Welcome to Weekend Philosopher

I stay busy with a day job and active family. This is my second personal blog, because I found my first one skewing to political and business issues, and I wished to reserve a place for short stories and essays on religion, family, and small town life. I hope you'll enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The magic fades slowly from trick or treating

I’ve been doing this for fourteen years or so, and the time is drawing nigh when I will no longer have the privilege.

I’m talking, of course, about going out in a quiet neighborhood, in the dark of a fall night, with a small child or children in tow, walking through the rustling first fallen leaves of the season and up to the doors of the relative strangers in my neighborhood and watching as my children ask for candy.

It goes in an arc, this time.  First, there was my 17-year-old. I took him out as soon as he could toddle on his own, at three or so. 

I used to race home from work to our neighborhood, which was already crowded with little witches and ghosts and Star Wars Storm Troopers as I pulled in. I remember one such occasion in particular, when my son was determined to be a dragon and his mother worked for what seemed like weeks to make him the perfect dragon costume.  And another year, the perfect panther costume. He greeted me excited and ready to go.

But we could only go in one direction, because the year before, some neighbors had set up the perfect Halloween display, complete with a demon emerging from a trapdoor in the ground.  And my son was so frightened, he wouldn’t let me lead him toward that house, no matter how often I explained to him that it was make believe.

And then my oldest and I were joined by an irrepressible presence, the human whirlwind who is my daughter.  She seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood.  She greeted them by name. She possessed the night and the turf like a queen collecting her tributes.

I remember one particular Halloween, we approached a house tucked back in a small stand of woods. The lady who lived there clearly had the spirit of Halloween.  We approached her front door on wooden ramps across ravines. The woman had decorated her front door with cobwebs and a cauldron, and was costumed herself as a witch. “You’re a beautiful witch,” my daughter told her.

Somewhere in those years, my eldest dropped out, replaced by my youngest. My eldest decided he wanted to wander with his friends instead of his old man, embracing the freedom of wandering at night, the first taste of which comes on Halloween for so many of us.

And I noticed something about my little town. So many people seemed to pile in cars and troll the neighborhoods, driving from house to house instead of walking the streets, covering as much ground as they could and collecting as much candy as they could.  Call me a purist or a conservative, but that never appealed to me.

But in any case, I continued to take my brood-minus-one.  And then my daughter dropped out, alternating between years when she thought she was too old, and times when she went to other neighborhoods herself with her own friends.

Now, it’s down to me and my nine-year-old.  We went out and wandered the streets, leaves and acorns crunching underfoot. We were out less than an hour and he was ready to come home. His legs were hurting. His mask hurt his face.  Next year, he'll be ten and I can feel the magic fading.

I’ll get maybe another year of trick-or-treating out of him, maybe none, and then he’ll be on to other things.  This phase will be over. Fourteen years. It doesn't seem so long. It seems like yesterday.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In search of the divine

Just a few short thoughts and a bit of an apology. Despite my best intentions of keeping things updated every day, I’ve fallen down on the job. My only excuse is that I have been down with a nasty flu bug these last few days.

There, excuse out of the way and a pledge to do better. On to some of the thoughts I’ve been having over the last few days, and they revolve around faith, or lack of it.

Tomorrow isn’t just Halloween. It’s also Reformation Sunday, which in the Lutheran Church I grew up in is a very big deal. When I was a child in the Chicago suburbs, it was the Sunday that a very old copy of the bible, in German, was trotted out and put on display.  A portion of the service was conducted in German, reminding us of our German heritage; most if not all of us in that church and that denomination, the Missouri Synod, came of German stock on at least one side of our family, and that was true of me. It was a time of celebration.

I’m still within the Lutheran Church, though at least temporarily in a church affiliated with the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church America; we Lutherans since that October 31 more than 500 years ago when Luther allegedly nailed his theses to that door seem to be natural born schismatics. There are several flavors of Lutheranism ranging from the conservative Missouri and Wisconsin Synods to the more liberal ELCA. What’s discouraging to me about that, and what I want to spend some time talking about, is the idea even among different Lutheran groups that our particular branch or brand has the answers to eternal questions. We come by the conviction honestly. Martin Luther himself, after lifelong struggle with the idea that he was doomed to hell, became convinced that there was only way to be saved, and that was for God to reach out to us with his Grace and save us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

As I’ve grown older, that formula has grown less satisfying to me. I’ve grown much less certain that there is one way to salvation, or even what salvation is. I have difficulty with a God who demands blood sacrifice as a condition of holiness, and then condemns those to whom he chooses not to extend divine grace. I do not read the bible any more literally than I would other books of myth and ancient history (which is not to say that I don’t find value in it; I do find value in those myths and that history). And I’ve come to a place in my life where I see many different paths to God, or at least to the divine within each living being (since I’m no longer entirely convinced that there is an external God out there, but I am convinced that there is divinity within us all).

So I no longer view Reformation Day in the way that I did as a child, and I no longer view Luther in particularly heroic terms. In some ways, I view this day as another in a long line of tragedies that have separated us from each other, and thus, from the Divine ground of being. Luther’s challenge to the church, corrupt as it had become, may have been a necessary corrective, but it also furthered the argument on all sides that only through belief in some correct doctrine could we be “saved,” leaving the vast majority of humanity without the opportunity to participate in the divine.

It also, of course, set off a bloodbath of religious wars within Christendom that cost thousands and thousands of lives. All over the esoteric question of how or if we are “saved.”

I will, of course, go to church, and try to find the spiritual nourishment I can there. I will sing the hymns because I believe there’s value in communal contemplation of the divine, whether I agree with the doctrine and dogma being preached or not.

But the pride of exclusivity is a dead thing within me. I no longer think of one path as the path to God.  I no longer believe in a religion of exclusion.  And I suppose I mourn the loss of a simple faith even as I celebrate the emancipation to seek the divine where I find it.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let the "fun of the shudder" begin

I have been a lover of ghost stories and horror tales since my very early youth, when I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe, and later, when my cousin Sherry introduced me to the classic trilogy of Stephen King's early work, Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining, as a Christmas present. Still later, Peter Straub made an indelible impression with his masterpiece of the genre, Ghost Story. 

It was only as an adult that I delved deeper into the genre, and discovered that I could still be frightened and disturbed by the likes of MR James, Henry James, Algernon Blackwood and Edith Wharton.
So it's with great delight that I direct your attention to this list of great ghost stories, complete with links to the stories themselves in many places, in the UK's Guardian. Compiled by the novelist Kate Mosse, this is a wonderful list, sure to get your Halloween celebrations off to a great start. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A hard day, looking for the good

It was a brutally hard day and I really don't have a lot of energy to post much of anything; there was so much to do for my job, and a few extras thrown in. But I'm trying to get something onto this blog every day and so I'll do the best I can.

I'll try to find the good in this day.

Today, my beautiful wife started her new job, sacrificing herself, as always, for our family, and proving once again why I admire her so much. I know it's a painful transition for her, from business owner and artist with a national following to wage-earner. But our family needs that extra financial help in these times. I can only hope that her sacrifice will pay off, and that her business will take off again when things get better.  

On my wife's first day of work, my youngest son went to the nurse's office with a stomach ache. Naturally. With mom not home, the nurse reached out to me and I had to make the trek an hour from my office to pick him up and take him home. A hassle to be sure. But there was good in it. As we walked his excuse slip from the nurse's office to his classroom, he slipped his small hand in mine, and it was a gesture I treasured. Soon, he'll be too old for such things. And when we reached his classroom, his teacher told me he will be playing Scrooge in his class Christmas play--our third child to catch the acting bug. My eldest son and daughter both have parts in their school play this coming spring, A Midsummer Night's Dream. My daughter, when she was little and used to go to the altar for childrens' sermons, played for attention. She called the congregation, "My Audience." Last year, she won her class talent show. I cherish their imaginations. I hope for their best dreams to come true.

"Daddy, I love you," my youngest told me as we walked from his classroom to the car. 

Another good came out of that hassle. Because I have good and understanding bosses, because of the craft I am lucky enough to pursue, and because of the wondrous technology available to me, I had the flexibility to pick up my son from school, bring him home, see that he was cared for, and still put in a full day of work.

When my wife came home tired from her day at work, she nonetheless put together a delicious meal for us. I owe her one for that, and intend to pay her and the family back with some of my patented chili this weekend. There are things to look forward to.

I did not get to the gym today, which was a bummer, and which robbed me of the lift that I always get when I exercise. But I have my health. And I will get to the gym tomorrow.

Part of my long day at work involved editing a truly inspiring story for Portfolio.com about Pakistani entrepreneurs who are working to bring a better life to their nation. If you, like me today, need some inspiration, you should read the story here. I'm grateful that I got to play a small part in getting that story up on the web where millions should read it.

Also, as part of my work today, I had the opportunity to interview two CEOs of companies that could be changing the way people work, and the way researchers research. I'm privileged to be exposed to bright people striving to achieve new things.

