The Soft Breath of God

The Soft Breath of God

I am convinced that there are moments in our lives when the Creator of the Universe makes his presence known by softly breathing his spirit, into a situation in our lives. I felt the breath of God last month when one of our village “alumni” gave me a ticket to attend his graduation from high school. “Bret” had only four tickets allotted to him so I felt honored to be given one of them.

Any parent who has had to endure a long graduation ceremony for one of their kids can understand that his well meaning invitation was not an unmixed blessing. Graduation ceremonies have a way of going on and on and on. I knew in advance that I would be sitting in a crowded football stadium, under a hot summer sun, craneing my neck and eyes to catch so much as a glimpse of my kid among the nine hundred graduates.

But nothing could have kept me from the graduation ceremony of this particular foster kid. The soft breath of God blew on me and I knew I had to show up for him at his significant moment in his life. Call it conscience or sense of duty or good old fashioned guilt; there was no way I was going to miss this event.

Blessed with a free will, we are faced with dozens (hundreds?) of choices every day.

The nuns used to tell us we each had two angels sitting on our shoulders. The bad demon was on the left, telling us what NOT to do, while our good angel on the right shoulder was urging us to do the right thing.

Whether it’s the voice of God or his angel sometimes his whisper is more like a shout. “Thou shalt not kill.” “Thou shalt not covet they neighbors wife,” “Honor the father and thy mother.” But more often, the Spirit of God communicates his wishes for us through that quiet inner voice we call conscience. God tells us when it is time to forgive someone who has hurt us or when it is time to stand up for what is right or to be grateful for the gifts we have received, but He/She is speaking in a whisper.

Aye! There’s the rub. How can we hear that soft voice of the spirit through the bedlam we have created in our modern world. I don’t know. But I do know that if we do not forge a quiet space for ourselves, we will not only be unable to hear the voice of God, we won’t even be able to hear one another or give our children the one-on-one attention they crave. be able to carry on a civilized conversation with one another, or give our kids the quality one-on-one time they crave.

I’m trying to put aside some time for meditation these days because unless I do, I won’t be able to hear that inner voice. God knows how many times I missed God’s promptings in the past but this time, for once, I got it right and was there for a kid named Bret.

The God of Loveliness

The God of Loveliness

Seasoned Catholics may remember a hymn that was once quite popular in Church a number of years ago. It was called “O God of Loveliness.” and was often sung at Benediction along with the Latin hymns, “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo.”

Remember? Anyway, “O God of Loveliness” popped into my head the other day and it struck me that “Loveliness” is a word we don’t often use anymore. That’s a loss to our language because the word expresses in a gentle, understated way an aspect of our world, our nature and our very lives that screams for attention.

Lovelines is all about peace and tranquility. It bring to mind children playing on the grass in summertime, soft rain falling on a Japanese garden or snuggling under the blankets on a cold winter morning.

The hymn reminds me that we do inhabit a lovely world after all and it is nourishing to the soul to pay attention to the beauty that surrounds us. I noted with satisfaction the other day that Louis Armstrong’s classic song; “It’s a Wonderful World” is still ranked among the top songs of the century. No wonder. How can the human heart not respond to “the skies of blue and red roses, too”of Louis’s song.? We yearn for the wonderful world that is out there inviting us enjoy it.

It’s pathetic isn’t it how so often we can manage to overlook the loveliness of our world and focus instead on the clothes we wear or the impression we make on others or the “toys” we accumulate instead of opening our senses to the sound of waves or the softness of a baby’s skin or the embrace of a friend or lover.

Flawed human beings that we are, we find ourselves running from God and the beauty of God’s creation and wasting our precious minds talking about the sexual indiscretions of a congressman or paying attention to a news story about a star athlete being ejected from a commercial airline for wearing drooping pants. Come on! We can do better.

Buddhists are right on target when they teach the importance of mindfulness in our lives. It’s the things we choose to be mindful of, the big picture, not the shallow nonsense we are fed through the mass media that gives meaning and perspective to our lives. We become what we think. Like the computers we invented, our minds reflect back “garbage in; garbage out.”

Don’t you think it’s time we refocus our minds and hearts on the God of Loveliness, the beauty that resides within us and the world outside us, time to be more discerning about the raw material we put into our brains. We might rediscover that real loveliness is all around us.

God of Silliness and Laughter

The God of Silliness and Laughter

I’m wheeling my ailing sister-in-law down one of the long corridors of the convalescent hospital. Bringing her back from the cafeteria to her own room, I’m feeling kind of down. Places like this can be depressing. I can’t help thinking that we are somehow failing our parents and grandparents warehousing them like this. Why can’t we take care of them at home? I know, it’s complicated in our modern world. But there has to be a better way, doesn’t there?

