-29- The Donkey’s Back

In my previous post, I mentioned that I want to use this blog to explore some ideas that have been interesting me and find out what I–and my exponentially increasing* number of readers–think about them. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

I suspect that in these early stages, the things I write about might seem random and my thoughts a bit scattered. Sorry about that. If it helps, you can think of these posts as stem cells in the early phases of the blog/website’s development. These cells are full of potential, but how that potential will be realized remains to be seen.

Now, before I get real about realizing all this potential, I want to explain why this quizzical donkey has returned to his digital inkwell.

In the very first post of this blog, I wrote that I wanted to be “as assiduous as the donkey whose daily fidelity at the water wheel pours life and beauty to the community he serves.” This image of the diligent donkey comes from the writings of Saint Josemaria Escriva, in particular this one:

Oh blessed perseverance of the donkey that turns the water-wheel! Always the same pace. Always the same circles. One day after another: everyday the same. Without that, there would be no ripeness in the fruit, nor blossom in the orchard, nor scent of flowers in the garden. Carry this thought to your interior life.

The Way, 998

Whenever I feel like circumstances have me circumambulating, I call this image of the faithful donkey to mind and remember what I’m all about–the ripeness in the fruit, the blossom in the orchard, the scent of the flowers in the garden. Then, I get back to work.

At this point, I should mention that “back to work” means something different now than when I originally started this blog. Back then, I had a full-time gig at the greatest high school in the universe, but, alas, all universes contract and not all contracts can be extended. So, four-ish months ago–the same time my dad passed away–I found myself squeezed out of a job.

For the curious (and for the record), I left Saint Mary’s with no hard feelings and no regrets. God is good, dear readers–all of the time–and, ahem, labor pains are part of the natural order.

While we’re on the subject, babies in the womb have great little lives, but if they want to keep living them, they gots to go, or else, you know, this. Labor is hard and labor is necessary, and, ultimately, labor is worth it because babies (maybe even metaphorical ones like this blog) are worth it.

So, all that to say this: I don’t want this blog to merely be an online journal. I want it to be a big part of my actual (paying) work as a writer. I have no idea what that will look like (stem cells, remember?), but I believe God is leading me to serve him, my family, and my little corner of the world through my talent for writing. That’s a scary sentence to publish, but there you have it.

Everything I just wrote was meant to be a preface to an impossibly cleverly entitled post called…wait for it…”The Algorithm Method” in which I propose a process for making decisions that even a very different kind of donkey can profit from. Sadly, I ran out of coffee time, so you’ll have to wait until next time. Now, at least you have something to look forward to, so you’re welcome. Tell me in the comments how often you’d like me to post. I want to know who I’m disappointing…

You may also enjoy this Italian cartoon about a young Spanish boy named “Saint Josemaria Escriva.” (With a name like that, his parents must have known his destiny, no matter what they said in the cartoon.)

https://youtu.be/Gth9ktkkBPk

*23

-28- Begin Again

Nunc coepi! — now I begin! This is the cry of a soul in love which, at every moment, whether it has been faithful or lacking in generosity, renews its desire to serve — to love! — our God with a wholehearted loyalty.

Saint Josemaria Escriva, Furrow #161

I remember reading somewhere that towards the end Saint John the Apostle’s life he was so old and frail that when the time came to give the homily at Mass, a few strong youths would carry him, still seated in the Presider’s chair, to the front of the congregation where he would deliver the exact same five-word sermon he had given the week before.

“Little children, love one another.”

That was it. Five simple words, week after week.

When asked why he never changed his message, his response was something to the effect of, “Because you still haven’t learned it.”

I have no idea if that story is apocryphal or accurate, but I have no doubt that it’s true.

Over the years, I’ve thought about that story a lot, especially as I’ve gotten older and realized how often I find myself revisiting some truth that I should have learned long ago or some admonition that never ceases to be relevant.

One such admonition is, “begin again.” I have begun again, again and again. And again. 

And, yet again, I begin again today with post -28-. I’d like to explain by way of an anecdote.

In the summer of 1987, I decided for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time to keep a journal. It began (more or less) with this resounding vote of confidence: “Every summer, I decide to keep a journal and then stop. Oh, well. Here we go again.”