I also had the time, a little while ago, to read from a thoughtful book I'm working through, The Problem With God. A friend recommended it to me, and I recommend it to anyone who, like me, is struggling with faith or the lack of it, or just trying to find some explanations for the suffering in this world.
The delicious meal my wife put together for us was better than millions will get. They will go hungry. They will starve. This most decidedly is not a good thing. But because I am fortunate enough to have health and skills, I also have the ability to help those with so much less than I have. I'm a long way from being good at this. But I have the opportunity to improve.

I have the privilege of picking up my eldest son from work tonight, and will have the opportunity to chat with him. His life is busy enough that I'll take the chances I get, and will always regret the chances I missed when he was younger and I was more selfish.    

And with that, I'll close, knowing I had a hard day, but a much better day than many.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Practicing peace through empathy, compassion

My friends at the Entrepreneurs Organization have posted a great write-up recalling some of the amazing things they were able to do with Muslim entrepreneurs as part of President Barack Obama's outreach effort to the Muslim world announced in Cairo and reiterated at a gathering in New York City.

EO partnered with Business for Diplomatic Action, a group founded after the devastating attacks of 9/11 to foster understanding across cultures through the common language of business in hosting about 30 entrepreneurs from countries with large Muslim populations. Essentially, what the EO folks did was what they're very good at; they showed their guests extraordinary hospitality in Washington, Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York, and at the same time put those guests and each other through a set of intense exercises in entrepreneurialism.

Here's a quick excerpt from the post written by Josh Frey, president of On Sales Promos LLC and chapter president of the Washington, D.C. EO chapter:

I was in no way the only EO member who walked away from this Forum experience amazed. All of us who participated did. I received e-mails and calls from the other Forum hosts (we had four companies hosting and moderating) who shared similar stories of amazement. Backgrounds and diversity aside, we are all entrepreneurs, all working toward our personal and professional goals. We all have issues with work/life balance, social dilemmas, time management, cash flow, employees … and the list goes on. Still, we’re united as entrepreneurs, and this event reminded me of such.  

I'll have more to speak of on this event, either here or at Portfolio.com, but wanted to call attention to it because it goes directly to an overarching thought I have regarding religion, culture and humanity. What Josh is talking about isn't just confined to the entrepreneurial experience--though that is an especially intense calling. It goes directly to the idea that we are all, whatever religion we practice or culture we call home, human, with common human experiences, and that recognizing that humanity in others is the first step to peace--both inner peace and peace between peoples.

It goes, in other words, to that idea of all the great religions that arose in the Axial Age--Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity and Islam's direct ancestor, Judaism--of compassion. See yourself in the other. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That golden rule is the religious and humanitarian lesson, the way to personal and interpersonal peace. But no one has ever said truly living it is easy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The beauty of fall

This will be brief. Future posts will have a lot more heft, and will include bits and pieces of the book that I'm working on. But for now, I just wanted to make a few observations about September and October this year.

My daughter celebrated her 13th birthday in September, and my oldest son celebrated his 17th this past week. It's stunning how quickly the time goes by, and has been a reminder to me that I have only a few years left to make the most positive difference in their lives possible, not mention but a short time left on this earth. And there are still so many things I want to accomplish: The book, financial stability for my family, most of all emotional stability and happiness for all my loved ones. I heard on the radio this morning a discussion of the time people spend, and whether they spend it on the most important things in their lives; most people, realizing they don't, break down and weep. I don't want to be one of those people.

In the meantime, in the past couple of months, we have spent magical time in the North Carolina mountains, we have walked the Chicago lakeshore and showed our children at least some of the great museums of that spectacular city where I was born. It reminded me of how it felt for me as a kid, advancing into the city for a day's outing, the awe I felt seeing the skyscrapers, the joy of discovery in such places as the Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum. We have visited the small Wisconsin town where my wife grew up, and spent time with her parents, brother and sisters. Her mother's health is failing, and her father's love and compassion in caring for her is a constant inspiration to me of how to be a real man.

My faith life continues to trouble me, as a struggle with balancing the doubts I have with my childhood beliefs, now largely left behind, and my obligation to help my children grow into strong, ethical, moral adults open to the possibilities beyond their immediate senses, and connected to the ground of being that I believe exists in some form or fashion--though I search still to understand that belief.

Finally, the leaves are changing, flashing reds and golds in the still-dominant-green of this southern clime, and we have had golden days and cool nights. As always, a reminder that time speeds away from me, and that I must seize these precious moments as I can, and focus on living the best life possible with the time given to me. More on what that life may be later.