates to the one you expect from them. Christmas, quite simply, has been taken over by a great many who have no desire at all to celebrate the gift of Jesus. Everywhere you look, Christmas is proclaimed as a time for giving, yet nobody wants to tell you why, other than it is how we should behave everyday.

No one in the history of the world has been so ceremoniously and willfully ignored on their birthday as Jesus of Nazareth. If you don't believe He is the Son of God...fine, don't believe it; we still welcome you to celebrate the principles He came to proclaim. However, ignoring Jesus as THE GIFT of Christmas is a travesty that has gone on way too long and become way too popular. Just as we should remember any great man or woman on their designated day and try to honor the difference they made in the world by introspectively seeking how we might continue their legacy in our own lives, we should do likewise to honor this man who was a teacher, a healer, a friend, a son, a martyr, and a leader. Christian or not, if we are to celebrate December 25th, we must make it a day of the memory of the man. Do whatever else you will, but the real gift is what has already been given to us. Receiving sounds selfish, but in all reality, it is the difficult task of opening our hearts to change, forgiveness, contrition, sorrow, grief, enlightenment, and love. If we can focus on receiving these things, rather than giving toys and scarves out of expectation, we will have found the true reason for the season.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dear Saint Nick

Dear Saint Nicholas,

I was thinking of what to write - perhaps a grown-up's Christmas list like in the song and go for things like world peace and such... or get really personal and ask for more than I'm comfortable doing in front of the whole world, especially whomever is checking this out from Russia... or... or...

It's been a long time since I've actually thought about what I would want as a gift. In fact, this is usually the time of year I am working as much as possible and preparing for a quiet, somewhat lonely two days off in the city wondering what other "orphans" will be in town, far away from their families too. Doesn't leave much opportunity for gift giving and receiving. So, long story short, I'm sorry I haven't written in a long time, but I've tried to shoot for the "nice" category, and I hope records will reflect that.

After lengthy consultation with my agent, we have decided to petition you, not as the guy with the reindeer from the North Pole, but as the Patron Saint of voyagers, travelers, marriageable maidens, children, captives, scholars, laborers, and mariners. To truly do justice to your legacy, we should honor your dedication to selfless giving and protection of those in need. Therefore, I'm not going to ask you for much of anything! In fact, I'd like to thank you. You, in turn, can pass on my thanks to anyone above your pay grade. Deal?

Thank you for my safe passages to London, Athens, Port-Au-Prince, Beijing, Tokyo, Bogota, and so many others. My travels by rail, sea, plane, motorcycle, and automobile have been successful and generally unscathed excursions. Thank you for finding so many quality marital matches for the good people in my life. What a blessing it has been to have been witness to so many good people choosing to vow their lives to each other in the formation of family and the promise of forever. Thank you for looking out for four wonderful nieces of mine over the years. They all are fortunate to exhibit each a spirit
unique, yet common, in brightening the lives of their fathers and uncles. Thank you for showing me that labor can not only be a work of art, but a profound duty. Many do not appreciate how working in the service of others is necessary for the soul. Thank you for guiding all of us, who have been found captive in some manner, the way out. Hope, direction, and inspiration are what help us thrive in the darkness. Finally, thank you for bringing me back to California for Christmas. While I may not have a stocking or a
tree, I will be thankful for the gift of family and home at long last. And please, my only request will be that I might have the peace of mind of not yearning for what is not here, but instead take calm satisfaction from all of the gifts we already have come to enjoy as magnificent blessings.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rocky Road

For whatever reason, the only DVD I brought with me across the country was Rocky Balboa - yeah, the last one. So, I watched it... that's right. One thing that struck me was his advice to his son, "It's not how hard you can hit, it's how hard you can get hit and get back up." You see, I grew up with Rocky. The first one I saw was III (Mr. T and Hulk Hogan), and I counted the days until IV came out and I could go see him defend the US against the Soviet Union. Then I caught up on the first two of the then quadrilogy. I skipped #5 altogether, because it just seemed like it would be lame.

Nelson Mandela died today. Forgive the two being written about in the same thought process. I was actually thinking about writing about the triumph of the human spirit. We here in the United States think about this as a very American trait - coming up from adversity and triumphing against all who try to keep you down. However, in my travels I have seen this in places like Haiti, Colombia, Peru, and others. Stories of courage and resolute will can be found all over the planet. I will not pretend to competently pay homage to Mr. Mandela in a simple blog entry nor try to do justice to his plight and success.

What I would like to attest to is something of which I am quite certain. I know people at this very minute who are gambling with running their own businesses, fighting cancer, grieving a lost loved one, broken-hearted, raising their first child, dealing with the side effects of war, battling addiction, and probably more. We are all hard-wired with the capacity to persevere and to achieve. We are all blessed with the opportunity for love and the ideal of peace. The human spirit is an amazing, powerful, and necessary asset. It is what tells us that whatever dark oppressive cell imprisons us or whatever failure has thrown our world into chaos, "you can." The human spirit is more than just hope; it is the soul's inspiration to persist and overcome. It is the innate capability for survival in the worst circumstances.

