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Tuesday, October 15

A Favorite Place

Several years ago, while living in New Jersey and working in New York City, I decided to embark on a spiritual journey.  I went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at St. Mary's Parish.  It was during this process that I met some pretty fantastic Catholic friends, including Sister Gloria (my favorite nun of all time) and Fr. Mike (one of the coolest priests I've met in all time).

And so, armed with my new faith, when I moved back to the Ohio Valley, I attended mass at a few different spots and decided St. Joseph's Cathedral was the place for me.  Growing up, this cavernous cathedral had its rather intimidating moments for me.  I played violin, and it was one of the spots I would play as part of a quartet from time to time.  Pressure and I have never had a great relationship, but despite the consistent case of nerves that accompanied my trips here, I always felt a very deep connection to the space and felt peace come over me in a very special way.

Now, though, this is one of my favorite places.  In the weeks of rushing around and being distracted, when I go here for mass on the weekends, it's like a gift to myself.  From the moment I walk in, and kneeling in prayer hear the trickling of the water at the fountain and the subtle sounds of chants, I leave the all-intrusive material world for a much better place.  The homily always hits home--from discussion about the various types of prayer, an emphasis on thanksgiving, to discussion about being aware of existing faith we have rather than asking for more.  Reminded of so much beauty and love, I walk away refreshed, recharged and spiritually full to the brim.  Thank you, St. Joseph's Cathedral.  You are still breathtaking after all of these years.      

Monday, October 14

Please Mr. Postman

It's been a while now since I lost faith in snail mail.  This was partially from experience and partially just circumstance.  I work at an international law firm with 25 offices, where you can stick anything into an interoffice envelope and will it to arrive at any office in any of the three major world regions by the next day.  Interoffice pouch has redefined the slowness of mail and shipping.  The other side of this coin is that snail mail got its name for a reason.  It can be epically slow.  My latest experience inspired thought.

One thing super lovely about online buys is it's like each one comes with its own GPS tracker, active from the moment of purchase (thank you, Amazon).  Watching a package make its way to you for an adult is like a kid tracking Santa on Christmas Eve.  This system seemed pretty spot on, that is until it was applied to a recent purchase  of mine, destined to arrive via USPS.  Just like UPS, the tracking page included a delivery date.  What I learned is that this date is flexible and up for negotiation--sort of like our nation's debt ceiling and healthcare system.  When that date came and went and no package had arrived, I began to think in a little more detail about our postal system's resources.  To offer tracking that is not reliable is the equivalent of offering any product that isn't really the product.  And in any world outside of the government, it wouldn't hold up.  This, in sum, is not a sign that resources are being used efficiently or well.

This takes me to the stories about the abysmal state of our postal system--not making payments to pensions, laying off workers, eliminating positions, routes, offices.  It all sounds terrible.  And the only thing that makes it more terrible?  Being a customer of the now 3-legged service available.  I placed a purchase that originated out of Youngstown, OH.  I didn't know this when I made the purchase, but as the story unraveled, it grew painfully apparent hat I could drive to this location in a little under two hours.  Keep this in mind as we proceed.  My package left Youngstown and journeyed northwest to Toledo, OH--about 2.5 hours away from its point of origin and 4 hours from its destination (that's right, further away from its destination).  From Toledo, it headed back east to Warrendale, PA, which is about 3 hours of travel time and literally took the package just a bit south from where it began.  Right now, my package can be confirmed for having left Warrendale, but where may it end up next?  How many more stops before hitting my mailbox?  Only my package's, dare I say, temporary caretaker knows.

Not long ago, when I lived one block away from my parents, if I put a birthday card in my mailbox, it would go an hour away from here to Pittsburgh before then coming back down and ending one block away from where it started.  Needless to say, I quickly learned to save the stamp.  That's right, the plot thickens, and it becomes apparent that we pay for this type of service.