I want to say a couple of things about that inauspicious opening. First, it shows that my self-abasement has deep freaking roots. (More on this later.) Second, those were the last first lines of a journal I ever wrote. Since that summer 31 years ago, I have kept journal more or less faithfully for three decades. It spans many notebooks now and has huge gaps in it during the times I was too busy living to write about living, but there is a unity and continuity between the tomes I’ve written that didn’t exist in my previous attempts at journal writing.

The difference between that last first time and the other first times is that the older sorties into writing produced discrete artifacts of prose penned by some dorky, pubescent kid, but the final attempt produced a writer.

In other words, the various notebooks and binders of my one journal exhibit unity and continuity because they are integrated in me, the journal writer. But that integration only became possible once I quit quitting writing. Once I started to see myself as a writer, the gaps in my writing were no longer proof that I wasn’t a writer, they just proved that I hadn’t been writing. Because I had definitely and definitively begun being a writer, it finally became possible for me to truly begin again.

If you were able to follow all that, congratulations. That makes one of us. I guess what I’ve been trying to get at is that I think I’ve arrived at a point in my life where I’m done with self-abasement and self-deprecation and I’m ready to “become who I am,” to paraphrase Saint John Paul II. 

I have a lot of ideas that I want to explore on this site as well as some risks I want to take. My hope is to turn this site into something profitable for both* my readers (Hi, Matthew! Hi, Alishia!) and my family.

I think this is something worth doing, so I’ve given myself permission to do it badly. I’d love your help, though. Please comment on my posts and subscribe to the blog and/or mailing list when it becomes possible to do so (that’s one of the things I need to sort out.) Also, invite people who aren’t Russian hackers or Nigerian scammers to read and participate as well. In subsequent posts, I’ll elaborate on some of the things I’d like to explore.

Peace!

Rob

*Syntactic ambiguity. Ain’t it grand?

-27- Lead Him to Light (Song for My Father)

This is a very rough recording of the song I wrote and sang for my father at his funeral. I hope to re-record it with an actual microphone instead of my cell phone.

You can’t tell from all the buzzing chords, but there’s a delicate little melodic line in the part of the song that starts with “All you holy men and women…” I played that riff about a million times while I was with Dad in the hospital and thought it was particularly lovely.  It sounded so sad and so beautiful at the same time. I built the rest of the song around that phrase and I think it turned out pretty well. 

Lead Him to Light

Saints of God,
we ask you to welcome
into your number
our beloved brother.

Lead him
into God’s Presence.
Raise him like incense,
fragrant and pure.

For who shall ascend
The Lord’s holy mountain?
The one who has clean hands
and a pure heart.

All you holy men and women,
come to his side
and lead him to his heart’s desire.
Come, O Cloud of Witnesses!
Lead him to light and life eternal.

Who shall ascend
The Lord’s holy mountain?
The one who has clean hands
and a pure heart.
Lead him to the throne of Our Father,
the arms of Our Mother, and
the side of Our Lord.

All you holy men and women,
come to his side!
Lead him to his heart’s desire.
Come, O Cloud of Witnesses!
Lead him to light and life eternal.

-26- Eulogy for My Dad

It’s been quite a while since I last posted something on this blog, but I’m hoping to begin again (again) and I thought I’d share what I wrote for my dad’s memorial service. It’s hard to believe that it has almost been a month since he died. We’ve had so much going on that the time has flown by.

I wanted to post this as a way of officially marking the return to daily life after dad’s passing. Tomorrow I’ll post a crappy recording of the song I wrote for and sang at his funeral. Someday soon, I’ll make a better recording and share that.

Please continue to pray for us. My mom’s last visitors went home this week and I know it isn’t easy for her to be alone in that big house. If you happen to know any other widows, do something nice for them, too.

Thanks to everyone who was so generous and loving over these past few weeks. I’ve told many people how surprised I was at how much comfort I personally felt from the condolences we received. Maybe people don’t suck?

My sweet wife likes to remind me to “be kind to everyone you meet for they are all fighting a difficult battle.” We are so grateful for the kindness we’ve been shown during this difficult battle.

My Dad

My dad was like a father to me.