If you listen to the talkers, you'll hear discussions of capitalism versus socialism, liberalism verses conservatism, and all sorts of -isms fighting to take the spotlight and make their case for why the other side is a failure - why the competing ideology creates poverty, injustice, war, and hatred. -Isms need that divide to retain membership. There is a great deal of blame that goes around to make enemies of certain systems. While I certainly have strong opinions about what systems I believe work better than others, I contend that - at least in my country, but probably elsewhere - what is broken is not necessarily the system (there are no stupid computers, just stupid people), but the people in the system. In short, we don't have enough Rocky Balboas and Nelson Mandelas. We have the capacity for peace, justice, prosperity, love, and all those good things that we say we want. We just let the selfish, the evil, and the separatists get in the way of our success. So on this sad day when we try to do justice to the memory of a great man who fought to win peace, I would say we should first just try to be better people to each other. Next, follow the example of a man who made his way out of darkness, and actually prove that his life was an inspiration rather than just time served.

Rest in peace, sir. I believe you've earned it. So too should we.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Full of Grace

There is a famous prayer in which the help of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is enlisted. As chosen ones go, she is one of the most famous in history. Much is made of the life of her son and the events surrounding her, but what is the understated significance of this woman that should resonate in the hearts of all who believe in the truth of her life?

If you read with me on this story of mine of eclectic tales and images woven together for some purpose supposedly intended toward "international (and perhaps internal) tranquility," you will find many mentions of journeys. Travelers make journeys, but so does everyone with any sort of purpose in their hearts. Journeys, I have found, have been the key to unraveling the mysteries of this life. Due to their nature, they rely upon thought, preparation, dedication, and they often encounter hardship. A good journey accomplishes its stated goal, or in many cases unlocks a precious unknown that could not have been imagined. Either way, something valuable is realized, and an outcome has occurred that would not have been possible otherwise.

Mary was chosen as a young girl to be the mother of God's human form. We could debate whether she was chosen because of who she was or was made who she was because she was chosen. I'm not sure it matters, but what does is that she chose to undertake the awesome journey that was asked of her, and she could only do it because she was full of grace; she was uniquely blessed and bestowed with God's favor. In my mind, she was always "full of grace," because she fulfilled her duty selflessly and with a profound elegance that was beautifully admirable.

Perhaps the matter of her choosing does matter. What if we all are uniquely blessed and bestowed with God's favor? What if we all are chosen, and it's just a matter of answering the call with that same profound elegance? Obviously, we are not all tasked with immaculate conception, but we all are faced with making a response that requires specific dignity and courage at some point. No doubt, how well we journey results in how or if we will be hailed.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Oak Glen, California

Love Walks In

Don't get crazy; I just thought I'd use a Van Halen song title as inspiration. I didn't find someone at Mexico Cafe or Stater Bros, but I did want to explore this topic. One never knows.

Love has been written about by countless poets. Tales of this phenomenon are the storyline of many a movie. It is the one thing in life that probably everyone seeks, in one way or another - love of family, life's work, pastime, friends, or romantic soul mate. Love... might just be the world's single greatest commodity. It gives meaning to our lives, it cannot be bought, and it can be lost even before you knew you had it.

Our first notion of love, in most cases, is discovered through our family. We come to understand, that there are people whose primary responsibility is to comfort us and keep us alive. These people show us love as an enduring and unbreakable bond. We probably mostly take it for granted, but our first lesson of love is that it involves a dedication that knows no boundaries and is timeless. It is an agreement that you don't remember making, yet it is a shared truth that rules your existence. Love teaches us how we are to be.

Eventually, we find the love that is friendship. This takes years, as people move in and out of our lives, and we learn what it actually takes to earn love when it is not given unconditionally and there is no dramatic, heart-pounding thrill. Years may pass before we truly know if a friend is someone who sincerely shares this bond. Love teaches us to be patient, to discriminate, and to work to prove who we are.

As a Christian, I can attest that love is a course of study. Not only must we work to earn love, but there are many rules! We can expect love from God, but we learn we have a duty to love others in a way that makes us worthy of His love. There are many teachings that are the syllabus for a lifetime of love, and for the first time we have a road map for how we should go about such an endeavor. Love teaches us how to seek what is pure.

Then there is romantic love. Before we actually know what it is or what to do with it, we seek that which we see in movies or read about in books. We go looking for something as if lost in the forest, but we pretend we know where we are going... and odds are we probably screw it up many times, because we don't know what the hell we are doing. Even as we reach a maturity to where we have a better understanding, we still screw it up for one reason or another. Oftentimes, this love walks into our lives, yet it is not unconditional; it does not give you time; it has no road map. Love humbles us and makes us bitter and weak or gives us a new direction and makes us stronger. Love teaches us to hope and to dream and to be resilient.

You may have heard in a popular film that "love, actually, is... all around." Indeed. It is. But, in all cases, love is a gift, it is a responsibility, and it is a project. It cannot be predicted, nor can it be conquered, but it must be sought, and it must be cared for. Indeed, it should be celebrated, for what would life be without it?