Given all of the above, next time I hear a story about what awful shape the postal service is in nowadays, I will pause before reacting.  And in the end, I'll probably just shake my head because if anyone could look at a system that runs as this one does and expect things to look good, then I'd like to meet that person and have a conversation about their conclusions and what they are built upon.  I would write a letter and share my thoughts with someone who runs the service, but by the time my letter would reach them, we may be 1) still in the midst of our government shutdown, 2) in the midst of a new government shutdown or 3) in the midst of the next federal holiday.  Get it together government.  Just work on getting it all back together.      

Saturday, October 12

Goodbye, Swiss Miss...

...hello, made at home hot cocoa.  

I will be the first to admit that some "convenience" measures that have been discovered and followed during my lifetime are nothing short of absurd.  As my age has advanced, so has my skepticism surrounding the hidden ingredients in things like fast food fare, highly processed foods of all sorts on the grocery store aisles and even some of my forever favorites.  Some of my confusion and concern are addressed in Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, which I finally picked up recently.  His background and detail on the food industry is nothing short of fascinating...and mostly terrifying.  I will spare full details here, but basically, the confusion present with regard to what we eat is not due to a drop in level of human intelligence on the consumer's part.  The industry and all of its components--and there are more than can be counted--has provided a history of shifts and lame hypotheses, leaving a trail of trails that dead end and nothing else.  There has been no continuity and, instead, a new food history of discontinuity.  Food choices have also become a tangled web of nutritional elements and terms rather than whole food options.  I will step down gingerly from my soapbox here and return to the hot cocoa lead.

This past week, I returned from an evening walk, craving hot cocoa.  I had left the house craving ice cream, but alas, fall decided to be present along with some cool temps.  So, I confidently passed by the Dairy Queen on the way home, brainstorming how to avoid leaving my dog in the car (barking like a panicking girl in all of his 65 lb goldendoodle glory and embarrassing me) at the store but also satisfying my hot cocoa craving.  And then, then light bulb shone brightly.  I had cocoa powder, and I figured it would have some hot cocoa concoction available on its label.  I was right!  The recipe?  Two tablespoons of powder, two tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt and a cup of heated milk.  I decided to skip the milk, heating mere water in the kettle, and I also skipped the recommended bit of vanilla.  The result?  Pretty much the best, richest, most delicious hot cocoa I've had in my life.  This moment made me pause to consider why, from my youngest years, I ignored that hot cocoa existed outside of those convenient little packets of mix.  I'm sure those tiny little marshmallow-like deposits in some envelopes would have always won out previously, but from here on out?  I will be a throw it together hot cocoa fan.  

Wednesday, October 9

A Tribute to Life Recommends: Mary Oliver / Dog Songs

Tucker the Goldendoodle
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, released a new collection yesterday.  Oliver is a master of describing the most delicate intricacies of nature, and in Dog Songs, she applies that genius to the human-canine connection.  One of my favorites so far is "How It Is With Us, And How It Is With Them," which follows

We become religious,
then we turn from it,
then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money,
then we turn to the moral life,
then we think about money again.
We meet wonderful people, but lose them
     in our busyness.
We're, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.

Sunday, September 29

Morning Song

Nature has a morning song
So beautiful when it plays
That no one must listen for very long
Before peace takes heart and mind as stowaways.

The birds raise from their slumber and greet the rising sun,
They flit and flutter from here to there and across fences and rooftops they run.

The morning dew, it drips and drops from every leaf and limb,
Shining bright on the blades of grass, bringing life to each of them.

The stillness is the chorus, the light the melody,
And the warmth, as it spreads, from this nook to that sends away the nights elegy.

And the gentle breeze begins to move where the cloak of night has hung
Luring from the shadows all kinds of different life, from old to young.

And if you sit and listen, as the sun takes its place,
You'll hear the flutter of little wings, as bees and bugs busy round in haste.

At this time, if you close your eyes and draw a big, deep breath,
You'll almost be able to taste the dew that burns as the sun moves West.

Every single day, at the exact same place and time,
She will sing out her melody and woo you with her rhyme.
So, if you wake and are seeking something to draw on for your day's purpose,
Step outside, take a seat and join in with Nature's chorus.

