New Year’s Eve

“It’s About Time,” Bob Ryder

Readings

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Henry David Thoreau

“The present moment is the only moment available to us and it is the door to all other moments.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

“If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Allen Saunders / John Lennon

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Ferris Bueller

Reflection
How could we not take the occasion on this last day of the year to consider the spirituality of time?  We’ve done it before, of course, but the subject is always worthy of coming back to now and then.  I’ll be inviting your responses in a few minutes, so do feel welcome to use something I say as a springboard for a thought you might like to share. It could be a resolution if you like, or something important you learned in 2017. For my part, this is an exercise in anticipatory retrospection, and I’ll begin by telling you that milestones like New Year’s Eve prompt me to take stock. I wonder whether I made the most of the year that’s just past. I wonder what possibilities I maybe let slip by under-appreciated. One of the things I hope for is to be able to turn the page on any given year with gratitude rather than regret – or worse – apathy, gratitude for having paid attention. I so want to be able to remember moments and relationships and experiences comforted in the knowledge that I was mindful of them; that I didn’t discount love or friendship; that I had the wherewithal to grieve with my fellows when tragedy struck; that I marveled at landscapes and encounters that were at once beautiful or meaningful yet subtle enough to be missed were I distracted by unimportant crap. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, as I did last night, to find Susan and I are holding hands, that we reached out to each other as we slept. Coming to the end of a calendar year reminds me of how very short and fragile life is, and that such moments are to be treasured as they happen.

I want to show you a video.  This is a highlight from the final round of the 1995 Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland.  At this very late stage in the tournament, John Daly has the lead in the clubhouse, and the only player left in the field with a chance to tie or beat him is Constantino Rocca.  To do so Rocca must make one of his next 2 shots – either a chip shot from a short distance off the green, which you’ll see as the clip begins, or a putt of whatever length is left in the event he does not make the chip shot.  Watch this…

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEjSObEygyM)

That was an iconic moment in golf history. As it happens, John Daly won the 4-hole playoff that followed that amazing putt, defeating Constantino Rocca decisively. The reason I showed the clip was not so much for the sake of an amazing athletic performance under pressure, nor even for the very appropriate elation Mr. Rocca experienced in that moment. Rather, I shared it as prelude to an interview with Mr. Rocca that took place later that summer.  That September, Sports Illustrated reporter Rick Reilly was visiting with Mr. Rocca in advance of the Ryder Cup tournament scheduled for that fall.  As they were talking, Reilly noticed Rocca’s 4-year-old son Francesco nearby.  Looking out the window, he saw the boy dragging a putter – the putter – in the nearby driveway.  Startled, Reilly asked…

“Signore Rocca, is that your putter your son is dragging along the cobblestones?

“Si,” said Rocca, laughing with a tableful of friends and relatives around him.

Isn’t that the putter with which you made the historic 65-foot putt on the 72nd hole at St. Andrews this summer?

“Si, si,” Rocca says.

You gave it to him?

“No,” Rocca says chuckling.

Reilly gapes at him in silence.

“My friend,” says Rocca as little Francesco wanders off,

dragging and scraping the putter behind him. “I have hundreds

of putters, but I have only one son.”

Can you imagine a more admirable perspective?  I submit to you – that is the sort of thing you hear from someone who’s paying attention.  That’s the point of view I want to recall having practiced when moments come for taking stock of my spirituality. Was I more invested in people than in things? Was I kind when I had a choice? Did I listen when I had the chance to speak? Was I patient? Was I creative? Was I generous? Was I brave? There’s something about passing a temporal milestone like New Year’s Eve that suggests to me these are the questions to be asking. These are the patterns of behavior we want to be striving for.

Today happens to be Susan’s and my 31st wedding anniversary. Like New Year’s Eve, it too prompts me to look back and learn from occasions for which I was physically in attendance but perhaps not fully present spiritually. For example, when Susan needs me to change personal plans, am I gracious about that? I want to be. When she comes up against a challenge for which she needs my assistance, do I experience that as an inconvenience, or do I think of it as my challenge, too? Part of the value in remembering the times of our lives is to notice what we might prefer to do differently when the chance presents itself again. 31 years – they’ve gone by in a blink, and I confess if I had it to do over I’d have made more of some of the experiences we’ve shared. Again, for instance, I’m deeply grateful for having been good friends with Susan’s parents while they were alive. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize moments when I allowed trivial pursuits to distract me from opportunities to enjoy and learn from them. Given another chance, I’d have tried to cultivate more opportunities for hearing Jerry talk about his experiences in the second world war, and as a little boy growing up in the great depression. Given a do over, I’d have listened more carefully and more often to understand how Phyllis managed to be the kindest and most generous person I ever knew even having endured a difficult relationship with her mother for most of her life.