As I muse on these dark thoughts, I realize that I am not sure where Phyllis’s room is located. Phyllis is no help. She is the patient after all. As a matter of fact, both of us have always been “directionally challenged,” anyway. Well, we are having a heck of a time finding our way back to her room. All these blikety-blank hospital corridors look alike.

After a few false turns, (“Where the hell is room 216 anyway?”) we start to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. I say to Phyllis, “ Well, now we’ve done it. I’ve heard of being lost in a strange city but we’re lost in a convalescent hospital.” She giggles. Then, for whatever reason, I start to sing one of our all time favorite family songs. It goes like this. “Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money. Maybe we’re ragged and funny. But we’ll travel along, singing a song, side by side.”

Phyllis joins in singing too. A nurse spots us, gives us a wide grin and does a little two-step. Staff at the nursing station crack up. We’ve started something. A fellow patient picks up on the lyrics. “Through all kinds of weather, what if the skies are gray, as long as we’re together. It really doesn’t matter at all.”

It’s magical. For a moment at least, we managed to transcend the sadness of our surroundings. Grief was dispelled by silliness and song. I believe that God had something to do with those moments of silliness we experienced at the convalescent hospital just as He is present in the significant times in our lives.

When we are most discouraged, bent low by our sadness or failure, God intervenes

and tells us to lighten up on ourselves. “Hey guys, cut yourselves some slack.” It’s not all up to you, you know. I’m in charge, and nothing is that grim that it can’t be lightened by laughter.

We did eventually find our way back to Phyllis’s room but in a much better mood. Maybe, next time I’ll bring along a GPS to help us find the way. But I have no regrets; Phyllis and I and God had a blast.

Unconditional Love

Unconditional Love

When folks ask me if there is a job description for surrogate grandparents at the Children’s Village, I used to answer “Yes, the job description is to give unconditional love to the kids under our care.” I don’t say that anymore, not so confidently anyway. It’s way too glib. It sounds like I’m talking about cuddly puppies or cute little babies.

In the real world of flawed human beings, unconditional love may exist but it is very rare. We try; we really do try to give unconditional love to our Village kids just as we tried to do the same for our own children. But “stuff” gets in the way. Things like our own flaws as human beings. None of us have lived all these years without coming to grips with our own failings. We ain’t perfect; not even close.

I became very conscious of my own shortcomings soon after I arrived at the Village. I’m tooling along the freeway one day taking a nine year-old boy to his football practice and listening to a 49’ers game on the radio. The niners had the game won with the ball in their possession and only one minute left on the clock then, they fumbled. The other team picks up the ball and scores a touchdown; the game is lost. I let out a loud “Oh,

F- – k”. The little guy next to me looks at me wide-eyed. “Grandpa Hank!” I mutter an apology, embarrassed that I used the “f” word in front of a kid. A minute later I look over at him. He is smiling to himself, probably can’t wait to tell the other kids.

Nor are all the kids lovable little munchkins. Omigosh no! These little guys can drain your energy, test your patience, and try your creativity in ways you never dreamed of. We are asked to love kids who have become master manipulators because that’s the way they have survived, to love kids who are angry and resentful because their parents have failed them, to love kids who have never been tucked in at night by a mom who cared, who never had a Dad rooting for them at Little League baseball games.

Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town fame used to say that there “is no such thing as a bad boy.” Hmm! I honor his sentiment but, in my way of thinking, kids are kids. Like us grown-ups they are neither all good nor all bad. And kids who have been referred to us by the courts have special challenges. They have, by definition, been abused or neglected by the very parents whose job it is to care for them. They fight back sometimes by closing down emotionally or by physically lashing out or by refusing to trust or accept help. These are angry young people who don’t really want to be at the Village. They yearn to be a part of that idealized loving family they never had. Providing unconditional love to these kids takes more than giving them a friendly smile and a treat of Oreo cookies and milk.

Most of us are much more at home in the culture of conditional love. “You watch my back; I’ll watch yours.” Even little kids understand that kind of love, “If you let me play with your teddy bear, I’ll be your best friend.” Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, legendary for his work among the gangs in Los Angeles, once said that “Gangs are bastions of conditional love-one false move and you find yourself outside.” Dysfunctional families are like that, too. I love you as long as you don’t expect a lot of attention or ask for money or put a crimp in my life style.

