Saturday, November 26, 2011

Red Paint and Jesuit Humor

My friend Alice recently gave me James Martin's latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth, as a birthday gift. Years ago, my friend Karen gave me his first book, In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.  A Jesuit priest, editor at America magazine and frequent media commentator on religious and moral issues, he is a delightful writer and a pretty funny guy.  His first book told the story of his life as a young corporate management trainee, his unhappiness in the midst of a yuppie good life and his discernment of a vocation to the Jesuits.  The topic is serious.  He talks about sad things, like the death of a college classmate and his parents' separation.  But his wit and sense of humor come through, including his telephone conversation with American Express when he cancels his card just before entering the seminary or his description of a corporate boss mingling with the troops in an unconvincing way at a company picnic.  
His most recent book is an exploration of "why joy, humor and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life."
One of the chapters is called, "I'm not funny and my life stinks".  He relates the common experience of interacting with someone whose life is a series of misfortunes, big and small and being in places where "a culture of carping and general complaining predominates."   
Then he provided an image that is resonating strongly with me this Thanksgiving season -- "searching for the drop of red paint in a white paint can.  The red represents your one problem.  You have an entire can of white paint -- let's say, a job, a roof over your head, a loving family -- and you choose instead to concentrate on the one tiny red drop -- the one thing wrong in your life"  He goes on to explain how cognitive behavioral therapy can help us to choose thoughts that are more positive, enabling us to focus on what is good and what brings us joy. 
There is a lot of Jesuit humor in the book. much of it self-deprecating.  My favorite is his description of a visit by a Jesuit superior who explains an event from the life of St. Ignatius.  It seems that he was riding on a mule and met a man on the road, also riding a mule.  The man insulted the Virgin Mary.  Ignatius was trying to decide if he should kill the man and let the mule he was riding make the decision as to whether he would take the road that would lead him to the man or away from him.  The mule turned away, sparing the man and also Ignatius of his desire to murder.  The superior concluded by remarking, "Ever since then, asses have been making decisions in the Jesuits."
A personal anecdote that demonstrates Jesuit humor:  JB and I were making conversation with Fr. Jack, director of campus ministry at the university our son attended.  JB was relating the story of our receipt of frequent solicitations by mail on behalf of a Jesuit school.  First the roof was leaking and in need of repair.  Then the van used to transport students broke down.   Then a storm damaged the grounds, uprooting trees.  Father Jack wryly commented that "perhaps they should fire the Development Director and hire a maintenance person."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving for Aunt Mary

My Aunt Mary, at 96, is a living lesson in how to survive. Last Sunday morning after finishing up a yoga class, I switched my phone back on to see missed calls and voice mail messages from my cousin Karen and JB. Immediately I knew that something must have happened to Aunt Mary.
In large Italian families, it is not unusual to have the last unmarried daughter stay at home to care for aging parents. Aunt Mary, one of five girls, did just that. She worked at US Steel, a career woman before it was commonplace. She not only never married, but she never even learned to drive, walking to work, taking buses to town and relying on others to drive her when she needed to get to a family event or holiday celebration.
Everybody should have an Aunt Mary.  She remembers all family birthdays, with cards and presents too.  I was the beneficiary of a great family birthday tradition as a child in which Aunt Mary gave us a dollar for every year of our life.  So getting older meant getting more dough -- and it was surely something to look forward to.
She was devoted first to her aging mother, and then to her siblings, nieces, nephews, and now great and great great nieces and nephews. 
As she and I have gotten older, I have come to realize that while all of those tangible presents and her very real presence have been such constant blessings, there is something so much more edifying about how she lives her life.
Aunt Mary lives totally in the present moment.
This is a lesson I have longed to learn.  In the firmament of magnets that have graced the face of our refrigerator over the years, this is one that can always be found and is attributed to Buddha -- "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment, wisely and earnestly."
And so last Sunday, when Aunt Mary was taken to the hospital after a fall, she sat peacefully and was engaged in the Steeler game as we waited for the results of her X-rays.  After the ED physician said he saw nothing broken, she prepared to return home (while I am mentally obsessing about how I am going to leave her in her apartment).  It turns out she could not bear weight on her leg, so they ended up keeping her overnight.  That night and the next day when I saw her, her only seeming concern was that I remember to call her favorite bakery and order a birthday cake for my cousin Karen.  She must have told me five times to remember to get the cake and assured me that she would pay for it and asked that I get my uncle or a friend to pick it up. 
I was further reminded of her positive mental outlook when she was presented with her dinner tray of what looked to me like classically nondescript hospital food.  "Beautiful, beautiful", she kept repeating as she ate every bite of food on that tray.   Turns out her hip is broken. 
When I went to see her in the nursing home where she has gone to recover, she was waiting at the dining room table for her dinner tray to arrive. "Beautiful, beautiful", she again exclaimed, as she proceeded to consume every bite on that tray too.
She does not appear to be concerned about when or whether her hip will heal, when or whether she will be able to return to her apartment.  That is because she is not thinking about that.  She is only thinking of what in the present moment she can focus on that is positive.  She is helping me more than I am helping her right now.  Forget Buddha, watch Aunt Mary. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Wowed Steve Jobs At the End?

If you have not read the eulogy delivered by Mona Simpson at her brother's memorial service, it's worth taking the time to do so. (  She writes of learning at age 25 that Steve Jobs was her brother and of their relationship in three phases.  "His full life.  His illness.  His dying."   Most people with even a passing interest have learned more about Steve Jobs since his death with the extensive media coverage and the publication of his biography written by Walter Isaacson.  
I am in the most people category; he never much interested me during his lifetime, even though his IPhone is a constant companion.
She tells of his last day, observing of his breath, that it "indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.  He seemed to be climbing."  His final words?   "Monosyllables repeated three times.  Before embarking, he'd looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life's partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.  Steve's final words were:  OH WOW.  OH WOW.  OH WOW."
When his biographer was interviewed  for 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft asked Isaacson if they had ever discussed the possibility of an afterlife.  Isaacson responded, "I remember sitting in the backyard in his garden one day and he started talking about God.  He said, "sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don't.  I think it's 50-50 maybe.  But since I've had cancer, I've been thinking about it more.  And I find myself believing it a bit more.  I kind of -- maybe it 's cause I want to believe in an afterlife.  That when you die, it doesn't all just disappear."
Steve Jobs was a visionary.  He expanded our world and changed the way we use technology.  He created things of beauty.
It has given me comfort to know that he saw something in his final hours on earth of a beyond that is awesome and wonderful.  It had to be an afterlife that wowed even Steve Jobs.