• “What have you got for me today?”

    The woman on the telephone had a voice that was soft. Her tiny, floral print, navy blue dress seemed to swallow her petite frame. Bony fingers with short, unpolished nails held a No. 2 pencil, which hovered over a yellow legal pad. She held the phone in the crook of her neck. “Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Okay, then, what else? “Ok, thanks, Hal.” Then she put the receiver down and dialed the next number.

    I was shadowing this woman in my first real writing job, working for a city newspaper. She was on the telephone with funeral directors. Her job was to train me in writing obituaries.

    I was uncomfortable.

    My father had drilled into all of his children the importance of being grateful for work, the dignity of work itself, and the necessity of not being too big for our britches to prevent us from thinking we were so important we were above menial work. So I expected really, to be writing obituaries as my first assignment at this job at the city newspaper. That didn’t bother me.

    What did bother me, however, was that the process of writing obituaries seemed so cold and impersonal for something so significant. It seemed harsh to ask bluntly, “What have you got for me today?” in regards to a death. It amazed me that this woman came in each morning and simply dialed up the undertaker to find personal details of the life of someone who was no more, asking, “What have you got for me today?”

    With each call reality hit me: some family was grieving deeply. Some husband had lost a wife, or a family a father, or saddest of all, parents a child. It didn’t faze the newspaper obituary writer, and I think that’s what astonished me. She performed her task in a perfunctory manner, neither relishing the process nor despising it. It was simply something she had to do. “What have you got for me today?” was her saying, “Please give me the information I need to complete my task.” Then she carried on to do her job as best she could.

    Matter-of-factly, this woman wrote down the necessary information on the legal pad, took it to an electric typewriter — and showed me the format she wanted me to use.

    “We vary the wording somewhat,” she explained to me the very first time, “Sometimes this way. …” And she showed me wording with the deceased’s name up front. “And sometimes this way.” Then she showed me a slightly different version. Several others followed.

    “Okay,” I replied.

    “We really try to make sure there are no spelling errors,” she continued. “You have to check everything. If there is information missing, you need to call back to get it. Make sure you include this, and this and this.” And she filled in the precise details.

    So I learned to follow her directions, calling the funeral homes each morning, one by one, to glean information. And I wrote up the obituaries, carefully, precisely, painstakingly sometimes, making sure the form was just right, that this Cecelia had an “e” not an “i” in her name, and that that Mr. Tom Jenkins wanted his father’s initials not full names used, and that in another case, although it was usually not done, the deceased woman’s cat had to be mentioned in the write-up or the family would be very upset.

    Over time I came to realize what a kindness, even an act of mercy, writing obituaries is. An obituary is usually the last public write-up that a person will ever have. A small mistake can cause suffering to the family. Mistakes can be painful to survivors. No son or daughter of the deceased wants to wake up three days before the funeral of their beloved parent and see that his or her name has been left out or misspelled in the obituary. Emotions run high when people die and a nicely written obituary is reassurance that this life mattered. I came to realize the importance of doing this small thing with precision — or as Mother Teresa would say, with great love.

    Lastly, I learned something else from this experience: that it’s good to ask God the question that the newspaper obituary writer asked every day of the funeral directors:

    What do you have for me today?”

    Once I know that, I can act purposefully, with precision and meaning and care, show kindness and make a difference.

    Posted on August 5, 2014, to:

  • Three of my teen daughters are currently ballet dancers, studying that art form in a pre-professional classical ballet school. Most days at the studio, the girls are required to wear black leotards (with or without ballet skirts), pink ballet tights and pink canvas shoes. On Wednesdays the girls are allowed to wear colored leotards, and they fully enjoy expressing themselves then by wearing pretty floral or solid colored leotards and coordinating filmy ballet skirts.

    A couple months ago the girls and I were in the fabric store, purchasing some material for my 16 year old, who is taking a sewing class at school. My younger daughter asked for a yard of a couple different kinds of stretch fabric to try to make a ballet skirt. Soon, the 12 year old found the clearance rack, and shyly asked for some material too. Not knowing anything about making ballet skirts, but figuring the older sister could help them all figure it out, I purchased several yards of material in beautiful colors and textures.

    At home, the girls went straight to You Tube on the Internet to research how to make the ballet skirts they desired —ABT (American Ballet Theater) style — shorter on the sides and longer in back. My 14 year old worked particularly diligently. She made a few mistakes, had to start over, but before long she had several pretty new skirts to wear to ballet class, and did so as her classmates oohed and ahhed over the new creations. Of course this response motivated her to go home and make more. Some of the girls even asked her to help them make their own, or make some for them with their own material.

    As I watched this process unfold right before my eyes, I realized I was watching a pattern that I had seen many times before in my family. Perhaps you have seen it in yours too.

