A Humble To-Do List with a Mighty Purpose

“If you know your purpose in life, you will live in a radically different way than if you don’t know it. And this sense of purpose will certainly impact how you perform basic life tasks, including paying your bills,” Julia Marie Hogan Werner writes in A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You, published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2022. 

Purpose in life sounds so grandiose.

We may be tempted to think, how can anyone know their purpose in life? We have too many demands each day to think about such a big, abstract concept. 

Werner explains, those demands can help us discover and keep in mind the bigger picture, our purpose in life, even as our purpose reminds us why we’re doing these mundane tasks anyway. 

Do you have a to-do list?

I have

  • scribbled on a scraps paper
  • tracked events on Excel
  • used weekly checklists
  • relied on fancy note pads labeled as such
  • entered my tasks on Google Calendar

and am now embarking on regular meetings with my husband to discuss our communal list saved electronically. 

Write things down, I say. It’s too much to keep in one’s mind. When it pops into your head, write it down or enter it into your digital list, then move on. At the beginning of the day, assess what you have time for. Ask what is urgent? What is important? What needs preparing? and so on. The list helps us focus. It frees us from the weight of holding it. It helps us fulfill our commitments by helping us not forget what we said we’d do.

All those tasks add up.

How we live determines how much or little that living helps us move towards or away from our purpose in life. We cannot know where we stand unless we have a sense of what this purpose might be. Without knowing that, it’s easy to come to a place in life when we ask, “What’s the point of all this?”

The understanding we have of our purpose is grounded in knowing what we value. She writes, “Values are things that are most important to us. Values also signify to us — and this is very important to note — what qualities we use to measure our own worth and the worth of others.” The day-to-day may be what presses on our minds most, but we can shape what our lists look like best when they are written against the backdrop of a clear articulation of our values.

Values point us to our purpose.

What we prioritize, where we spend our time, reveals what we value. “When something is a true priority, we make time for it,” Werner writes.

According to Werner, expectations also influence what we think we should do. We must consider whether our expectations are realistic or unrealistic. Werner warns, “A general rule of thumb is that unhealthy and unrealistic expectations tend to be strict, rigid, and difficult or impossible to achieve…For many of us, our guiding expectation in life is an impossible standard of perfection. This is called perfectionism.”

Your list may have too many things, more than you can possibly accomplish if you mean to also uphold less measurable values like “quality time with family” or “talking to my spouse” or “be kind to others.”

It can be disappointing to admit we cannot complete all the things on our list, that we need to delegate or, possibly let people down. Werner reminds us, “By honoring our priorities we are saying “yes” to the fulfilling and authentic life we are meant to live.”

Maybe perfectionism isn’t the issue.

Maybe the to-do list tasks make us feel the burden more than we’d like. For this, values come in again, animating our work and reminding us why they are on the list at all. Werner describes it, “Priorities are the ‘how,’ and your values are your ‘why’.” You clear the drain, tighten the sink faucet, reset the sprinkler timer or schedule the doctor’s appointment because there is an overarching reason why these are important. 

Ultimately, it most likely points back to love.

Love of one’s duty, of family, of spouse, of community, or God. We are most motivated to do these things best when we remember we do them for sake of another. Mother Teresa once wrote,

“Wash the dishes not because it is dirty nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.”

Washing the dishes becomes a moment to show love. If we focus in on the tasks on the list and at the end of the day, we have a better sense the purpose of what we are doing.

That is our purpose in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You in order to provide an honest review. You can read my first take here. The content of this book is so good that rather an a one-and-done read, I find myself referencing it frequently. I cannot recommend it enough.

Give Each His Due – Thoughts on Equality and Justice

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thus begins the second paragraph The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, illustrating the ideal before demonstrating the ways the British government failed to uphold it. American citizens have zealously defended the concept of ideals ever since.

An ideal is not a pie-in-the-sky idea

where people who lack real world experience live with their puppies and unicorns. Ideals speak to the longing inside us, the sense that there is more than this, there is a better way. When we encounter things in this world that open that ache inside us to a knowledge of something bigger than ourselves, these are the transcendental. They are the true, the good and the beautiful.