Looking back with intention calls for looking forward with intention, so as I prepare for the opportunities and challenges of 2018, I find myself mulling over the words “cultivate” and “appreciate.” To cultivate suggests nurturing into being the potential value of some commodity. It suggests fostering something to bring its best possibilities to fruition. Similarly, to appreciate something suggests recognizing its value, and availing oneself of the benefits that item or experience makes available. So, on this New Year’s Eve; on this, my 31st wedding anniversary, I’m reminded to learn from how I have both spent and misspent time leading up to now. And I’m motivated to be deliberate about spending the time I have left more wisely.

In my imagination, it’s New Year’s Eve 2018, or 2022 as I approach 60 years old, or 2042 as I approach 80. In those moments that will become real in just another blink, I want to be able to look back on things I did this very week and be glad I experienced them as fully as possible. It’s easy to anticipate looking back only to realize I’ve missed the beauty of simple things I took for granted. So, when that next occasion comes for evaluating my life, I want to take some comfort knowing I enjoyed starting up my snow thrower yesterday. I have a fairly large orange snow thrower. It’s a “Simplicity” brand – a very good machine. It’s way over 20 ears old, and very like one I had when I was a kid, which I ended up selling when I moved away for school. I’d bought that original machine with money saved from mowing my neighbors’ lawns in the summer, and ever since I sold it I’d felt a sense of loss. Well when Susan and I moved here to Normal, John and Peg Kirk had decided to sell a snow thrower – almost identical to the one I’d had as a kid.  I’d told them the story of how I’d bought my own machine as a kid, and so John offered to sell his to me. Than meant a lot to me. So now when I pull that fine old machine out of the shed and fire it up, I feel connected to a much younger version of myself, and to neighbors I worked for as a boy, and to John and Peg. Using the machine yesterday I took time to clear my neighbors’ walks on either side of our house just – I guess – as a gesture of good will, tossing a moment of kindness out into the universe for whatever it might be worth.

So, what might that kind of intentionality be worth? I don’t suppose it will help be live longer. I don’t expect either neighbor will automatically reciprocate the small favor. Fine if they do, fine of they don’t. I guess the value in enjoying the loudness of that Tecumseh engine as it sparks to life in the frigid winter air, and the value of feeling some of the snow crystals blow back into my face on a gust of wind, is that I can know that I experienced my life. When that next occasion comes along to reflect back, I’ll be able to feel the remembered reality for having paid attention as it occurred. Goodness knows it will all go by in a blink. So, let’s cultivate the potential in milestones such as New Year’s Eve to live the moment as it occurs. I’ll close with a journal entry I wrote a few weeks ago, then invite your responses…

Gratitude Journal 12/16 (revised for context) – Today I’m grateful for a simple observation I came across. A friend from the east coast is coping with a challenging diagnosis for a beloved family member – time is limited. In the give and take of trading information and support on social media, another friend encouraged, “Cherish every moment.” It occurred to me what good advice that is for anyone.

My mom, who passed away in 2001 would have turned 78 a couple weeks ago. My dad, who passed away in 2003 would be 82 now, and my younger brother, who passed away in 2014 would have turned 50 earlier this year. My connection to each of them grew slight over the years, separated by unfinished business as much as by distance after I moved away for school and marriage and a career. As Norman McLean wrote in “A River Runs Through It,” “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead. But I still reach out to them.”

Knowing better (mostly) than to regret things I can’t change, I’m trying to learn something from moments I didn’t appreciate in my past – good things about good people that got buried under imperfection and confusion and pride, under grudges and distractions. Cherish every moment – that good advice to a friend coping with a pretty much known limit on time left with a loved one is good advice for us all. Even though it’s probably impossible to bear in mind all the time, it’s worth coming back to at least once a day – reminding ourselves to appreciate beauty and love that is so easily overlooked, even discarded, if we’re not paying attention. Cherish every moment – I’m thankful for that excellent suggestion, and I’ll keep trying.