    An interest is sparked. You feed the interest by supplying the environment, the materials and enthusiasm. You stand back. They fly.

    My 19-year-old daughter is currently a computer animation college student studying art and cartoon animation. While she has taken a few traditional 2-D and 3-D art classes while in high school, she was primarily self-taught in cartooning. When she was a little girl, we simply made materials available to her. I think she filled enough sketchbooks to line our 1,000 foot driveway if put end to end. This daughter didn’t ask for new Polly Pocket toys for her birthdays. She wanted Prisma color markers and pens and “how to” books from the art store. So, we purchased what we could, surrounded her with material, encouraged her and then let her be. She flourished.

    This daughter spent hours honing her craft, reading books on her own about illustration from the library or bookstore and then just applying what she learned. She drew and sketched and doodled and sketched some more. She would bring her notebook to baseball games, to the movie theater, to Grandma’s house… Wherever she went, that sketchpad and those pencils came too. To date, she has contributed art for a comic book, had some artwork published in a book, and is now really taking off with her college classes in an excellent program. This all started with the interest, the environment, materials and encouragement.

    Something similar occurred when my son was in the fifth grade. We had been reading about electricity in our homeschool and studying electrical current. Out of the blue one afternoon my son gave me a list of parts he wanted: a nine-volt battery, some wiring, some metal and other things I can’t remember. Apparently he had started independently reading an electric circuitry book I had on our shelves and he wanted to make a burglar alarm. Instead of trying to control the project, I gave him the materials, some encouraging words and let him at it. In a day he had made, completely by himself, a working burglar alarm. I doubt he would have done so well had I tried to micromanage him.

    It occurred to me recently that this formula, which I’ve seen time and time again at work in our family, can be applied to helping our children develop a relationship with God too.

    As parents we can spark an interest in our children to communicate with God. Beginning when they are very young we read them Bible stories, saint stories and talk about God frequently, daily. As they grow older, we feed the interest by supplying the right environment. This is accomplished by making a truly Catholic home, teaching them knowledge of the faith and frequenting the sacraments with them. Next, we provide the materials, (prayer books, saint books, statues and artwork in their rooms and our homes to uplift and inspire). We offer genuine enthusiasm (including our own example.) Then, geared with the necessary tools, they figure out themselves how they are going to make their own personal relationship with God. Like a plant in rich soil nourished by the sun and watered, they grow, amazingly.

    Posted on May 27, 2014, to:

  • Did you really just say, ‘Yeah right’?

    Sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarkasmos,” which means, “to tear flesh” or “strip the skin.” No doubt sarcasm can be caustic. To be sarcastic is to comment one thing but mean another, in a pithy, derisive, acerbic or taunting way. Sarcasm by nature is insincere.

    It is pouring rain on the first day of your vacation. “This is just wonderful!” you exclaim to your wife and kids as you pull back the curtains in the living room.

    An office worker jams the copier. “Well, aren’t you smart?” her coworker mumbles under her breath.

    A girl is annoyed at her sister, who is eating chips noisily. “Why don’t you chew a little louder?” she says, rolling her eyes.

    “I was worried. You’re late!” a nervous wife exclaims to her husband. He retorts, “Yes dear, you know I was out drinking and carousing and carrying on. Geez, what do you think I was doing? I was at work!”

    The intention of sarcasm is to diffuse, amuse or wound. It sometimes does the former two, and commonly does the latter.

    People often think they are being funny when they are being sarcastic. While frequently sarcasm elicits a chuckle, many times it is no laughing matter. Sarcasm is considered by psychologists to be a form of passive aggressive behavior. Hostile feelings are draped in irony, thus giving the speaker an excuse behind which to hide angry thoughts. Sarcasm might let off steam but it can be biting, and mean.

    If you address a sarcastic person, he may say, “I was just kidding” or “What’s wrong, can’t you take a joke?” thus cruelly twisting the fault on you, the listener, rather than the speaker taking responsibility for his own words. This might leave you speechless, feeling blamed for “taking something personally” or doubting the intention of the other.

    Television programs and movies are rife with examples of sarcasm. High school halls are filled with young people trying it out on others. The problem is when the adults laugh along, or get into the habit themselves for a cheap giggle or jab. Sarcasm befuddles conversations and introduces uncertainty into situations. “Did she really mean that or not?” We’re not sure. Sarcasm inflicts hurt on others.

    Speaking sarcastically when there are children present also sets a bad example for them. Children emulate what they see and hear, and who really wants a four-year-old saying, “I’m so glad you made these Brussels sprouts, Mommy. They look so good.” or an eight year old sneering, “I can’t wait for you to tell me it’s time to go to bed.”

    We must say what we mean, and build up, not tear down.

