Thursday, December 30, 2010


As we transit between the Christmas holiday and New Years I can’t help but reflect on what this time of year has meant to countless generations before.  Our society celebrates the birth of Christ and the beginning of the new year within one week of each other.  Other cultures celebrate their new year at a different time, and I even argued for altering the new year to reflect the beginning of spring in a previous blog appropriately called “Renewal;” you can find it on  

Our calendar has it’s roots in the Julian calendar system, adopted by the Roman Empire in 46 BC and introduce by Julius Caesar.  Without getting into too many details, Caesar chose to follow the solar calendar due to his influence from Egypt.  Most cultures in the area used the lunar calendar, which did not accurately align with the seasons.  The Julian calendar adopted a 365 day year with an extra day every four years - leap years.  Later, most of the Western world adopted the Gregorian calendar, which altered the Julian calendar only slightly, adding 11 minutes to every year.
In the Julian calendar, the Winter Solstice was marked as December 25, and represented the point in time which the Earth was farthest from the sun.  From this day onwards, the days would grow longer, and the potential of spring arriving grew greater each day.  Because of the differences in the Julian and tropical calendar (which the Gregorian calendar follows), the solstice moved, aligning with our current solstice of December 21/22.
Many ancient cultures celebrated a rebirth or renewal of the sun on the winter solstice.  Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the Japanese Amaterasu, Germanic culture celebrated the 12 days of Yule, the Zuni and Hopi celebrated Soyal, the Christians Christmas, and the list goes on.  All of these celebrations focus on one thing - the rebirth of the sun, or in the case of the Christians - the birth of the Son.  Either way, the focus was on the potential for renewal allowed by the lengthening of the day. 
In the Roman dominated early Christian church, the date assigned to Christ’s birth coincided with the winter solstice - a day the sun returns to the Earth.  Scripture suggests that the birth would have taken place in summer when shepherds would actually take their flocks out to graze and travel was common.  The early church never flinched from aligning it’s holy days and traditions with those of the cultures in which it resided.  So, from around 350 AD, Christmas and the Winter Solstice coincided.
So, historically, as the Earth traveled this very path around the sun, people across the world celebrated the potential for renewal in their lives.  Our society has adopted the same idea of renewal, but instead of placing emphasis on the solstice, our focus is on the changing of the year.  The concept of beginning anew, putting the past behind us, and moving forward into the new year give many people hope for the future.  We contemplate our Resolutions at the same time as we plan the coming festivities.  We look forward to what the New Year will bring.
As always, I am excited for the potential of a new year.  People approach life with a fresh perspective, eager to make amends for past wrongs, and focused on changing their ways.  While nothing has changed physically, their mental positioning can affect their reality.  Of course, traditionally, New Year’s resolutions fall quickly by the wayside, unfortunate casualties to our ego’s destructive power.  However, people with significant investment and a considerable exertion of will power can alter who they are.  Here’s to making it happen!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

And There were Presents!

I have to admit, as I have grown older, opening gifts has become a very methodical process.  I take the package, I find some weak points in the wrapping design, and after a few select rips, I slide the package from it’s sheath.  The discarded paper is folded and placed in a relatively organized pile near my stack of already opened presents.  I usually receive some ridicule for my efforts.

I had more passion when I was younger.  Opening presents was less an exercise in efficiency and more a raging hurricane.  Presents would leap into my arms, the paper tearing and flying before my eager hands.  I would rip and shred until every inch of my new gift was unveiled; only then would I stop to revel in it’s awesomeness.  I bathed in the glory of my opened package, sometimes hooting and hollering in my excitement.  If the person who gave it to me was there, I would deliver heartfelt thanks.  Then, after placing the gift gently aside in it’s special place, the fervor would begin anew.

I still feel the passion for opening presents, and my thanks are no less authentic than before, I am simply less demonstrative in my devotion.  I find immense joy in waking on Christmas morning, making some tea, coffee, or hot cocoa, turning on some jolly tunes, and reveling in the horde of unopened goodies.  For me, there is nothing quite like the colorful spread fanning out from the base of the twinkling tree.