I realize that sounds silly, but in today’s day and age, it’s not. My dad was like a father to me because he did what good fathers do:

  • He loved my mother with all his heart, faithfully, for over 52 years.
  • He loved my sister and me unconditionally and never gave us any reason to doubt it.
  • He loved the people we loved and welcomed them into his life and home—my wife and kids.
  • He set an excellent example of how to love others—waitresses, nurses, salesman, mechanics, barbers.
  • Most importantly, he loved God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. He “sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” and, in so doing, gave us the greatest gift any father could give his children: an image of fatherhood that drew us closer to God, the origin and source of all fatherhood.

My dad did not teach me how to fish, how to fix cars, how to fight (though he did tell some amazing stories about throwing guys through plate glass windows in Kansas and second-story windows in Thailand (earning him the nickname Ṣ̄ūny̒ ṣ̄ūny̒ cĕd – “Double-O Seven”).

He never tried to “make a man out of me” in any stereotypical way, but he did make a man out of me because he taught me how to love sacrificially and how to take up my cross and follow Jesus.

When he retired from the Air Force, he had a job lined up at the USAF Academy in Colorado. This was in the early 80s—before fax machines and the Internet—so he had to drive out to Colorado Springs to physically sign the contract. While en route, Congress passed a law prohibiting newly retired military from returning as civilian contracts until six months had passed. When he arrived, the job he had persuaded the Academy to create for him was unavailable. Because he had done such a good job convincing them of their need, they couldn’t hold it open for him.  With no prospects, we came to Phoenix and moved in with his parents—just what every 38 year old man wants to do.

He had been in hospital administration in the Air Force and tried to get a job in that field here, but no one would hire him. One guy told him (off the record) that he had too much experience and that if he were to hire him, Dad would have his job in a year.

He wound up working as a janitor at the V.A.

This was not what he wanted, but he did it to take care of his family. Because that’s what men do. They die to themselves out of love for others.

Throughout my life, Dad did many un-glamorous things for our benefit:

  • He delivered pizzas
  • He worked night shifts on the freeway putting up traffic barricades
  • He drove for Super Shuttle

Dad always wanted to retire young and die rich. One out of two ain’t bad.

Whenever he got close to getting rich, his luck ran out. His business partner drained their joint account and spent it all on women and drugs in one weekend. Dad took out a personal loan to cover payroll and subsequently ruined his credit.

He was never a financial success, but he was a success at life.He lived well. He died well—surrounded by loved ones and friends. He leaves a legacy of love that is an inspiration for many, many people.

I saw a horrible thing the other day: an obituary written by bitter children who hated their mother. They called out all her failures and ended it by saying that the world is better off with her gone.

Well, my sister and I could never write such a thing. We love our father more than we can say. And, as the Scripture says, “his children will rise up and call him blessed.”

And, so we do rise up and call him blessed. But, I will add that I do think that the world will be a better with my dad gone—not because he was a wicked man, but because he was a righteous man.

The Bible says, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I know that right now my dad is still praying for us and I am confident his prayers will avail much.

Someone on Facebook—and my father, for that matter—warned against canonizing Dad before the Church does. I understand the sentiment and I am fully aware of his many shortcomings (now that I see his financial situation, I’m sure he’s going to have to serve some time for leaving that mess for my mom to deal with), but I am convinced that God would not keep someone out of heaven who wanted so much to go there.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about carrying our crosses and following Jesus. I’d like to end by reading the last few paragraphs of that post:

We must learn to respond to all our suffering with cheerfulness and love. St. Josemaria Escriva gives this counsel:

. . . don’t drag the Cross…Carry it squarely on your shoulder, because your Cross, if you carry it so, will not be just any Cross: it will be…the Holy Cross. Don’t bear your Cross with resignation: resignation is not a generous word. Love the Cross. When you really love it, your Cross will be…a Cross, without a Cross.

And surely you, like Him, will find Mary on the way.

Holy Rosary, “Jesus Carries His Cross”

Think of the Children

Parents are the primary educators of their children. How they carry their crosses will have a profound and lasting effect on how their kids respond to suffering. It’s one thing to tell your kids to “offer it up” or “kiss the cross”; it’s another to give them concrete examples of how to do it.

Here’s a good Catholic trivia question for you: what are the names of Simon of Cyrene’s children? Give up? Rufus and Alexander. It’s right there in the Bible (Mark 15:21) and I never paid any attention to it either.