    While a little sarcasm might lighten a heavy moment, nobody likes to be on the receiving end of it. An argument might be made that sarcasm, when not directed at a person, can sometimes diffuse an uncomfortable situation and bring levity to a situation. If so, then I submit that occasion is rare. Sarcasm should be like a potent spice used on food sparingly. Otherwise, it contributes toward a cynicism and negative personality, which brings down the sarcastic person and everyone in contact with him. “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22) but not humor that hurts.

    Ephesians 5:4 says we should engage in “no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk. …”

    Matthew 5:37 tells us to say what we mean and mean what we say, that words have value: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

    St. Francis de Sales in his “Spiritual Exercises” says: “I will be careful neither to criticize, to mock, (and) not to be sarcastic to anyone. It is a sign of stupidity. …”

    Wow.

    What can you do when confronted with hurtful sarcasm?

    • Don’t acknowledge the comment as being negative. Take it at its genuine face value. For example, if a snarky teenager insincerely says to a classmate: “Nice haircut,” an effective response said evenly and calmly could be, “Thank you! Glad you like it.” This diffuses the jokester, who is now confused whether the person “got” what he was trying to say. Done over time, this can also help train someone to speak genuinely.

    • Ignore the comment completely. Just turn away. Or say nothing and look at the person confused, as though you can’t believe he said that. Saying nothing can be powerful. It’s like a mirror, reflecting back on the speaker.

    • Respond calmly, “Wow, that was rude.” Then carry on unbothered. A variation of this is to quietly reprimand, “Please don’t be sarcastic.” Then stay unruffled. Giving a strong response can encourage the behavior.

    The worst way to handle sarcasm is to overreact or bite back with sarcasm of your own, and say something like, “Wow, that was an intelligent comment.” The problem with doing this is that you are stooping to the level of the one insulting you. You may win the battle, but make an enemy. “What would Jesus do?” is a good thought to consider. Remember kindness begets kindness, and hurtful sarcasm has no place in a Catholic home.

    Posted on April 29, 2014, to:

  • I heard the gentle clank of a mug being placed on my bedside nightstand, and the strong aroma of fresh coffee hit my nostrils. Then, I heard the familiar gentle deep voice I’ve loved for three decades, the voice of my husband.

    “Your coffee is beside you. It’s time to get up.”

    I opened my eyes to a dark room and the shadow of my husband’s silhouette. He touched my face with his hand.

    “Thank you,” I whispered. I picked up the hot mug and breathed in the steam. Ahh!

    It is never easy to get up on cold winter mornings with the wind howling outside in the darkness, but my husband made it a bit easier today. I smile as I realize how David’s small act of sweet kindness has, once again, started my day out right.

    He is my knight in so many ways, and has really taken to heart the job of a husband to provide and protect, not just for me but our little family, in both big and small ways. And I am grateful.

    I recently read an article with the title “Eight Acts of Chivalry to Bring Back” by J. Sama. Right off the bat, I realized how blessed I am. Because of the men in my life, my husband, my sons, my brothers, father and brothers-in-law, I have little exposure to know that acts of chivalry are often missing in modern society.

    Oh, I’ve noticed that some random man walking ahead of me at the YMCA may not stand to hold the door open as I approach, as they did in years past, but on a personal level, the men in my life have always been gentlemen supreme. And in talking with my friends, I hear much the same about their husbands and sons. We are so blessed!

    For the young men reading Today’s Catholic who are not yet educated in such matters, or for wonderful, hard-working husbands who may have forgotten, or for mothers who want to train their sons, I’ll offer the list of chivalrous acts that women appreciate.

    Like most acts of courtesy and kindness, these chivalrous acts reflect the character of the one doing them, regardless of how they are received. So, it is always appropriate for men to do them, even if one individual female may not show gratitude for their thoughtfulness. Doing so reveals a strong, manly character.

    The chivalrous acts mentioned in the aforementioned article were (with my comments following):

    • Giving up your seat for a woman when seating is limited. This includes at Mass, in a meeting, on public transportation.

    • Pulling out a woman’s chair when she is about to sit down. Husbands do this for their wives and single men for their dates of course, but sons should also do this for their mothers, brothers for their sisters, and fathers for their daughters.

    • Opening doors for a woman (any woman). And women, don’t forget to smile and say, “Thank you!” It saddened me when I heard about one of my sons opening the door for a fellow student and she screeched, “I don’t need your help! I can do that myself!” How ungrateful.

    • Calling, not texting for a date. Single men, this is imperative. Married men, while your wives will appreciate you setting up a date no matter how you do it, a phone call is always nicer than getting the message electronically.

    • Complimenting. Find something you sincerely like about your wife or girlfriend (or sister or grandmother) and tell her. (Here’s a secret — not only will it be appreciated and motivate her to be better or work harder at whatever it is you are complimenting her about, but you are rightfully perceived as being appreciative and kind. Hint: Win/win.)