My fever for opening gifts has receded as my focus shifted more towards the other reactions around me.  When I was little, I would join in the exclamation of “cool,” “awesome,” or even “bodacious,” as my brothers or cousins would discover their newest toy.  Just as quickly as I joined them in their excitement, I would return to my own search.  Now, I see my own youthful reactions in people around me.  I witness the glint in their eye, the trembling of their fingertips as the ache to open the next one, the gasps of surprise as they spy their heart’s desire beneath the wrapping.
Samantha’s extended family always does their Christmas the day after.  We gather at an Aunt’s house and celebrate with the traditional Christmas fare, gorging ourselves on various meats and sides, stretching the waistlines with just one more bite of pie.  I always look forward to the opening of the presents.  The young kids are the only ones to receive family gifts, so the adults sit back, watching the mayhem unfold.  Get too close and you might be collateral damage.
The best part of the entire event happens their faces.  While at first they display a grim sort of determination, as they tear open the colorful paper bliss quickly soothes their firmly set features as their efforts are satisfied.  They laugh and giggle, smiling at each other and at the adults who made it possible.  Afterwards, the put their toys to use, eager to fulfill the happy potential they felt upon seeing them the first time.
As I watch the kids in their fun, I feel the same emotions I once felt when little.  I empathize with their joy, remembering the innocence of Christmas morning, when it was natural to revel in yourself for a bit.  Now I revel in the excitement of others.  Instead of an explosion of torn paper, there is an expansive smile, twinkling eyes replace my raucous shouts, and dare I say, my midsection quivers like a bowl full of jelly as I laugh.  Only the expression has changed; the joy of Christmas morning remains the same.  
Merry Christmas to everyone.  May joy be delivered to you in a variety of ways this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Making it Count

This week is usually Samantha and my biggest shopping week.  In previous years, both of our jobs have restricted our free time in December, eating up our evenings and weekends, leaving us weary and unwilling to fight the Christmas mobs.  This year has been much the same.  Between concerts, gigs, church musicals, region band activities, musical preparation, etc., we seemed to have barely had time to even see each other.  As the days have shrunk in length, so too has the time I have seen my house during daylight hours.  So, this first week of vacation is usually filled with a shopping binge.
This year is different.  We are not as financially free to spend as we have been in the past, and so we are unable to join the throngs of mall revelers and discount hunters in the same way as before.  As this is a new experience for both of us, we have to learn to adjust.
What I am learning is that every dollar I spend on a present has to have more impact.  Where I can’t overwhelm someone with volume or luxury, I now need to overwhelm with caring and thought.  Every gift has to have purpose.  I am sure many of you understand both sides of the coin, both the feverish purchasing of gifts absent of regard and the careful selection of gifts, constantly conscious of the pocketbook.
Please don’t misunderstand; I certainly am not implying that expensive gifts, or even a large amount of gifts are not thought out or have no meaning behind them.  I am just realizing that in my situation, the care and consideration I put into my gift giving has to elevate.  I have to make every gift count.  My hope is that in years beyond, as we regain the freedom we once had, I will take the lessons I learn this year and apply them.  Frivolous use of the plastic benefits no one but the corporations from whom I making my purchases.  Careful and considerate spending will benefit myself and my loved ones (as well as the corporations - there is no getting around that).
American society seems to approach gift giving as an obligation.  Too frequently, in the event we receive an unexpected gift, our response is either to apologize for not having one in return, or to run out and purchase an arbitrary gift to assuage our guilt.  The same seems to happen when the value of gifts are compared.  We add up the cost of the gifts we bestowed upon someone and compare it to the gifts they have given. 
Gift giving shouldn’t feel obligatory at all.  The act of offering something you produced or procured through your hard work should be a symbol of your appreciation for them.  Through giving a gift you are saying “thank you for being in my life.”  Monetary value can’t be attached to that and one gift should never be compared to another.  If you approach your gift giving as if it is required, i suggest you don’t give gifts at all until you can give freely and in the correct manner.
Our gift giving tradition has also produced the idea that we must always reciprocate if we receive a gift.  Something to consider before you run out to the Target to get a gift - you may have already given that person a gift and they are only returning the favor.  
This time of year is sometimes more stressful than it needs to be because of the psychosis generated by 300 million Santa Clauses.  Take a breath before you jump in, allow yourself to digest your gift list and make sure your reasons for giving gifts are pure.  Be sure that the gifts you give have meaning and purpose.  Make every single one count.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Greatest Gift