But at the Village we have to try our best to give our kids more than the “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours” kind of love. We know now that we can’t expect to get a lot of payback from kids who have never received love themselves. But they are still beautiful and so we muddle on, we imperfect grandparents, doing our best to love imperfect kids. It’s what we do.

PS. The little guy who heard me lose it and use the “f” word has become one of my closest buddies. Go figure.

One Kid's Victory, a “piece of shit”to a future mensch

Piece of Shit To a Future Mensch

As I watched the Egyptian people celebrating their moment of freedom from tyranny, I was thinking of a teen-age boy in California who was having his moment of personal liberation.

The boy (Let’s call him Alonzo) had spent years being told by his parents that he was worthless. Beaten, neglected, emotionally savaged by parents whose own childhoods had been immersed in abuse and neglect, the boy had come to the conclusion that he was, as he phrased it, “a piece of shit.”

Like so many of his peers in foster care, Alonzo took on himself the blame that belonged to his parents. Finding themselves taken from their homes because of parental neglect and abuse, kids have a way of assuming the blame that belongs elsewhere. In Alonzo’s case, his personal mantra went something like this “Yes, my Dad did beat me but if I hadn’t finked on him and told my teacher, I would be home and we would still be a family. It’s my fault that I’m living in a group home and am separated from my parents.”

For years I watched the teen-aged boy carry the home-buster burden on his back. He came to hate himself for “telling on” his parents. Then, thanks to God’s grace, a wise therapist and some people in his life who stood by him, there came a break-through moment when he was able to stand up to his Dad for the first time and say “Dad, I didn’t screw up; you did. ”

In that moment, the burden of years fell from his shoulders. Alonzo had recognized his own worth and let the mantle of guilt rest where it belonged. Like the protesters in

Tahrir Square, a young man had taken a first step in his own transformation.

Alonzo’s growth hasn’t stopped with his understanding of the harmful role his parents had played in his life. He has already gone beyond blaming them and is learning to accept and forgive his mom and dad. “I see now that nobody is perfect.”

Those who have been working with Alonzo through the years now dare to hope that his image of himself as a worthless turd is gone forever. Inside this boy a spark has been ignited; he has awakened to the glorious possibility that he has a future.

There are sacred moments in life of both nations and individuals. The world was there to rejoice with the Egyptian people in their courage to throw off the chains that kept them from being free. Aside from a few people who were familiar with Alonzo’s struggle, his victory over himself goes unnoticed. But what is important is that he will hear the bells and see the fireworks deep inside him. The sweetest victories of all are those that take place in the heart. This kid has taken his first steps towards being a mensch.

Dancing With Your Kids

“Dancing With Your Kids”

I watched a young mom and dad dancing with their little children the other day. Oh, they were not literally moving their bodies in rhythm to music. Rather, they were interacting with their kids in a fun, mutually satisfying way. “Dancing with your kids” is the way child psychiatrist, Daniel Hughes, describes what goes on in families where parents and kids connect.

In this family I was visiting I heard lots of laughter, observed some teasing and hugging and wrestling. The four-year-old girl jumped on her dad. The older sister was proudly showing her mom a drawing she had made in school. It was obvious that the parents were paying attention to their kids and the girls were responding. I recall those same parents on a previous visit, when their kids were very small, playing peek-a-boo games and giving their kids “horsy-back” rides.

You didn’t need to be a child psychologist to recognize that parent-child bonding was happening big time in this home. Love was the music being played and both adults and kids were dancing to it.

I have to admit, I felt a little sad upon returning to the Village where so many kids had never had the experience of dancing with their parents in a happy home. What a loss, both for them and their moms and dads.

We have this tendency to equate the term “child abuse” in our society with its more dramatic manifestations. A little kid shows up at a hospital with bruises or cigarette burns on his body or signs of sexual abuse. It’s difficult for most people to get our minds around these forms of cruelty perpetrated on children.

But beneath the media radar, there is a quiet, but much more common type of child abuse. Dr. Hughes refers to this as “the trauma of absence.” How many times have you heard the expression “half of life is just showing up?” The opposite is equally true. NOT “being there” for their kids, especially in those early years of development, can hurt, more than most of us would like to admit.

Few, if any, parents make a conscious decision to harm their children. But when they are absent, be it physically or emotionally, they deprive their child of an indispensable element of growth. Kids literally cannot “grow-up” as full human beings unless they have experienced the kind of attention, the kind of care, the one-on-one presence of a loving adult in their childhood. We learn to love and care for others only when we have experienced it ourselves.

