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  • What Really Matters?

    • Posted on Jun 21, 2015
    This morning's (Sunday 6-21) Courier column--about what really matters.   Not 
    an easy subject, given the shock we've suffered this week--and I'm in Charleston (my second home city) right now, struggling with the unvarnished reality of race hatred that led to the cold-blooded murders of nine Charlestonians in their church.    

    Still, the idea that there's a larger reality that really matters is what's helping people get through that hatred and move toward healing.   


    +++++++++++++++++++
    Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, wrote Gershwin.  It’s true, at least 
    when summer vacations roll around and beaches and mountains loom.   
    Time for a change of scene, for easy relaxing and pondering.  

     Ponder what, you ask?   

    What really matters, that’s what.  It’s the best all-around question to ponder during those days without deadlines and pressures. 

     Everyone will answer it differently.  

     Winning matters hugely for some, meaning being first and best at everything.  The competitors, we might call them.  

     Others spend serious time finding and nurturing a soul-mate, a love of their life, and that’s what matters most to them.  They’re romantics, bless their moonstricken hearts.   

     Fame, for others, so that everyone notices them, seeks them out, makes them the center of attention.   “Look at me!” their lives seem to say, and cameras beckon to them like moths to flame.  They’re narcissists, and they’re everywhere these days. 

     Wealth, for still others, so that they never have to deny themselves a new Luxemobile, a granite-countered house, a fast boat, a perfect vacation.  They’re high-enders who seek big bucks.  

     For still others, friendships, near and far, supportive and intimate. They spend hours cultivating friendships, lunching, writing, catching up on social media.

     They delight in lending a hand or shoulder to those they’ve gotten to know, love to be
    counted upon for favors, and seek to maintain old friendships.  They’re our friends, and thank heavens for them. 

     We all belong to some of these groups, and derive satisfaction from the undeniable benefits that each provides. 

     So, is that all?  Once you’re winning, famous, rich, soul-mated, and surrounded by friends, have you found everything that matters?  Does your happiness at that point know no bounds? 

     Alas, no. We all know such seemingly fulfilled people who still rely on therapists and happy pills to calm their frayed nerves.  They’re still seeking something that really matters.   

     And what might that be?    

     Dylan’s 1979 song “You gotta Serve Somebody” points toward it:  
    "You may be an ambassador to England or France
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You're gonna have to serve somebody,
    It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

     As Trish, the character who tries to commit suicide in that great film “Educating Rita” laments, “I’m not enough.”   

     If you live for furthering yourself and meeting your needs only, you’re headed for disappointment and suffering.   Truth be told, none of us are the complete center of anything.  Our egos don’t really matter. 

     Realizing this amounts to growing up, and the sooner the better.  

     This is not easy, especially with our little digital screens tempting us to believe that we are the center of everything. 

     Granted, a strong, confident self does help you succeed. But that’s not what really matters.   

     Religious folks get at what really matters through worship, faith in some supernatural power, and prayer.  

     Non-religious folks do it through wonder, curiosity, contemplation, and seeking enlightenment through in-depth awareness.  

     I’m among the non-religious, and have found what really matters is a spiritual path that’s stimulating, endlessly challenging, and ultimately satisfying. 

     If you like pondering what really matters this summer, and you’re leaning toward the non-religious, let me suggest two books I’ve found helpful:  Tara Brach’s 2005 “Radical Acceptance” and her more recent “True Refuge.”  She’s a clinical psychologist and an American Buddhist teacher who has been pondering what matters for 35 years.   

     If you’re curious and open to new approaches, these books make perfect summer reading. 

     I can’t imagine a summer without spending daily time seeking and pondering.  
    That’s what really matters. 


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  • Epitaph for Elmer

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2014
    Published on March 1, 2008.  I repost it here in honor of Father's Day and Elmer Cawelti, who died late February 2008.  I miss him.  

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    My dad Elmer lived five years shy of twice as long as my mother.

    Beany, as everyone called my mom, (she was bean-pole skinny) ) died when I was twenty.  He died at 95 early last Monday morning.  

    In that forty-five years he remarried, changed jobs, retired, traveled, and most of all became a role model as a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and friend. To everyone who knew him in one or another of these roles, he served almost as an ideal. Or at least that’s how it seems to me now, having known him for six and half decades. 

    Until my mother died he and I weren’t all that close.  He tended to be the reinforcer of her threats, as well as the distant, busy working man that so many fathers become to their younger children.  He lectured me on my sometimes unruly temper, and usually didn’t miss a chance to berate me about my general klutziness. 

    After Beany’s death, though, we began to spend more time together.  He transformed into quite a different man, especially after he married Jane, our family’s longtime friend and his second love.  He became, well, just plain fun, generous with his time, completely non-judgmental, and breathtakingly good-natured and optimistic.

    When he began to get down, he would mutter out loud,  ‘I’ve got to get my mind right” and sooner rather than later, he found a brighter side. He actually developed a mental habit of seeing goodness and humor everywhere. That’s a prescription every doctor would support, and probably one of the reasons he lived so long.

    He didn’t pursue happiness; he found it, in his friends, his cards, his jokes and joshing, which were almost constant, and his kindnesses to everyone.  As his neighbor Les Huth told me, he was the class act in our family. 

    Though I felt sorry for myself when my mom died, realizing that she would never see my children, my years and years of friendship with Dad has almost made up for it. He could never replace a mother, but he made a world-class father.

     When I came into his room last weekend, I woke him from one of his many naps, and I asked if he had been dreaming.  He hadn’t been dreaming, he said, but thinking.  “What about?” I asked, wondering if he had caught a glimpse of an approaching light.  “I’m thinking about what a great family I have,” he said. 

    We had become a mutual appreciation society, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

    Now, one of the many passions he bequeathed to me was a love of music, and he and my mom encouraged me to sing and play almost before I could walk.  From my dad’s example, I learned to love music, and to sing harmonies almost as effortlessly as he did.

    Angeleita and I sang this simple old folk song, not for him, but WITH him, last Saturday afternoon, 36 hours before he died.

    DOWN IN THE VALLEY 

    Down in the Valley, the valley so low.
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.
    Hear the wind blow love, oh hear the wind blow,
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.

    Dad sang those old folk tunes, and whistled so well,
    His harmonies echoed, gave hearers a thrill. 
    The best words were spoken, by a neighbor so wise,
    He knew Elmer’s presence made everyone high.

    He said it and meant it, and now it’s a fact.
    No doubt about it, you’re dad’s a class act.
    Down in the valley, the valley so low
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow. 



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