This Friday, two of my very best friends were blessed with the greatest gift they could give each other.  Gianna Melosi McDonald was born Friday afternoon to Steven and Adria McDonald and to fervent facebook fanfare.  Those of us who could not be there to support them were glued to our various internet access points, eager for more news, pictures, or information.  Periodic text messages kept us on our toes and holding our breath.  Finally, the excited tension was relieved when the announcement was made that she had been born.
Pictures soon followed, and facebook chatter increased.  Loving comments came from every corner of the globe, uniting family and friends in a global network of celebration.  The smiling faces of the proud parents cuddled against their early Christmas present, tired ecstasy etched on their features.  They glowed with the joy of parenthood.
What I find so amazing about the birth of a child - any child - is the amazing potential surrounding that little person.  They enter the world crying and squalling, evicted from their comfortable surroundings.  Eagerly, they seek comfort and we are there to give it.  Their lives are a clean slate - nothing is determined, nothing is impossible.  
From the moment a new parent first holds their newborn, the gift giving commences.  The relationship between parent and child is constructed of a constant parade of gifts.  As the child gives experiences, love, and joy to the parents, so to do they give.  Their gifts help to define who their child will be.  
I know Steve and Adria will make awesome parents to their little girl.  She is so lucky to have been born to such great people.  Amazingly, Steve and Adria now have the power to influence the universe through Gianna.  The gifts they bring her daily have the power to develop Gianna into a powerful human being.  She will mold the universe around her as she grows.
Gianna does not benefit alone.  For Steve and Adria, their little girl will be a source of love and joy.  Every moment of her life will be a celebration of their love.  Gianna will bless them with every action, every breath.  I can’t help but smile at the thought the three of them together.  How powerful can their love for each other be if it reaches me, half a country away.
The gift the McDonald family received this Christmas is far greater than anything anyone could have given them.  This life is more precious, more significant than anything they have ever received.  Christmas came early this year for the McDonald family.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


If you hadn’t noticed, I have been focusing on the idea of giving for this Christmas series of blogs.  I have talked about the simple gifts we encounter in life, the actual gift of being alive.  I lingered on the grinch and how to offer gifts to those grinches in our lives.  Sunday I explored the idea of discovering the gifts the universe has given you.  Today I will bring things back into focus for the time of year.  
As churches galore remind us - Jesus is the reason for the season.  Regardless of whether you are a follower of Jesus or not, there is no avoiding the season of Christmas.  Living in the US and avoiding Christmas is like living in Houston and avoiding humidity.  No matter how little you are interested in participating in it, avoidance is impossible.  Christmas is here.
Please don’t think I am about to begin proselytizing, because I am not.  As much as this blog tackles human issues in a spiritualized way, it is not about religion.  The Christmas season doesn’t seem to be much about religion either anymore.  Our society tends to focus more on tradition and family than the idea of church.  Sure, church happens during the holidays, but I am sure no one would be surprised to know that church attendance spikes right around Christmas.  This jump doesn’t happen because people suddenly become religious - they aren’t - they go because they always have; it is tradition.
What is also tradition is celebrating the birth of the Christ child.  Nativities pop up like wildflowers in April.  Some houses have one, some have many.  Some church groups have fun with the live Nativity.  We have a few at home - we even have an abstract one I really like. 
The whole point of the Nativity scene is to remind us that the season is intended to center around Christ.  According to the Bible and tradition, Jesus came to the Earth to be born, to live, and then to be sacrificed and die for us, cleansing the human race of sin.  Christmas celebrates the first part of the story - the initial giving of the gift of Christ from God.
The birth of Christ did not only only result in his death on the cross.  Some argue that Christ’s life was more significant than his birth or his death.  The teachings found in the Gospels are blueprints for living, guiding readers towards a more humanist approach, rather than a selfish one.  Living as the Gospel’s teach means living a caring, giving, loving life.
Many Christians today are eager and waiting for the second coming of Christ.  They scour the scriptures for evidence of when and where.  The Left Behind book series follows a group of post-rapture survivors as the fight to survive until the second coming.  Most believe in an apocalyptic course of events ending with the Judgement where the wheat and the chaff will be sorted and dealt with accordingly.  Christ will return and slay his enemies and lead a newly reborn Earth into the millennial kingdom.
Why wait?
In the 1990s, the phrase WWJD became popular, originating amongst Evangelical Christians as a reminder to follow the moral imperative defined in the Gospel writings.  In any given situation, you were instructed to consider what would Jesus do; the resulting answer would be based on scriptural evidence from Jesus’ teachings.  While no Christian teaching I have ever encountered suggests that anyone can truly live a sinless life as the Gospels say Christ did, following the outlines of the WWJD principal can certainly bring you closer. 
Instead of waiting for Christ to come again and cleanse the world of wrong doers and evil, allow yourself to be the second coming of Christ.  Work to see his spirit in every thought and deed, be driven by the same pure, humanist motivation, find comfort and peace in treating others as you would be treated.  Christ told his followers that the kingdom of heaven is at hand - nothing has changed.  All this is possible and more.
God’s gift to the world was more than just a death, it is the possibility of life.  The potential for living exists in every single one of us.  Every moment we choose whether or not to access that potential.  Find the opportunities to truly live and honor the gift we have been given.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Gifts of Talent and Hard Work

I had the privilege to spend a large part of this weekend with some of the most talented individuals in the Houston area - the TMEA region 9 Region Bands.  Watching these students prepare for their concerts, seeing their dedication to their instruments and to music, really motivated me.  The energy and the fervor they brought to their rehearsals was impressive.  Each of these students was finding a way to express one of the many gifts the universe had bestowed upon them.  The next step for the top portion of these students is the All-State audition in January.
Samantha and I used to disagree about our All-State audition experience.  I was always of the opinion that people made All-State because of their talent.  Samantha disagreed and said it was due to hard work.  Sitting in front of the kids for 8 1/2 hours of rehearsal and four hours of concerts, I learned a lot about the audition process.  They taught me a different perspective, one I am surprised I didn’t have before because now it seems so simple and obvious.  The students on the stage reaped the benefits of a combination of hard work and talent.  How simple and silly that I didn’t see this before.  I do have to admit, thinking back on Samantha and my discussions, I am pretty sure this is what she was suggesting, and I have to admit she was right.
I read some brain based research recently (I am always reading some random facts on the internet and in books) that delved into the concept of genius.  One of the examples the author used was Mozart.  The Western world generally regards Mozart as a musical genius who sprung from the womb writing symphonies, operas, and masses.  While he was fairly prolific as a child, and he did begin early - 4 - Mozart was essentially no different from the rest of us.  He had a penchant for melody, an amazing ear, and a brain designed to understand the mathematical relationships involved in chord structure.  I could sum this up and say Mozart had musical talent.
On the other hand, from an early age Mozart worked at writing music.  He had teachers, he learned to play piano and worked diligently at perfecting his piano skills.  His performances on piano at a young age brought him into contact with some of the best musicians of the time, furthering the opportunities he had to improve his skills.  Mozart developed as a composer for a decade before achieving significant notoriety for his compositions.  
Mozart was the combination of both talent and hard work.  Both of these were his gifts.  Talent alone would languish and eventually fall silent with out a work ethic to develop it.  Hard work alone produces nothing - the raw materials for the end product must be present from the very beginning.  Any person with the right combination of mental aptitude in the appropriate disciplines and the ability and desire to apply and develop their skills can access Mozartian levels of success.
Crazy, right.  Its true though.
After sitting in front of the Wind Ensemble at region weekend, I am pretty confident I could point out to you the kids who earned their position through more hard work than talent, and vice versa.  I could show you the kids at my school who didn’t earn a position in the region band because of a lack of work ethic despite a plethora of talent.  It definitely works both ways.
The universe blesses us with different gifts, helping shape the world in different ways.  My students demonstrate the difference in their gifts every day.  They vary drastically: the ability to understand chemistry concepts quickly and present them in a simple way so other people can understand as well; the ability to hear a melody and recreate it on the piano; the ability to memorize, catalogue, and recall pop song lyrics; the ability to run forever, the ability to paint and draw; the ability to lead a group of students; the ability to lead a discussion during class (even when they aren’t supposed to); the ability to be polite and responsible; the ability to plan a social event; the ability to dance; the ability to relate to individuals.  All of these talents are gifts; each of these students has the potential to foster and develop them into something meaningful with the right motivation and inspiration.
I work with people whose gift is simply the ability to motivate others.  Their contribution ensures the planet has a fresh crop of hard working, talented individuals eager to develop their blessings.  
I am exceedingly glad the universe guided me into a situation where I could learn such an important lesson.  I can’t imagine any of the region band students had any idea they were gathering to do anything other than play music, see friends, and have a good time doing something they love.  Little did they know, their actual purpose in my life was to demonstrate such a profound, yet impossibly simple, lesson.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Grinch

This week has been filled with the Grinch.  One of the pieces the top band is doing for their Christmas concert is a reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with band accompaniment.  We are bringing back one of our former students, an all state Bass and vocal major, to do the reading and sing the famed “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.”  The band will be playing a compilation of tunes from the cartoon, but there is no actual music written to accompany the reading, so the head director has been listening to the music to find sounds and phrases he would like to include.  In order to do this, he has been listening to the Grinch everyday, all day, for the last week.

In addition to the Grinch filled office at work, the cartoon has been on TV at home, the song has been playing on the radio.  To top it all off, I arrived home one night after work to find some neighbors installing a new decoration in their yard.  This 12 foot fake tree  flashes in time to music.  What did my neighbors choose to use as inspiration for the flashing tree?  Not just the Grinch song, but the entire recording of the cartoon.  I could hear it when I got out of my car (they live four houses down), I could hear it after I closed the garage, I could hear it in my house.

So needless to say, I got plenty of the Grinch this week.  I have felt like the universe has put the Grinch in my path at every turn; perhaps I should pay attention.
Let’s consider the story of the Grinch.  He detests Christmas, loathing it with his entire being.  The Grinch gets it in his head to prevent Christmas from coming for the Whos down in Whoville.  His master plan - dress like Santa, sneak in to the village, steal everything Christmas from gifts to food to decorations.  The Grinch’s plan goes off with resounding success.  As the Grinch is preparing to dispose of Whoville’s Christmas, he hears a sound from below - all the Whos of Whoville singing together a song of Christmas.  The Grinch realizes that Christmas is not about the gifts, the decorations, or the meal, its about the spirit.  The redeemed Grinch swoops back in to Whoville, restoring the stolen Christmas celebration.