In the Children’s Village, we try our best to make up for the bed time stories that were never told, the cuddles never received, the “me-and-you” time that was always put off till tomorrow. We are very aware that unless we can help turn it around for the kids we serve; we will be passing on another generation of emotionally absent parents to our society.

Our dream is that we will somehow make a difference in the lives of the kids entrusted to our care, that someday we will see these ten and eleven year-olds growing into happy complete adults. We dare to hope that the kids who are learning to dance at the Village will someday be the kind of parents who dance with their kids.

Looking Good is only part of the picture

Looking Good is Only Part of the Picture

Omigosh! I stepped on by bathroom scale this morning and, to my dismay, weighed in at 200 lbs. Good grief Charlie Brown. That’s more than 40 lbs over what I weighed in college. So what did I do? I went to the fridge. and started to cut up some celery and carrots for future snacks. Be gone potato chips and ice cream. It’s time to reform.

Problem solved? Well, it’s a start. I will have to put some effort into taking off that excess blubber. For all kinds of reasons, being over-weight is neither healthy nor comfortable.

BUT, one thing I am NOT going to do is join the millions of Americans in their national obsession with losing weight. Frankly, I think it’s sort of depressing for people to be spending so much time worrying about how they want to LOOK.

Years ago, it was the touch-feely 70’s as I recall, I went to a couples’ counseling session with my partner at the time. The therapist suggested that we needed to get more in touch with our bodies and, as our homework, she told us to strip naked in front of a full-length mirror at home and just look at our bodies for about ten minutes. Exactly what we were to observe I don’t remember, but being new to California at the time and having grown up in decidedly blue collar South Buffalo, I thought her suggestion was hysterical. That’s putting it mildly. I think my response was a guffaw, followed by something like “You gotta be kidding, ” which sort of insulted the therapist and ended the session on the spot.

Well, things haven’t changed much from the 70’s. The cult of the body is still alive and well. Maria Shriver, a Kennedy and wife of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrote a neat little book a couple of years back encouraging us to put aside our single-minded concentration on “looking good” and put some effort into “being good” human beings.

In “Just Who Will You Be?” Shriver asks us to change our perspective, to turn from focusing our attention on the outside stuff, the money we make, the car we drive and our physical appearance and begin to look at our inner worth as human beings. Ask first not “How do I look” but who do I want to be in the world.

Much as I liked what Maria Shriver had to say, I’m writing these thoughts on New Years Day well aware that millions of us will be trooping off to fitness centers or signing up with Jenny Craig, convinced that looking good is the most important thing in the world.

Well, what the hey? Keeping our bods in reasonably good shape is hardly a bad thing. It does no one any good to sail off blissfully into lardo land, out of breath, and setting ourselves up for cardiac arrest. But, for God’s sake and our own, we need to remember to keep our balance. There is much more to life than keeping a trim physique. And we don’t really need to strip naked and stand before a mirror to know that what is in our hearts trumps our outward appearance anytime.

Fireflies and the Meaning of Life

Fireflies and the Meaning of Life

One of my vivid childhood memories was the delight I felt in watching the fireflies light up the darkness from my Aunt Julia’s front porch in Buffalo, N.Y. We kids would chase after those elusive little bugs with mason jars in hand hoping to catch them and see their bursts of light in the glass. What fun!

Odd isn’t it, but maybe not so strange, that I find myself seven decades later in life smiling with pleasure at the wonder I felt as a six-year-old boy watching the tiny sparks from those lightening bugs. Awesome, too, that our human memories are able to reach that far back in time and recall the seemingly insignificant moments in our lives.

Once a priest, always a priest, my mind leaps to the absolutely unknowable, the mind of God. I was thinking that if our human memories are capable of snatching snippets of memories from early childhood, God can surely do it over eons and eons of time.

I imagine the Master of the Universe, for whom there is no time, as we know it, viewing our brief moments on earth as little sparks of life. Dare I go further and think that God treasures our moments as we kids enjoyed the lightening bugs? Yes, I do believe that for, to me, God has always been just another word for love. And if God cares for all his creation, from the birds of the air to the lilies of the fields and yes, even the memories we felt at the little lightening bugs, we need not angst over the future of our world or the meaning of life.

Happy New Year!

God's Got His Back; The Kid Will be Okay

God;s Got His Back. The Kid Will be Okay

Kids have a way of breaking your heart at times and serving you a great big dollop of humility in the bargain. I found myself falling big time for this little kid at the Village right from the first day I met him.

