For almost three weeks my oldest son was home prior to deploying overseas. At least twice a day I’d go outside to our covered patio behind the garage and find him there, sitting with Buster his beagle, iPhone in hand, smoking a cigarette. Just three years ago I’d have been mortified by the sight of him sitting with no shirt, tattoos on his shoulders, smoking a cigarette. But there are battles to fight in this life that are worth fighting and as he left for boot camp later that October in 2014 I knew those were two skirmishes to be avoided. Three years later I find myself not minding so much.
And as was the case the last time he was sent overseas I’d go outside and be met by the starkness of his absence. It was like being struck in the face to go back there where I prayed a rosary or the Divine Office every day and have that image so fresh in my mind of him occupying that space. Yet I remind myself on a regular basis that he’ll return, or at least that’s the hope. I know there are hundreds and thousands of parents each day who face an empty patio chair, couch or bed of a loved one who will not be returning as they have left the earth. This sobers me and I’m able to keep myself together.The Sunday we took him to the Omaha airport to fly back to his base a few days before he deployed, we returned home to a house once again occupied by the four of us. Five counting Buster. I walked slowly outside and stared at the place we he’d sat just hours before and had “a last cigarette at home” and talked to me about “just stuff.” Sitting in his spot I looked down and saw the remnants of his habit: cigarette ashes. When he left for Iraq last year I’d swept the patio rug clean right away. This time, however, I’ve left them to linger. In a few weeks we’ll be sweeping the rug before rolling it up and putting it away for the winter. But for now I decided they could stay. Two years ago he promised me he would give up smoking when his four years were over, and he told me on that final Sunday morning that he was going to use his deployment to do so. Where he’s going cigarettes will be hard to come by, so he figured it would be the best time to do it. Right now I don’t care. I just want my son back.
The days before he arrived home for his leave my wife had clipped the dying flowers off the row of Black-eyed Susans we have near our deck. During his visit one small, defiant flower emerged and stood watch. I checked this morning in the rain and note that almost a month later it’s still there. For reasons I cannot explain this has brought me much comfort and every day when I’m outside praying I focus on that burst of yellow among the drab hues of autumn: the dark greens and the browns.On this, a gray, rainy day, and feeling down, I took my breviary to the Pink Sisters chapel as I try to do each week. I prayed for my family, friends, for peace but most especially for my son and his fellow soldiers. The following passage in the Office of Readings caught my eye and I spent the next 15-20 minutes re-reading and meditating upon it.
There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:6-9
The nuns have a little bookstore at the front entryway and I paged through a book that caught my eye. A Mind At Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction contains a forward by Fr. Paul Scalia, son of the recently deceased Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. He writes:
But we live in a schizophrenic culture. As much as we might want that peace, we still desire the world’s distractions. We love the gifts of the digital age: “Big Data,” connectivity, constant streaming, and so forth – even as we sense a need for quiet, for relief from information and communication overload. We want both the promises of the digital age and the habit of recollection (“mindfulness,” as it is now fashionable to say). It is increasingly clear how difficult it is to have both – to be at once digitalized and recollected.
Finding myself guilty of the above I decided to get the book.
As I wrote earlier this week social media…connectivity…all of the noise has finally gotten to me. I longer care to participate. While I have not deleted my Twitter account I’ve started with baby steps and “unfollowed” any and all political pundits or media people outside of one or two. This significantly reduced the clutter on my Twitter feed. It is now mostly comprised of baseball-related organizations, coaches and the like that I follow as well as Catholic priests, authors and media. Facebook is a beast I aim to tackle in 2018 once and for all. I’m also three years in to my old iPhone 5s and early next year am going to “downsize” my phone into a lesser model. Because the opening paragraphs of that books Introduction asks the same questions I’ve been asking myself for over a year.
Have you ever regretted sending an e-mail, a text, or a post? Have you recently forgotten an appointment that a year or two ago you would have had no difficulty remembering? Do you catch your mind wandering when you should be attending carefully to the task, or the person, right in front of you?
What about the way you have been spending your time? Is it difficult to refrain from checking your phone or e-mail every several minutes? Are you uncomfortable being alone and quick to look for relief from boredom? Do you find yourself browsing websites or trying to keep up with the latest news? Do you fall into binge-watching television shows, or playing just one more round of a video game? Are you preoccupied with social media to the point of compulsively checking updates, statuses, and likes?
Are you more often ill at ease or anxious than in the pasts? Are you uncomfortable with your own thoughts? Do you feel unfocused, distracted, restless? Are you finding less joy in conversation, reading, and prayer than you used to?
Yes! To all of the above. I remarked to my wife the other day that in 2017 I’ve read fewer books than I have since we were married almost twenty-five years ago. My lack of sustained focus and ability to read for more than twenty minutes annoys and also scares the hell out of me.
Feeling somewhat buoyed by what I read from St. Paul and the pages I’d scanned in the book, I went outside where the rain had momentarily stopped. While walking to the parking lot I was suddenly surrounded by little butterflies. They bounced off my face and head and I noticed that I had walked right by a flowered area. We’ve been enjoying thousands of these little visitors throughout Lincoln this fall and have a few dozen that have been squatting on some flowers in our yard as well. They are called Painted lady butterflies and our local paper wrote about them here. I watched them for several minutes and snapped a few pictures. Even after it once again began to rain I stood there watching them. It’s a fluke that they are even here this fall and I’ve not stopped to really notice and appreciate them. I recalled what I’d read by St. Paul in Philippians in the chapel:
…fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.
And so I will. Tonight I’ll look at a lone Black-eyed Susan in my backyard.
I’ll watch the Painted ladies.
And then the God of peace will be with me.
– Oct. 6: feast of St. Bruno