As my week has been inundated with the Grinch and his too small heart, I have had plenty of time to think about exactly what the story means.  Our society tends to lose sight of the true meaning behind Christmas.  As the decorations come flying out at the stores immediately following Halloween, we are urged to start our buying frenzy, paying homage to the god of consumerism.  Children eagerly build their gift lists, credit card balances are double checked, and the sales begin.  We plan our dinners and parties, we decorate our homes, sometimes going overboard with our house and lawn decorations (i.e. Grinch playing Christmas tree), we buy new CDs with our favorite Christmas tunes.
All of this is what the Grinch attempted to steal from the Whos.  Consider if you had been the victim of the Grinch’s malice.  How would you react?  Would you react the same way as the Whos?  I worry that the majority of America would not choose to band together in voice and song.  Why did the Whos make this choice?  They believed the meaning of Christmas was out of reach of the Grinch.  He could steal anything and everything they had, and Christmas would still come because Christmas was inside.  The Whos’ Christmas was a celebration of family, of tradition.  Their revelry was not in the physical items, but in the spiritual connection they shared with each other.  Even though their Christmas items were stolen, their Christmas was not.
I feel that if we can keep our focus on this meaning of Christmas, instead of what the malls want us to focus on, our season will be a happier one.  Celebrate your friends and family, find happiness in companionship, treasure the moments the universe brings you that are without physical attachment.  Find the place the Whos know and join them there.  If you encounter a Grinch this Christmas season, instead of succumbing to their negative presence, choose to be positive.
In the face of peace and happiness, the Grinch had no choice but to succumb to the Whos’ Christmas spirit.  Regardless of the rot and corruption in his soul, the evil and hate in his heart could not resist.  The Grinch was touched, his heart grew, and he returned Christmas to the Whos.  This season, the best gift you could give could be to a Grinch in your life.  Give your Grinch the gift of peace and happiness. Remind someone that this is a time of celebration, invite them to join in and celebrate with you.  
It might be the best thing you could do all year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts
In 1944, Aaron Copland brought the little known Shaker song Simple Gifts to the hearts of America.  The melody from Simple Gifts became the central musical idea for his ballet Appalachian SpringSimple Gifts is a Shaker dancing song, incorporating the dance instructions into the lyrics.  I believe it has a much deeper sentiment that originally intended.
The lyrics for the song are themselves appropriately simple:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The song is not long, the wording uncomplicated.  The rhyme scheme lacks complexity and deep thought is not required to understand it’s meaning.  To me, the melody is hauntingly beautiful and synonymous with Americana.  This is a video from the show Blast!  which I feel portrays the simple beauty of Simple Gifts.

As I said before, the song contains instructions for a Shaker dance.  When I look over the lyrics, I see more than just a dance between two people; I see the dance we perform every day of our lives from birth to death.  The instructions contained in the lyrics embody a means of living - simple and free. 
What does it mean to live simple and free?  Looking over the words, I find the answer to the question: “to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.”  Living a humble life, a life full of humility and absent of ego, will help achieve simplicity.  A life like this doesn’t seek to fulfill needless voids, regarding them as unnecessary.  Instead of complication, the simple life leads to freedom.  As the song states: “when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Aiming for simplicity takes a few steps.  As I discussed in a previous post “Baggage Fees,” which can be found on my old tumblr blog, we tend to carry much of our baggage around with us.  These burdens weigh on our spirit and on our physical health.  Their toll is exacted ruthlessly, and many times we are not even aware they are there until we begin to explore ourselves.  Taking the time to find our baggage is worthwhile, as it can save you from so many problems.
Many Eastern religions associate the idea of “baggage” with karma.  Karma is essentially the sum of your past experiences.  If you allow it to do so, your karma will travel with you, dictating your experience.  According to Buddhism and Hinduism, until you free yourself from your karma, your soul will continue to be reborn in human form.  Until you free yourself from karma, you will never achieve the final goal of either of these religions - oneness with God.
Regardless of what you believe, Simple Gifts tells a similar story.  If you can free yourself from complexity and create an existence based on simplicity, you will find peace, love, goodwill, and every other aspect of a positive, healthy, rewarding life.  If your life appears to focused on the wrong elements, consider changing directions.  Follow the instructions given in the song: “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come round right.”