The sense is not a passing emotion, an illusion in smoke, but an inkling to the thing that is actually true. Reality exists, whether or not I acknowledge it.

Equality is part of that reality, that all persons are created equal. They are equal in some deep mysterious way, whether or not I choose to recognize it, and whether or not I act accordingly. The fact, just, is.

Equality is

“the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. ‘an organization aiming to promote racial equality.’”

The Oxford English Dictionary

This definition implies cooperation among members of society, which I would refer to as equal treatment under the law. However, we are equals, whether or not the law and its treatment would have it so.

Since this reality, justice, then, becomes the virtue which, according to Aristotle “man renders to each one his due” (Summa II.II.58.1).

He does not merely “render” it, that is “provide or give” but renders it “by a constant and perpetual will.” This justice, this act for receiving his due is willed and desired and brought about by choice. The equality exists, but it is the action of justice that seeks to make sure the equality that exists is manifest in society.

When one’s equality to others is not manifest, then the desire of justice and one’s focus will shift to the unequal treatment in order to bring justice about. A focus on one group does not mean equality it not supported, but that justice demands effort in the face of this inequality, and effort requires words and maybe slogans.

I cannot get there without some external set of ideals and beliefs that exist beyond my own making. I cannot get there if I decide what is right and wrong by my own mental effort. I cannot get there if “anything goes” so long as I harm no one.

I need a system of belief that make sense, that is in touch with the reality, that exists whether or not I recognize it or act accordingly, I need a system of belief that will help me understand and interpret the present action in our country.

Not everyone acts according to these ideas, and there is a reason for that.

“One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is to actively listen to their story and to try to understand their experience. It’s another way of saying, ‘You matter. You are loved.’”

Julia Hogan, LPLC

Their actions maybe incomprehensible to me, their position may be incomprehensible, but they have a story and an experience. The act of listening to it, to respecting it as equally as I would want my story and experience listened to, will take us to the next level in this ideal we are trying to reach, in which all persons are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, right no one bestowed on them, they possess them simply because they, as persons, exist.

How Schema Theory Can Help Us Understand Each Other During Covid-19

We don’t know who is carrying coronavirus so we have to assume everyone is carrying it. If we are at war, and coronavirus is the enemy then the vehicle of my enemy is my enemy. That makes everyone my enemy. My neighbor is now my enemy. This is a miserable way to live and conduct grocery shopping.

How do we overcome this mindset?

For some, the answer lies in The Mask.

It is a sign that even if my neighbor is unknowingly infected, my neighbor is trying to protect me. Now, my neighbor is not my enemy. My neighbor is my ally.

But what about the one across the aisle not wearing a mask? The one I read about the paper causing bodily harm over the question of The Mask.

Our divided nation is no longer news, but schema theory might offer a possible solution to how we can overcome this deepening and ugly cleft between neighbors during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Schema theory, in layman terms, means perspective. In illustrative terms, it means a lens. In poetic terms, schema might mean wearing rose-colored glasses (or green or dark and murky).

Someone you know says she does not want to wear a mask.

One person thinks, “Another person against masks? Doesn’t she care? Lives are at risk! We should do all we can to protect people?”

Another person thinks, “Good! They are stupid anyway. Just another way to keep people afraid and set against each other.”

How do you see the act of wearing a mask? Is it act of love to protect those around you? Is it an act of defensive protection to help the most vulnerable. The lens through which you interpret the events taking place and motivation of others is your schema.

Surgical masks were already part of my life. I wear one once a week. It comes in a package with sterile gloves as well. My husband and I don our masks, our gloves, mask our four-year-old and begin a sterile medical procedure, every week. But during the everyday medical procedures, we do not wear masks.

While some see masks as a tangible example of the interference of liberty and others see masks as the way to be a neighbor and not an enemy, my perspective came from our experience as caregivers to a child with a complex medical condition.

Medically, there are particular conditions in which a mask is beneficial and other conditions in which is neutral, where no proven physical benefit or harm is apparent. We are however, more than just bodies, and the passion surrounding mask wearing taps into that immaterial part of us.

In “Secret Desires: The Great Dancing Plague of 1518,“ Luke Arthur Burgis describes the intriguing practices that sprang up around the Dancing Plague. The dance associated with the disorder, called the tarantata became, according to the Italian cultural anthropologist and ethno-psychiatrist Ernesto De Martino, “a ‘minor religious ritual’ which had the effect of restoring order from chaos. The ritual functioned to protect the people and their community from an even bigger crisis: it provided a form of catharsis that helped resolve social tension.”

Burgis proposes, “Anytime humanity has been threatened by a plague, the most contagious thing has never been the disease itself. Humans are social creatures. Our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.”

While there may not be a reliable body of research to show the benefit of wearing masks in public, the reassurance they provide that my neighbor is my neighbor, or that I am not helpless, I am doing all I can, may be less about the medical aspects and more targeted towards stabilizing the social order and reducing the anxiety of public interactions.

This value or virtue attributed to The Mask, puts a spotlight on those refusing to wear it. For some, The Mask is wrapped up in the destabilization of society that came with mandated state-wide shutdowns. They feel coronavirus is the least of their worries as they struggle to keep their business from folding or to put food on the table. The Mask becomes a sign of one more effort to destroy the livelihood built by these individuals.

These are two different lenses, or schemata

through which the question of face masks, and frankly most of the top-down measures regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic, can take, with individual nuances to boot.

Coronavirus is extremely contagious. But I agree with Burgis on the powerful contagion of our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.

This is not to say wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, but rather that something that seems as simple as wearing a mask is more complicated than meets the eye.

What is your lens through which you see the present crisis? And is there a way that you apply this understanding to those who might be thinking or acting differently than you?

That very act of understanding, of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, bridges the gap that turns the unseen enemy to the neighbor I can see.

Name Your Grief: Miscarriage and Infant Loss Awareness Month

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

gray textile hanging on brown wicker basket

My Theology 101 professor, Dr. John Boyle has a lecture that can be summarized by this, “when you name something you have power over it.” The power in a name, “it has the power to stop someone dead in their tracks across the quad.” Names matter and they have power.

One of the greatest lessons I learned is the importance of naming my grief. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Ronald Reagan designated it so in 1988. October 15 was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

There are three common types of grief involved in pregnancy and infant loss. These represent a common experience. Individual experiences will naturally differ.


The first is the loss of the dream or expectations. With a positive pregnancy test comes a vision of the future. A girl or a boy? Nursery decor may be picked out. Names were chosen. Plans made. This loss varies depending on how hoped for the pregnancy was.


The second is the loss of the particular child. It is this child whom the parents grieve, the child who can never be replaced because any other child is not this child. They may never have had the opportunity to see him or her, but the deep awareness between mother and child builds the connection. Here, she feels her arms or belly empty where it once felt full.


The third is the loss of security and fear for the future. What does this mean in relation to the woman’s ability to bear children, to bear healthy children? Could she have done anything differently? Will there be children in the future? Is this her lot in life? Scientific knowledge does not always assuage these fears.

For each other these, the power of the name can come and facilitate healing.


Identifying and naming what the dreams were, no matter how small or petty or cliche they might seem. I wanted to dress a little girl. I wanted my name carried forward with a boy. Giving voice to these hopes can help us identify those that might still be possible, or to find other ways to fulfill our dreams. No matter how unimportant they seem in the face of the other types of loss, they matter and should be named.


To give the child a name. Even when the situation is complicated, grief can be felt and to be able to identify the child you lost by name can help carve a place for that child in your memory and the memory of your family. It need not be announced publicly, but there is value in having to a name you can call this child when you allow yourself to say, “I wish you were here.”


Name the fear. I’m afraid I’ll never have children. I’m afraid I can’t carry a child. I’m afraid I’ll never be a mother or a father. Sometimes there are medical answers, in the case of late-term pregnancy or infant loss. There may be progesterone shots or folic acid supplements that will help in the future. Sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes, the answers are worse than we imagined. But we cannot learn to work out the problem, help prevent the problem, or accept the reality of things as they are if we do not first name those fears. “Let’s put away the ‘shoulds,’” my counselor said to me, “maybe the fact that this is on your mind tells you this is something you need to think about.”