Sunday, September 15

Beauty + Life

Encapsulated in my love of nature is a love and appreciation for all things that speak to human nature and connection.  I remember starting to realize the power of this connection when I learned of the symbolism of the cross in Christianity.  The two most powerful relationships is between a person and the Creator (whatever that looks like to you) and his or her family, friends and humanity.

I have had the great joy recently of watching one of my best friends go through the birth of her first child.  This experience has touched me at my very core.  In the quiet moments of the day, my mind continues to wander back to all of the displays of beauty in this moment for her and her husband.  I spent a lot of my 20s and up until recently, living a very focused and independent life.  So, as my niece and nephews were born, I was hugely appreciative of those events, but I think my 30s have brought a very different perspective and appreciation for the process.  My friend, Julie, has been one of those friends who feel near a carbon copy of oneself.  Adventurous, always up for fun and in touch with all the things I love--music, art, nature--Julie has transformed over the past year into an amazing mom.  And this transformation was seamless.  She just added it to the portfolio of being a great human being.  Even more, watching her husband and her grow as a unit with the arrival of their son, has brought such insight into the dynamic and beautiful spirit of the human soul.  They have demonstrated, I think, what it's supposed to do when you share the great life experience of having a child together.  I feel so privileged to be a witness to it all.

In the world's current state, it can be difficult to sift through all of the horrible stories circulated in the media and come out at the other end still believing in good.  There is so much pain and disappointment to be witnessed.  However, we can counter that in our relationships with one another.  We can choose to believe in the good and allow the violent, critical and painful displays of the world to fall away.  As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."  

Wednesday, September 11

The Day Everything Changed

A Tribute to Life did not exist on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001.  But, most of my memories are so clear, I can easily recall them and go back in time to recapture them here.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a sophomore nursing student at Wheeling Jesuit University.  I was a few weeks into the fall semester, and it was a day I had calculus class during the morning time slot.  As I got ready that morning, I heard the first reports about planes crashing.  It wasn't long at all that the reports went from speculation that it was an aviation disaster/accident to speculation that terrorism was at work.

This day was like the day of the walking dead.  In every nook and cranny where normally life was buzzing about, instead, there were faces etched with concern and shallow gasps of air.  This vibe was in great contrast to the amazingly clear and beautiful day.  My mind had trouble shifting between the pristine and flawless blue sky and the images of death and destruction.  I have one visual memory that I cannot shake, and it came as a result of being stopped at a red light on my way back home from campus.  My position at the light was such that I looked up at the looming and protective hills, still very much green from summer's gifts, and the only other thing beyond was the amazing sky.  I remember sitting there in this moment and for the first time ever feeling overwhelmed with doubt and panic about the state of the world.  While irrational outside of the moment, that moment allowed me to deeply consider the question of, "Will more planes fall out of the air today?"  Every former comfort of being an American citizen had collapsed just as the honorable structures of the twin towers and portions of the Pentagon had.  Hours before, this question of planes falling out of the sky would have been absurd.  What a difference a few hours had made in history.  And then as the world gradually returned to normal--or perhaps the new normal--I hesitated because the moment felt too huge for the return, but then the option to stay behind was revoked.

The human resolve to survive has taken this unsettling anxiety and made it into an acceptable part of daily life.  While there are far worse circumstances withstood in all parts of the world on a daily basis, this moment--this day--taught me that there are no guarantees, except for one.  The world will continue on, and the world's people will almost mystically survive.  This amazing ability to do so will only be one of the many testaments of the strength and abilities attributed to the human race over time.  

As many have proclaimed, I will never forget this day.  I will not forget the evil that prevailed on those flights and the precious and autonomous lives lost or the lasting effects of that evil in the wars and ways of the world.  While the tragic day came and went, that towering hillside still haunts me each time I pass it.  It gently reminds me that nothing can be taken for granted and also of the fragility of even the most powerful structures--be them literal or abstract.  It reminds me that life can only be measured in moments and seconds and anything beyond that is simply not guaranteed.