“Matt” is hard not to like. He’s smart, affectionate, outgoing, enthusiastic…all those qualities that make any kid likable. But he also carries within him the demons of early childhood abuse and neglect that haunt him and can at times make him a threat to himself and to others.

In my naivety (or was it arrogance) I always figured if we could just lavish on him the love and caring that he missed growing up, heck we could turn his life around in no time.

I made it my personal goal to bring about change in Matt. I gave him lots of one-on-one time, showed up for him at school plays and basketball games, took him out for ice cream, watched Sponge Bob Square Pants with him, gave him hundreds of hugs and pats on the back to encourage him along the way. I assured him too that the neglect and abuse he had suffered was not his fault, that he is a good kid, a child created in the image and likeness of God.

But guess what? On the surface at least, he is still a very troubled, at times self-destructive little boy, seemingly intent on frustrating all the care we have given him.

I was starting to feel totally frustrated at how little we have been able to help this kid.

You’d think that an old guy like me would have known better. Down deep, I know, we all know that none of us can change people. People have to change themselves. Was I really imagining that a few hugs and several visits to Baskin Robbins could “save” this little kid? In my head, I knew better but I wasn’t paying attention.

It took a friend of mine who has gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous treatment program to remind me of some basics. Whether you are dealing with your own demons or trying to help other human beings, there comes a time when you must admit that you are powerless. There comes a time when you have to make a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.

I have not given up on little Matt. He is young yet and can turn his life around but I know now that I can’t do that for him. My role is much less grandiose. I’ll still hug him and tell him I love him. (He told me once in exasperation, “Grandpa Hank you told me that a thousand times already”) I am not a super grandpa.It feels liberating to admit that. And somehow, I am more confident than ever that this kid will succeed. Before I thought that if I hugged him enough, I could save him. Duh! All the time his little kid has been resting in the in the bosom of his Father. God’s got his back. Matt’s gonna be fine.

A kid, a grandma and a dog named Sammy

A Kid, a Grandma and Some Wisdom from Sammy

The kid looks about ten-years-old, He’s leading a very old lady, I assume his grandma, across the crowded restaurant. The lady is obviously having difficulty seeing and appears to have some balance issues as well. The boy has her firmly by the arm while he keeps an eye out to shield her from bumping into the noontime bustle of customers and service people.

I watch him guide his grandma towards the restrooms at the rear of the restaurant. The Men’s Room and the Ladies Room adjoin one another and, at first, the old lady starts towards the men’s room. Gently, the boy nudges her towards the appropriate restroom then waits outside while she enters.

The kid skooches himself against the wall, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible as he waits outside. Patrons go in and out of the facilities on both sides of the aisle. The old woman seems to be taking a long time and the boy looks a little self-conscious, kicking his feet and hands around, boy-like, as he stands there at his post. Eventually, she comes out and the boy leads her back to her table.

Simple story right? Deserves an AWW! from those of us not too jaded by life. The ten-year-old boy has been taught well by his parents. Good for them and good for him.

Little acts of kindness like that always touch me. To tell the truth, the incident put me in a better frame of mind the rest of the day.

I was trying to put myself in the place of the boy’s grandmother, too. Not many years ago, she was probably leading her little daughter or son to the restroom in some long forgotten restaurant, the little kid grasping his crotch and asking Mom to hurry up before he had an accident. Now, how many years later, the mom grown old was being gently guided by one of her grandchildren. The cycle of life goes on and we hardly notice the years passing us by.

When I was interviewing for my position of Grandpa at the Children’s Village, I recall asking Lia Rowley, the founder of the Village, “What will happen when we grandparents become too old to volunteer or incapable of volunteering with the kids? Lia thought for a moment, then she said. “Well, when that time comes, maybe the kids will have to take care of their village grammas and grandpas.” That’s part of living in a village.

Reflecting on her words, I could envision a time in the future when one of our little munchkins knocks on my door with a tray of food or offers to take out the garbage for me. It’s not far fetched. Much as we all hate the thought of finding ourselves dependent on others, not too many of us die with our boots on.

Putting myself in the shoes of the aged grandma, my good mood was going south, turning towards melancholy city. I turned to my four-legged therapist, Sammy and began to tell her all about it. She listened without even once interrupting me. Then, lifting those big brown eyes at me, she reminded me that life is lived in the present. “C’mon Grandpa Hank, you are one lucky old dude to have the opportunity to help take care of the kids TODAY. That’s all there is, you know. Use your time and be grateful. The future will take care of itself.” Then, she added with a wag of her tail, “Besides, it’s time for my walk.”