If you are not the one who experienced the loss but want to reach out, I encourage you to be aware of these different types of loss involved in the grief. Phrases like, “you’re young, you’ll have more in the future,” might speak to the third type but insults the second.

The power of a name. For those on the outside of the experience, using the name reminds the person in grief you have not forgotten. It helps us to know, to contain in some small way the idea of the thing in our mind, and in this case, help us take a step in the path to healing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a freelance writer for the Hughson Chronicle. As such, this is a “sponsored post,” reprinted with permission. The company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment to write it. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

Facing the Brokenness: Thoughts on the crisis

This is a heartbreaking time to be a Catholic. The brokenness of the institutional Church is broken open. I am thankful it is that the truth may be known. When this happened before in 2002, I was too young to be plugged into the news cycle. We did not have social media. We have it now. My online peers and mentors are speaking out. There must be change and not just talking points.



What are we to do when we discover and rediscover the brokenness of our families, our community or the world around us?

We left behind the old life to commit to the new. For some, this represented a significant break from their history and making considerable sacrifices in a new way of living. When we first fall in love, we see only the good. This is the romance or colloquially called the honeymoon stage. One might say we see only what matters. Alice von Hildebrand, in her book titled “Letters to a Young Bride” writes that this vision of the person (which can be applied to the communities and organizations we love) is a vision to help sustain us when this next phase kicks in.

Disillusionment is the loss of the illusion, the honeymoon period of which we saw only the virtues. It is celebrating National Night Out before reading the griping on Nextdoor.com. It is knowing the beliefs of a Church or the mission of a non-profit before encountering the mess of a bureaucracy. It is realizing how long the man goes before clipping his toenails. All of this comes to light gradually. In the eye of the beholder, the flaws grow and grow. One may resist seeing them, fight them, but ultimately, to continue the relationship, one must learn to separate the flaws that are normal human imperfections and the sins that must be left behind.

Because I love you, I accept that you are more forgetful than me.

Because I care about this mission, I will jump through these hoops to get approval for my project.

But I will never, ever let you lay a hand on me.

I will not tolerate being spoken to in that way.

If I am employed, I expect to be paid for my work.

You must follow the law.

And if I really loved the thing or person I thought I did in the first stage, if I can remember how this commitment first came to be, then it is possible for me to decide, now, with eye wide open, if this person or organization is worth fighting for.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Vices plague communities in ways similar to how they plague people. The person I loved is more than that vice and if I love him then I will want to see him restored to the person I know him to be.

But if I am in danger I will get out and go somewhere safe. We cannot help a person or an organization continue maltreatment and call that being faithful to it.

Creating safe boundaries is another way of helping a person move through the stages of change to sobriety from these grave faults. Staying in a situation when you are in danger does nothing to help that person. Separation does not have to mean divorce from the first commitment. You are better than the way you are hurting me. By not allowing you to hurt me, I am helping you return to the person I know you to be. By creating safe boundaries, I am reminding you of the accountability to which you are called.

There are many paths through the disillusionment stage. We accept our personality differences, we accept that weaknesses exist, we exhort without nagging the need for growth. When both parties are willing to grow and acknowledge their faults, the relationship can move into the third stage of a mature, stable love and commitment. Or it will dissolve, either internally or externally.

What did we know in that first stage? There will be clues along the way to know if this thing is worth fighting for. Then I will spend my life loving you enough to call and help you to become what you have always been meant to be.

While this is not the place for deep dive into the news surrounding the Catholic Church, I encourage those who want to learn more to go to http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog.




Living Life in Paradox

Previously published at the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

Bright red strawberries alongside burnt pizza crust. Using the hospital tray, I meticulously cut strawberries into fourths to be drowned in Yoplait vanilla yogurt. Trash lines the people-flooded street we cross to enter the Orpheum Theater, tickets in hand, for a remarkable musical. The table beside my son’s medical pole holds unlooked for flowers.

Choosing to live life means living life in paradox, because life is hard.

If you are really living life, you have relationships and with relationships come the blood, sweat and tears that make life hard. Sure other things make life hard: loneliness and isolation, poor health. Those things are harder to bear without relationships; it all comes back to relationships. We ache for relationships. Relationships keep us in a paradox.

A paradox is a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities. Life is a paradox.

Living life fully means feeling life fully in its wonderfully joyous excitement; calm tender quietude; and draining, nagging suffering. Living life fully means taking events, as they are, not wasting time wishing they were something else. Describe it for it what it is, terrible or exhilarating, but save your wishes.

Plenty of aspects of life requires us to find the middle ground between two extremes. In medio stat viritus, the saying goes, in the middle stands virtue. The best and happiest way will be in the middle ground. This does not apply when it comes to mood. Perhaps we would enjoy never wavering emotion. Some seem disposed to it; others force it upon themselves because the natural swing of life’s rhythm proves too difficult to tolerate. They prefer to know what to expect.

That is where we miss out. Imagine an opera-singer singing half-heartedly, a quarterback playing so-so, a dancer lagging behind the beat; a parent who visits only once in a while. Life is meant to be lived fully, freely, and fruitfully.

Fully means holding nothing back. Whatever one does, doing it sincerely, with one’s energy and resources, prudently applied. I may need to conserve energy today knowing tomorrow will be a hard day. Instead of doing tasks lightly today, I intentionally choose light tasks.

Freely means recognizing oneself as an agent of free will, making a conscious choice about one’s activities (when possible) and reactions. I do this better when I am in a habit of reflecting a little bit each day, starting the morning by running through my mind the plans of the day, thinking ahead of what I want the day to be like and preparing myself for days when I know the unexpected ought to be expected. Thus, I maintain in control, at least of my feelings, when anything could happen.

Fruitfully means doing my best to bring good out of a situation. This may be a lesson learned after observing my behavior and reaction during suffering, something to put in my notebook to better handle the next run around. It may be an immediate good, by choosing to create some art or craft, or a boon to a relationship by letting my six-year-old give me a ballet lesson. Perhaps it is putting the phone, world wide web, and text notifications aside to focus deeply on the production I am about to see, the conversation I am about to have.

Fully, freely, fruitfully. It is the life advice that will apply to any moment, whether the pendulum will swing this way or that.

The paradox of life is not meant to be observed only. The tension that comes from shifting our gears between tragedy and comedy is the motivating force to make us flexible and adept at living life, to grow stronger, to find peace. We do not become stronger by “white-knuckling it” through our trials, by tamping our excitement in great life moments, or by avoiding relationships that require sacrifice on our part (I say sacrifice, not abuse). Whether the moment requires us to push through hard times or actively find a way out, the strength lies in leaning into the workout it does on our heart. I may not know what it looks like on the other side, but I can get through this. It can be worked for good.

Singing me self-conscious

Recently, my husband and I find ourselves among jazz musicians. We are seeking them out. Sitting at a restaurant, listening to his coworker and friends jam, I ask him, “don’t you just sit here and want to be a part of it? Don’t you want to join in?” He smiled, shook his head and said, “no.” He pointed to himself and said, “introvert.”

When I see something happening, I want to be a part of it. Extrovert. I eagerly want to join in. I cannot stop thinking about it. I daydream about it.

But then, I am human. In my daydreams, I can do anything. When I do it in real life, I am embarrassed beyond belief.

This happens every Halloween. I want to dress up. I see costumes. I daydream about putting one together. I may gather the components. But if my costume does not consist of terribly normal clothes, I am unsettled all evening. I become self-conscious.


I feel very good about the projects I have tackled lately. Mistakes in sewing and painting do not bother me. I am generally good at that which I approach. Writing is going well. There is an 80%-finished painted dresser in the garage and the color is lovely. A started but stalled sewing project sits on my desk. A wood sign languishes in the background because I lost interest. None of these phase me. It is personal and private. I love those projects and I miss out on nothing if I do not finish them.

When it involves people, perhaps it is a different story. And jazz.

A lady sang. She only sang in front of people once before and everyone cheered for her. I want to do it, too.

I sing in front of my kids. I sing at mass. She is singing in front of people, and she is an amateur. Surely I can do it, too. I want to be part of the group.

My husband is excited. We cannot act spontaneously because—introvert. He gathered the music, plays the piano, and asks me when we will practice.

I procrastinate.

Finally, it is time. We saw those jazz musicians again last night. Another woman sang. That could be us! We could jump up there and sing “Cheek to Cheek.” What fun it would be!

I stand with my husband, hold my sheet of music and get ready to start. He presses the keys with a jazz-like spirit and I begin…laughing. And I laugh the entire way through. Not one word comes out because I feel so goofy and silly and self-conscious that I cannot stop laughing. Thank goodness we did not jump on stage!

We try again 30 minutes later. I manage some words but sing low and quiet trying to pair the words and music together. I have only ever sung this song alongside Doris Day. As I sing the refrain, I can feel my confidence glide down a funnel and out of my spirit. The more that drains, the more I want to shrink into a corner and give up.

He records the music so I can practice alone. The man is a teacher. I am not the first self-conscious creature under his wing.

I will not give up. We will keep trying until I feel comfortable. This is what it is to be taught a new art. Some you will take to naturally. Some will try your basest instincts. If you do not give up, in the end, you might just have a lot of fun.

Walker Art Museum


Time to take steps

When we returned home from the hospital I had to rest. I had to cope. I had to keep it together. After drinking too much a few nights, I wanted to find other ways to cope. The key ingredients for a day of sanity consisted of

  1. Licorice Tea
  2. Reading David Copperfield
  3. Reading Cut Flower Farm
  4. Walking
  5. Planning projects

Bonus activities were

  1. Arranging flowers
  2. Completing projects
  3. Talking with my counselor once a week

For three weeks, I focused on myself, made possibly by my husband’s leave from work. My six-year old and I went through Celeste’s things every night the first week and a few times the second week. She did not ask the third week.

Week four I attended mass by myself and prayed deeper than I had praying in a long time. I asked God for help, for…something. I do not think I knew what I was asking for in that moment. I suppose that makes it all the better.

Then came the grace. I saw in my mind’s eye Christ and my daughter together. I felt close to her again even though her body was in the ground and her soul was beyond space and time. It is because her soul is beyond space and time that I could feel close to her. That is the communion of saints.

The next day, Thursday, I read to my children. On Friday, we prayed the Stations of the Cross at home. I felt attentive to them. I felt I could take their needs into my mind and parent them. It felt amazing. On Saturday I think we went to the farmer’s market. I don’t remember exactly…


Because on Sunday at 5am, Peter’s temperature was 103. I packed and rushed him to the hospital. My husband stayed behind to prepare the children. We arrived in San Francisco at UCSF around the same time, Peter and I in an ambulance, my husband with the kids in the van.

When they left Tuesday morning and I knew we would stay, I had to explore what I need to do to keep myself going. I once longed to go back to San Francisco because there I knew how to cope. Peter was safe there. Now I longed to be home, because there I knew how to cope. I felt safe there. It was time to erase the geography from the equation and take to heart the words of my counselor: the ability to do this is in me.

I walked. I read. And I wrote. There was such joy in writing again…and fun. I walked. I read. I wrote. I worried. Peter grew worse and so I wrote more. I could not control the situation, so I explored it in my heart through the thin veil of fiction.

Peter grew better. I forgot the steps that helped me because of the joy I felt in his energy. We returned home soon after.

Time to learn again. Time to pick up the book I read daily at the hospital. Time to write again. Time to pray again. I think this will make me more flexible. It will make me more happy. So much of it is simply the decision to do. It is a decision to do the things we know we should but feel too lazy to do. The temptation is to vegetate or numb, but that does not help. It is time to take steps.


Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Have you heard this tune before, called “Auld Lang Syne”? In the old films you can see the characters singing together on New Years Eve at the sound of the midnight chime. Everyone knows the words.

For more modernity, you can hear Harry in When Harry Met Sally asking the question, “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?” Sally understands. “Anyway, it’s about old friends,” she says with tears in her eyes.

“Auld Lang Syne” does have its traditional place at the conclusion of New Years Eve gatherings. With the cheer and revelry of embracing the New Year, we find a haunting tune drawing the listener to consider old friends and old relationships. As we age, this is the stuff that really matters. “No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence writes George in It’s a Wonderful Life.

The song is used powerfully in the 1932 film, The Divorcee, a movie about regret and relationships. The past cannot be undone, but they can move forward with eyes opened wide. Old relationships do not have the shimmer and shine of new relationships, or the naiveté. Your oldest friends or family members have likely seen you at your best and your worst, yet still they choose to be in your life. There is power to that stripped down openness. The strongest relationships keep in mind the storms and the dark times and still find some life to continue going. George Bailey was no saint, but he was loved.

This is the strength of old acquaintances. There is always more to learn about a person. Human beings are ever changing. The past and present coexist in a person, as well as the potential for the future. The mark of suffering never fully disappears. The griever learns to live with his grief. The friend of these is the one who is aware of the suffering, the grief, and yet can still smile, still laugh, being present with this person wherever he or she is at, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Another tradition of New Years Eve is the symbol of Baby New Year and Father Time. The baby quickly ages to become Father Time by the end of the year and passes on the reins to the new Baby.

We can carry this sense of continuity in our reflection of the New Year. There is a passing from one to the next. We look back at the time in 2016, and hope for better things next year, better decisions. I hope we can also look back with gratitude at a handful of things, but suffering varies by year. Whatever your state, hold on to those old friends, seek them out if need be, and prepare yourself to step forward into a fresh start, to make of it whatever you will.

Christmas Magic

Occasionally, this time of year, I tune the radio to 102.3 and listen to Christmas music. Today I heard a song beginning with, “where are you, Christmas?” sung by Faith Hill about a woman seeking a personification of Christmas joy and wonder which she calls, simply, Christmas. She questions where the magic of her childhood Christmas has gone.

Positive Psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman, defines awe and wonder as “noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence and/or skilled performance in various domains of life.” This virtue is part of the array of virtues under the character strength, transcendence. Transcendence “forges connections to the larger universe and provides meaning.” In this academic description, we find the heart of the popular notion of Christmas magic.

Is there something truly different about this time of year, or has our focus just deepened?

The weather is cold, so we look inward. Traditions connect us to our roots, our heritage, and bring together occasionally disparate family members for yuletide cheer. I am connected through time when I think about the past and the future, when I engage in these traditions. Dickens’ tale as portrayed by Mickey Mouse and Alastair Sim draw me to reflect on Christmases past, present and future. Even the seasonal stressers can be part of the traditions adding to the richness of the season.

In this there is the individual element. I could do this any time of year. That would not be enough.

We hear phrases of “fellow man” and “peace and goodwill.” So I am connected through space as well as time because these notions connect us to the world around us. There is power to the cultural celebrations, no matter how driven by consumerism they tend to be. The fact that not only I, but the people around me are focused on something similar, even if we have different ideas about what it means to celebrate the holiday season.

With these grand notions it comes to no surprise that this is the time of hear when we hear most about wonder and awe. Rarely can wonder and awe overtake us without any effort on our part. We must orient ourselves to time and space through mindfulness, taking the moment as it is and embracing it, non-judgmentally. Could the Christmas wrapping be neater, the presents better selected, the Christmas ham less dry? Perhaps. But consider sitting back and seeing those around the table, or feeling the chill in the air, and taking a moment to think about those great questions and purpose in our lives. This is the path to accessing those sentiments we see on storefronts and in Shutterfly Christmas cards.

In that famous 1897 editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Francis Pharcellus Church writes, “All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

With this is mind, I come to think not only of myself, my companions, the past and the future, but the bigness of the world, the universe. My religious beliefs are accessed and I am drawn to deeper reflection about how they can still make sense in this world of chaos. Whatever your beliefs, there is a message here for you: a light that shines in the darkness, joy to the world, wishes for prosperity, hope for a better year, gratitude for the things we have.

This year, I invite you to pause and reflect. Let your imagination run with thoughts of Christmases past, Christmas present, and Christmases yet to come. Muse on what the holidays have meant to you as a child and as an adult. Is it all you want it to be? Is something missing? The beauty of the decorations, the marvel of children at Christmas lights, and the enthusiasm over some knitted fabric hung over a gas fireplace or stair banister let you see the world as a bigger, and possibly more majestic place than we before ever realized. Happy Holidays.