    • Walking on the street side of the sidewalk. The original reason for this is to be willing to ‘take the splash’ from a car driving through a puddle or protect her from being hit. I read of one modern woman, however, who said, “In my culture the men do it to protect their wives/sisters/daughters from other men’s improper calls or advances. It is literally to show that she “does not walk alone.” Nice.

    • (For the single fellows) On a date, walking her to the door rather than just dropping her off. Conversely, I might add, go up to the door when you go to pick her up. Don’t text “I’m here,” and expect her to come out. And certainly don’t honk! Please.

    • Dropping her off at an entrance if you have to park far away.

    I would also like to add:

    • Helping her in and out of her coat or sweater.

    Our faith should shine through all our actions with love and joy, kindness and gratitude. What better way for Catholic men to respect the women in their lives than by doing chivalrous acts? And what better way for Catholic women to respect their men than by showing appreciation?

    When women act like ladies, men are more likely to act like gentlemen. That’s good food for thought too.

    Posted on February 25, 2014, to:

  • “Once upon a time, there was a banana. And he lived in a kitchen…” So began the story my eight-year-old daughter Angela wrote yesterday for a homeschool writing assignment. I laughed and laughed, a big belly laugh. I almost couldn’t stop I loved the opening sentences so much. As I read on, I was tickled with her play on words, as the banana attended the “fruitball games” and the “sink bowl.” I so desperately needed this belly laugh from my sweet creative child.

    You see, it seems that everywhere I’ve turned lately, I see stories of sadness and tragedy, even outright evil taking place in city after city, even in my own. I don’t turn on the news anymore because I can’t take the constant barrage of assaults on our faith and stories of disaster that make my stomach turn. In the midst of this media age, it is easy to literally see what is happening not only across our nation, but also across the world, and no tragedy is spared on television: fires, floods, accusations, scandals, murders.

    Our own little communities are affected too — accidents on the road, violence. Just recently, citizens in Elkhart County experienced a random shooter in a local grocery store. Sometimes our own parishes or family is affected. These personal trials can be the most difficult to endure. It is easy to become discouraged.

    While this is scary and unnerving, it is also what has been happening in humankind since the beginning of people inhabiting the earth. Perhaps difficult to imagine it’s true: the ancient Roman times were full of people in debauchery, scandal and local and national gossip. These things have persisted over time. There just wasn’t always mass media to televise it.

    Tragedies can be severe mercies for individuals or communities, which spur us on to humility, repentance and dependence on God. Sadness and struggles bring with them often the gift of wisdom and discernment, of knowledge and Truth. When we realize we cannot control everything, we learn to rely on our Father.

    But guess what? There has also been goodness over time — Truth, Beauty and Goodness — as a matter of fact. God. And children. Children born are our hope in their innocence and promise. They remind us of the Eden that once was and the heaven that will be for each of us who choose God. When we focus on them we find a piece of heaven on earth.

    There is so much to be thankful for when we look out for and after children. Here are some positive things to ponder:

    • For married people, each day is an opportunity to serve a spouse and child, and make a life less burdensome.

    • For consecrated religious, each day is a chance to serve one more spiritual child and lighten the load.

    • Each day a new baby is born, with unique gifts and talents, an unrepeatable combination of DNA and distinctive gifted soul.

    • Each day we have the opportunity to help our children grow in grace and knowledge.

    Our greatest achievement is not climbing to the corporate top, or running and winning a marathon or attaining any other honorable goal. It is living our vocation with courage, even in the midst of a fallen world. The “magnum opus” of parents, regardless of their profession, is the raising of their children to know, love and serve God in this world, to be happy with Him in the next. And the wonderful thing about that is that not only do we have the graces to do so well because of our Baptism, but this job, this vocation is overflowing with joy!

    The joy of raising children well is not only supernatural “up there” joy but also common, simple every day, “down here” joy.

    The same eight-year-old daughter I referenced at the beginning of this column spontaneously informed me moments ago that the dog’s legs are four inches long, her head is three inches and her back is nine. … I turned to see a tolerant puppy on my daughter’s lap, being “tape-measured” patiently. The puppy looked up at me with an expression, that should it be put into human words most likely would be, “Really?”

    And I laughed. How could I not?

    This little girl invited me to dance with her yesterday. She shared a half a cookie with me the day before. She asked me if God has favorite foods. She performed a magic show with her sister (making that patient puppy disappear).

    Children are such hopes and gifts for the world.

    We cannot focus only on the tragedies, sadness and other grim realities, because once upon a time, there was a banana in the kitchen, and that’s reality too.

    Posted on January 28, 2014, to: