Star Gazing

17991487168I believe the soul is the very being of who you are.  It is the essence of your existence.  It is the principal of your presence.  It matters more than anything…and I mean, more than ANYTHING.  More than your job, more than your house, more than your car, more than your marriage, more than your family, even more than your dog.  And, if this is true, and I’m just thinking out loud, but if this is true…why do we waste time on things that do not feed our soul?  Why do we invest in things that distract us from becoming who we are truly meant to be at the very center of our spirit?

Why don’t we create a space in our life, our home, our work, our commute, and our relationships that feeds this soul, this part of us that will move from this world to the next even as our bodies lie rotting in the grave?  Why instead, do we seek to entertain and numb the senses?  Why do we stress about the money and the drive and the work and the bills and the, and the, and the?  Why don’t we look for ways to renew our soul, to feed the very core of our beings?  Why don’t we seek solace?  Why don’t we pursue purpose?  Why don’t we want wisdom?  Why don’t we ask for answers?

As I write this, I am attending a day-long personal Advent retreat.  I am sitting alone in a cloistered room in the upper level of this three-story, turn-of-the-century home studying the Christmas story and the Wise Men who so committedly pursued the star in the sky in order to see a king in a stable.  It was their purpose.  It was their passion.

This amazing home and the time “away” has giving me the opportunity to reflect on the “Stars” in my own life; those things which guide me into the presence of God.  They may be people, events, places, or even experiences.  And to be honest, as I’ve pondered this idea and searched for the guiding light of my life, I’ve realized that, sadly, I have very few.  Or rather, I am aware of very few: I suspect the stars are there but I’m simply unable to see them clearly.  I’m too distracted by the blinding glare of the false illumination in my world.

I am reminded of our trip to Yellowstone Park in 2009.  We were driving from one end of the park to the other and because of the heavy traffic and the great distance, we found ourselves shy of our destination very late at night in a high plateau in the park. There were no cities, no street lights, and no other cars for miles.  We were there, alone, in the darkness.  We stopped the car and turned out all the lights and sat on the hood, looking up into a sky that was unlike any I’d ever seen before.  Without man-made ambient light to limit our vision, we were able to see stars in a way we’d never seen them before.  The clarity and intensity of those heavenly bodies was breath-taking.  They spanned the night sky and left us at a loss for words, in awe of their scope and grandeur.

As I think about the search for stars in my life that leads me, I realize that there is no time in my life when I am not blinded by the ambient distractions a busy world.  Understand, I don’t blame anyone but myself.  I’ve erected the lights.  I’ve cultivated the distractions.  I’ve created the lack of space and time for careful observation and sky gazing.

The sad truth is that I fail to carve out time that is purely committed to this endeavor.  Instead, I fill my hours with television, movies, busy work, worry and games – as many distractions as possible, diversions of every kind.  As a result, I fail to feed by soul, exercise my body, and manage my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

And so, it begs the question:  What would I need to do to renew my soul on a daily basis?  What space do I need to create that will allow me to find peace, discover grace, and feed my soul?  And if you are like me, and I suspect you are, what do you need to do?  What space do you need to create?

Let’s be honest; when is the last time you truly looked at the stars?

Don’t Mention It

20140906_151509
My increased interest in squirrel hunting had resulted is some very tasty dinners and quite a few raised eyebrows.

I’ve had a hard time carrying on a conversation with people in my life.  For some unknown reason, there is a disconnect that never existed before.  Perhaps it’s my age.  It could be my new aftershave.  It’s possible I’ve lost my mind and everyone else is completely sane.  Whatever the source of the problem, I just can’t get through a conversation without someone pointing out the evils of my life and how I am responsible for the destruction of the planet.

While I know that many topics have passionate supporters or detractors, I simply didn’t realize they were all around me.  To make matters worse, I was unaware and didn’t understand the full scope of topics that are now considered taboo.  It is true that some of my opinions are controversial (for instance, I still hold to the old-fashioned opinion that you should never wear white after Labor Day), but lately I’ve been lambasted and turkey basted about topics that I assumed were safe territory.

Take a conversation I had with a friend the other day.  I mentioned that I worked on a research hog farm while in college.  Big mistake.  Between the outrage of GMO crops, the factory hog farms springing up all around, cruelty to animals, pollution of local waterways, and the global food crisis, I found myself apologizing for even touching a single grain of wheat or scratching a hairy porcine back.

Or, as another example, a few years ago I bought an electric mower.  I thought this was the responsible, “Green” decision.  Most of my neighbors mocked me but they are Republicans so I was okay with that.  When I mentioned my purchase to my tree-hugging friends they just lowered their heads and shook them in shame.  “You know,” they said with sorrow in their voice, “most of Indiana’s electricity comes from coal plants so you’re probably doing more harm to our environment than just running a gas powered mower.”  Seriously?  A guy just can’t catch a break.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Here are just a few discussions I’ve had in the last couple weeks concerning daily life and the negative feedback I get.

  • Want to go deer hunting?  Forget about it.
  • Want to eat a nice fat chicken dinner? Do you know what they do to those birds?
  • Want to drink bottled water?  There are thirsty people around the world!
  • Want to wear synthetic materials? Have’t you heard of sweat shops.
  • Turn down your thermostat? Global Warming.
  • Drive anything larger than a trashcan? Global Warming.
  • Purchase a paper book? Haven’t you heard of e-books…and Global Warming?
  • Print agendas for a meeting? Global Warming and How many trees did you kill?
  • Eat white eggs?  Again, do you know what they do to those birds?
  • Drink soda? Gonna make you fat.
  • Drink diet soda? Gonna kill you.
  • Fertilize your yard? Planet hater.
  • Blow your lawn clippings into the street?  I’m calling the neighborhood association.
  • Brush your teeth with the wrong toothpaste? Blue plastic beads are clogging the oceans.
  • Buy a dog from a breeder? Do you even listen to Sarah McLaughlin?
  • Write a blog about other people’s opinions?  Don’t mention it.

To counter the constant negative backlash I suffer every time I leave the house, I’ve decided there is only one possible solution:  Never leave the house.  So I’m ordering all my supplies from Amazon, having them air-lifted via drone (don’t even start), and mowing my yard late at night to avoid eye contact with my neighbors.

 

My Newest Venture

The newest member of my income-making family.
The newest member of my income-making family.

By all accounts, I am an entrepreneur.  With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, I’ve been able to earn funds from funerals and gather wealth from weddings.  I’ve written blog posts for profit and gardened for a little green.  I was lucrative at landscaping and remunerated for my readings.  In short, I am always looking for a way to make some money.

And so, when I bought my new-to-me John Deere L130 garden tractor last fall, I knew there had to be a way to cash in:  Enter my neighbor.

Having hired my kids to mow his yard each summer for the past decade, I knew he would be looking for a replacement mower after the boys moved out last autumn.  As the grass turned green this spring, I subtly dropped the hint that I would be happy to mow his yard, but only if he wanted me to.  I knew I could knock his yard out in record time with my new 48-inch cutting deck and teeth-rattling 23-horsepower under the green hood.  Reluctant at first, he was quick to sign on after mowing his yard himself for the first time this year.

I was thrilled!  A yard that took my boys 45-minutes to push mow would take me a mere 20-minutes of comfortable riding.  For very little effort, I would make quite a bit of dough.

For many years my neighbor paid my boys up to $25 per mowing job.  However, because we are friends, I’m only charging $20.  But problems started early on when my “friend” texted me one evening as the thunderclouds began to form on the horizon.  He wanted me to mow before the rain hit; a difficult task as I was just finishing my own perfectly manicured lawn.  The tension began to rise when I explained how his last minute request fit into my pricing schedule:

  1. The Friend and Family Rate ($20) = This is subject to change by how snotty you are if I don’t respond to your beck and call (See #4)
  2. The Convenience Rate ($35) = I mow at my own convenience
  3. The Use-To-Be Friends & Family Rate ($50 + the cost of gas) = (See #1)
  4. The Emergency Rate ($75) = My car payment is due so I’m mowing your yard whether you need me to or not.
  5. The It’s About To Rain Rate ($85) = You didn’t look at the weather and now you need your yard mowed right away.

This text request clearly fell into price #5.  However, the argument was entirely my fault.  I failed to provide my pricing schedule up front.  My neighbor was under the impression that every yard mowing came in at the Friends & Family Rate.

To alleviate any future confusion…or fist fights…I’ve decided that I should print business cards with my services outlined (weddings, funerals, lawn mowing) and the pricing schedule above.  I expect that I should soon be able to retire from my day job and simply drive around the neighborhood on my mower, cutting grass, performing weddings and the occasional funeral, raking in the cash as I roll!

The Color of Spring

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps the most powerful aspect of changing seasons from winter to spring is the burst of color.  Sure, warmer temperatures are nice.  Of course, singing birds add a song to the air.  Yes, growing plants are better than bare branches.  But with spring’s arrival, there is a celebration of color, a parade of pigment, a hoopla of hues.

Reds, blues and greens burst forth where just weeks before there was nothing more than dark browns and grays.

Violet, magenta and yellow expand and blossom with each passing day, replacing a blah background of winter’s sad colorless world.

Of course, with the color comes the work.  However, mowing a few times a week is a small price to pay to have a carpet of green grass return from the dead.  Trimming back expanding branches is no burden when I can spend the evenings lounging in the shade of the Maple’s verdant canopy.  Pulling some weeds in the garden beds is a price well-paid for the beauty of daffodils and tulips that spot the landscape with color.

The rainbow of color never ends in this season I love.  And I am so very grateful.

Word of the Week – Obfuscate

Obfuscate – render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible.

You’ve seen it before.  The facts and figures tell the story but the spin doctors tell another.  The officer’s radar gun reports one speed but the driver is convinced it was much lower than that and has several good reasons why it cannot be correct.  Some might call it a lie.  Others might say it’s nothing more than fudging the numbers.  What ever you call it in your day-to-day life, it is nothing more than obfuscation.

When the truth is hard to swallow, we can render it obscure by misdirecting the story.  When facts are hard to accept, we can change the details to make it a little more unclear.  When the question is hard to answer, we can mumble, stutter and stammer, making our response unintelligible.

Let’s be clear:  to obfuscate is rarely a good thing.  It is a form of manipulating the truth, clouding the facts for their own benefit.

Look for it this week.  You’ll see it in things your friends tell you.  You’ll find it in your co-workers’ responses.  In fact, you might find yourself obfuscating from time to time.  When you do, call it out, change your approach, and make your answer crystal clear.

It’s Spring Again

20140423_182444-PANOLet’s be honest:  It was a really long winter.

Record-breaking snowfall.  Teeth-chatterinly cold.  An unending deep-freeze.  A ever-lasting blast of ice.

It was beginning to feel as if the season of would never end.  Even as the spring daffodils poked their delicate flowers out of the ground and the tulips began to bud, another dose of snow hit Central Indiana with one-last attempt to make its presence known.

Yet, spring eventually poked through: The trees push out new leaves.  The grass turns brilliant green and thick.  The birds collect nesting materials and proclaim the arrival of warmth from high atop spruce perches.  It is glorious.

It is finally spring.  The long winter is over.  We should celebrate.

Ups and Downs

20140105_151935Here’s what I’ve seen in the past weeks:

  • One friend lost her job.
  • One friend received a promotion.
  • One marriage is falling apart.
  • One unborn child died.
  • One friend has rectal cancer.
  • One friend had surgery for prostate cancer.
  • One friend lost his father.
  • Sunny and warm days can turn into winter wonderlands overnight.
  • Dark times are always, always followed by sunny days.

And here’s what I’ve learned as a result of all this:

  • Life and health are frail.
  • Marriages are hard.
  • Winter wonderlands are beautiful…if only for a few days.
  • Life always ends in death.
  • In between birth and death, we make the most of every moment or we don’t…it’s our choice.

What will I learn next week?

Getting Back To My Roots

694Every so often, a person must look back into their past and evaluate the source of their genetic material.  While I have no documentation to prove it, I believe I have a little Scot in my blood.  I base this on the fact that I love the move, Braveheart and look pretty good in a Kilt.

Where do you get your DNA?  What is the root of your personality?  Are you somber and stern or lovable and filled with laughter?  Are you tall and strong or short and frail?

It doesn’t make you less-than to know your history, no matter the outcome.  In fact, knowing from where you come gives you strength and purpose.

Be proud of your heritage.  Own your history.  It’s made you who you are today.

P.S.  And if you have the legs for it, slip on a Kilt…It’s most liberating!

A Preferred View

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow is it possible that just two weeks ago I was standing on white beaches at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.  How is it possible that just fourteen days ago I watched dolphins play alongside our tour boat?

An even more relevant question:  How is it possible that we are back in Indiana and under a winter storm warning today?

Something isn’t right about this picture!  It’s true, we escaped the winter to find the warmth.  I needed a break.  I mean, I love Indiana in the spring, summer and fall.  I actually enjoy Indiana in the winter.  I have fun in the cold and the snow…and it is nice to experience a change of seasons.

But any time you come close to breaking the historical record for the most snow in a season, a person’s heart and mind longs for the warm Gulf waters.

While I’m watching snow fall gently from the sky and cover my Indiana back yard, in my mind’s eye I’m seeing sleek aquatic mammals slide through the warm, shimmering light reflecting off emerald green waters.

I like that view much better!

The 1,000 Foot View

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’ve heard the phrase.  You’ve probably said it yourself:  “Can’t see the forest for the trees“.  And, if your life is anything like my own, it is often so very true.  We examine the situation, we study the problem, we analyze the issue but the closer we look, the less we see a solution.  We can’t think about the bigger picture because we’re so worried about the details of the problem.

You know the solution.  You know the answer:  It is often helpful to take a step back.  In fact, it often helps to take about 1,000 steps back.  Get the bigger picture.  Take in a wider view.  Climb the mountain and look down, removed from the situation and free from the entanglements of the problem.  Look at the slopes, experience the wind on your face, celebrate the light brightly shining above the canopy of the forest that often shades the decaying detritus and duff.

The next time you find you are without an answer, the next time you struggle for a solution take a walk above the tree line.  Hike the heights.  Mount the mountains and see if it doesn’t help.

Taking Out The Trash

cropped-austins-acre-sunrise-barn1.jpgLet’s be honest.  This was a week of crazy.  This was a work week of stupid.

In just three short days in the office I dealt with a liar and a thief and a couple very smart people without an ounce of ethics in their bones.  I was trapped in my office as people went on 30-minute rants about their drives to work, the conditions of the roads and the stupid people who drive them.  I suffered a man who seems to desire nothing more than making his girlfriend uncomfortable with his choices, his humor and his selfish desires.  I tolerated a woman who finds joy in making her coworkers’ lives miserable by assigning meaningless tasks.  I endured another woman who needed action on a project immediately, resulting in hours of work on my part only to find that she meant her 32 emails to go to someone else and their project.

It was a banner week.  One for the books.  And I can guarantee you’ve had one just like in the past…And will have one just like it in the future.  People can get under our skin.  Their constant droning can ring in our ears like the 7-year locust on a hot summer day.

However, I’ve discovered a new trick to avoid the annoying buzz they bring:  I let them carry out whatever they’ve carried in; not literally, of course, but in my own mind’s eye I see them hauling out the hubris.  What I do is this:  As they talk, blab, drone, blather and complain, I grab a notepad and I scribble down their story.  I record their rant.  I compose their confession.  I draft their droning.  I write their rant.

It’s like taking notes in a meeting…only a lot more fun.  I don’t write entire sentences but only jot key words, central themes and great quotes.  And when they leave, I throw it away. I simply toss it in the trash. I crumple the complaints. I destroy the diatribe.  I shred the sound off.  I trash their tirade.  When they leave the room, they take their garbage with them and I eliminate the evidence.

I don’t allow them to leave their emotional litter.  I pick up their piles of poisoned passion and I sweep away the sour sentiments.

Imagine a day in your life when you are not side-tracked by crazy.  Imagine a time when another person’s philippic doesn’t become your own internal struggle.  Imagine living life free from other peoples’ problems. This is one way to clear your desk and your mind and get back to the things that matter most.

Try it next week.  It just might work as well for you as it does for me!

 

Winter Wonder

I stood in our bedroom and bemoaned the fact that the extreme cold has created a layer of frost on our window, preventing me from looking out upon the freshly fallen snow in our back yard.  As I squinted through the frost on the window, the beauty of winter’s wonder became evident at a distance of a mere two inches.

What appears to be landscapes painted by an impressionists brush are, in truth, the ice formations on our bedroom window.  The colors are formed from the beautiful sunlight reflecting off the neighbor’s house and our own landscape.

These are unexpected winter gems and I look forward to capturing a few more ice still life’s before the deep freeze is over.

Resolving to Revolutionize My Life

WWLHappy New Year!  This is it.  This is the one.  This is the year when everything changes:  You will make and save more money than ever before.  You will loose those last (or first) ten pounds.  You will find a meaningful hobby.  You will volunteer in a way that changes lives.  You will fix up the house, get a new wardrobe and read War & Peace.

This is the year that you climb the mountain of apathy, plant the flag of determination and take the stance of self-assurance.

This is your year and nothing will change your mind.  You will set your sail, stay the course and find new adventures over every horizon.

Or…you won’t.  You might just stay the same…or worse.

You might make less money and spend it foolishly.  You might blow up like a human balloon because you can’t control your eating and your emotions.  You might live a year of sloth; no hobby, no meaningful service, or no home repairs.  You just might sit around in Cheetos-stained t-shirts watching reruns of Happy Days wishing you were as cool as the Fonz.

Instead of blazing new trails, you are afraid to mow your own yard.  Instead of leading the charge into a life of adventure, you cuddle under your Harry Potter Snuggie in the dark of night.

This is it.  This is your year.  And it could go either way.  Which one will you select?

Icing On The Cake

Happy BirthdayMy mother-in-law celebrated a big milestone a couple of weeks ago and we joined her this week to make it official.  We lit the candles, sang the required song and clapped loudly when she blew them out all with one breath.

In the weeks leading up to the big party, Joan said something that I think warrants a place in the Words of Wisdom Hall of Fame.  As she discussed her 80th birthday she made the comment, “Every day after 80 years is just icing on the cake.”

This is truth, especially if you are turning 80.  But I would also say that the icing is good every day after your 30th birthday, 40th birthday or your 362nd day after your 49th birthday.  The icing is spread thickest when we celebrate each and every day, no matter the number of years that precede it.

Life is best when lived to its fullest without any regrets.  Happy Birthday, Joan and many, many more days of icing to you!

It’s Not Really Saying Goodbye…

20131227_124950 If you’ve ever met them, you know that John and Pam are two people who exude talent and live gentle lives of passion and grace.  They are creative people who are fully committed to one another, God and their cats (but not in that order).

John and Pam have a calling to make movies that change lives.  They’ve worked hard to accomplish this monumental vision in Indiana and in the process, they’ve proven their skill and have been most successful in their en devour.

20131227_124935However, after 17 years in Indiana, they’ve decided to pull up stakes and take their talent on the road.  By next month they will begin a new adventure in their lives.  Before they could begin, they had to accomplish an even harder task of packing and moving.  They are special people and I was happy to help them but sad to say goodbye.

20131227_105218And so, the packing started early this morning, and in the span of three short hours a team of dedicated friends packed every one of their worldly belongings into a very large trailer.  It wasn’t an easy task: It required a little pushing, a little prodding and a little gymnastics.  However, shortly after noon we closed the door on the trailer and started saying our goodbyes.

As I drove away from their former home, it occurred to me that saying goodbye didn’t feel quite right.  It really isn’t saying goodbye; it’s more like see you later.  This realization gave me comfort.  After all, they are leaving Indiana but not my life.  They are not out of my life, only relocated.  They are not out of touch, only out of state.

And so, I drove home with a lightened heart, knowing my friends are pursuing their calling and it will only be a matter of days before they are settled into their new home and changing the world, one movie at a time.  We’ll talk again, I have no doubt;  and when we do, I can’t wait to hear how they got that couch out of the truck without a group of circus acrobats and an industrial crowbar.

Twas the Night Before the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

My family enjoys getting together.  Brothers, Sisters, Aunts, Uncles, Parents and Children all gather to celebrate Christmas.  The ever-growing clutch expanded enough over the years to warrant the rental of a Hall.  Tables, chairs, a mini-kitchen and no clean up required:  A deal we couldn’t refuse.

From the Austin Family; Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Decades Past, Christmas Present

20131214_080155Created in 1973, Shrinky Dinks were a marvel of science and crafts.  For our family, a year later, they were the makings of some very cool Christmas ornaments.  We were always on the cutting edge of Craftiness.

At the time I made this plastic ornament, it seemed wrong to shove Santa into a scalding hot oven, but the results were as magical as the Old Man himself.  And now I cannot imagine Christmas without it!  I’ve carried this little faceless Santa Claus with me for nearly four decades.  It is the only ornament I have from my childhood and it means so very much to me.  At 10-years of age, it was one of my greatest works of art and the fact that it has survived half-a-dozen moves, 39 different Christmas Trees, and my family’s mockery proves its resilience.

I have that same feeling about Christmas:  Commercialism, antagonism and skepticism will not alter the joy I get from this time of year.  It is not just a holiday for children; Christmas is a time off celebration.  It is, in the words of Kevin’s mother as she tries to get back to Chicago, “The Season of Perpetual Hope!”

I hope, on this day, you will remember a season in your life when things were more simple, the sights and sounds more vibrant, and the peace in your heart was pure and bubbling over.  I hope you can rediscover this same beautiful truth in your heart and life on this day, and all the days of this Christmas Season.

On the 14th Day of Christmas…

20131214_065644As I prepared to write this little story, I did so thinking that I would scribble something about the first day of a new Christmas Season; the first of the 12 Days of Christmas. But research (Wikipedia) indicates that my knowledge of all things Christmas is off by 12 whole days!  In fact, I’m nearly two weeks early for this seasonal favorite.

The Festival actually starts on December 25th and ends with Christmastide on the evening of January 5.  While I thought I was celebrating the Christmas Season, what I discovered is that I’m actually hanging out in Advent:  Day 14, to be exact.

But here’s the beauty of my miscalculation:  We now have an additional 12 days of the Christmas season.  So, leave up the fake Christmas tree!  Don’t tear down those stockings hung by the chimney with care!  Cut another piece of Aunt Ruth’s Fruitcake!  The celebration continues!

However, until I’m told differently, I’m going to make the most of the days we have leading up to the 25th.  I will enjoy the snow.  It isn’t the lovely seven inches promised/predicted by panicky weather forecasters, but heavy wet blanket of a couple inches.  It covers the ground and drips from the tree branches.  It makes every light sparkle with new beauty.

I will celebrate the innocence of Buddy the Elf.

I will crank the tunes on my Spotify Christmas Play List (now up to 1,147 songs).  Feel free to follow the play list:  Austin’s Acre Christmas List.  It will put your heart into a festive mood!

I will drink eggnog till I burst!

I will take advantage of Mistletoe every chance I can get!

Why?  Because I just discovered that the Christmas Season just extended another 12 days…That’s why!