According to tradition, both of these guys grew up to be Christians. Can you imagine their pride when they tell their friends that their dad was the Simon who carried the cross for Jesus? It would be their greatest boast. Wouldn’t it be something if it was your kids’ greatest boast, too?

My dad never taught me how to throw a spiral or restore an old car, and he doesn’t know one end of a hammer from another, but I thank God for him every day, because, man, can that man suffer.

About ten years ago, my dad had quintuple bypass surgery followed by a long and difficult recovery. He spent months in the hospital and the whole time he was praying for others. Through his prayers, he made his hospital room an oasis of peace. The nurses wept when he was discharged.

The other day when my mom was asked about my dad’s health, she said, “I was raised a Pentecostal and had no concept of redemptive suffering. For us, suffering was always something to be avoided. I guess God wanted me to teach me about it through my husband’s example.” Wow.

Finally, I want to say thank you to everyone who has come here to be with us tonight—all the friends and family who have shown their incredible support and whose condolences and prayers have truly been a source of comfort to us.

I want to especially thank Uncle-Deacon Roy for guiding us through everything, Tiffany here at the funeral home for her help and generosity, and my sister’s dear friend, Rachelle who worked on the amazing memory board (and may or may not have been the one who organized meals for my mom, but did get us at least one delicious dinner and outstanding desserts). And of course, I want to thank my wife, Amy who is the best of wives and best of women and who dresses me, etc. and Michelle’s fella, John, who is exactly the kind of man my dad wanted for my sister.

Rest in peace, Dad. Pray for us.

-25-

Carrying Our Cross

What does it mean to follow Jesus? In Luke 9:23, Jesus declares to his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” This is a command we’ve heard many times, but it is always worth contemplating.

One sense of the word follow is “to imitate.” If we consider closely what Jesus is asking of us in the above passage, we may see something that has previously escaped our attention. It’s this: when we deny ourselves and take up our cross, we really do imitate what Jesus did, because what he did was deny himself and take up our cross. The cross he carried wasn’t his. It was ours.  Continue reading

-23-

Yes, I’m aware that I’ve already published post -24-, but somehow, -23- was skipped. This remedies that.

To make this post extra special, I’ve posted a picture.

Look at these people.

These people are crazy.

And loud.

And mine, so I guess it’s okay.

To all you wonderful people who sent us Christmas cards, etc. Thank you. In response, I have decided to caption this photo “Merry Christians to you.” It’s all you’re going to get from us this year. (We are men of action; lies do not become us.)

But in 2017, please impose yourself on our merry band. Life is too short to wait for us to get the house clean.

Also, for the record, I posted something for 97 of the last 100 days of 2016. It was just for work. Now I hope to return to regular posts. Please bug me about it if I don’t keep that promise and also, please pray for the familias that I pater. Our life is bananas. 🙂

-24- All Saints Day

Today is the best day of the year. At least, it used to be.

Before I worked at the Greatest High School in the Universe, I worked at the Greatest Independent Catholic Grammar School in the Universe: St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe School in Phoenix, AZ. It’s closed now, a fact as depressing as the burning of the library of Alexandria. Even now, I can’t think about Kolbe without tearing up.

Our experience there–and that of everyone else I know who sent their children there or had the privilege of working there–was wonderful. It wasn’t perfect, and, if I’m pressed, I could probably think of a bunch of things that needed improvement, but in my memory, all the images have the golden glow of the magic hour. Those few (those happy few) years we had at Kolbe are the best memories we have of our children’s education. In fact, probably the greatest sorrow we have as parents right now is that our youngest two children will never have Mrs. Franko as their kindergarten teacher and will never experience the joy of Kolbe School that was our strength.

The one thing that epitomizes the Kolbe experience more than any other was the All Saints Day Celebration. It truly was the best day of the year. I loved it so much I wrote a song about it.

Kolbe children prepared for this day for the first nine weeks of the school year. Each kid in K-5 spent the first quarter learning about a particular saint while students in grades 6-8 worked together to produce a play about a saint. When the day finally came, all the giddy children, dressed as their chosen saints, gathered in the great hall and bore witness one-by-one to God’s goodness as manifested in the life of the saint they had chosen. The speeches were always delightful. The kindergarteners were cuter than muppet babies and frequently flubbed or improvised lines to hilarious effect. The tween girls regularly came dressed as “tarted up” versions of famous religious women (I’m pretty sure St. Catherine Laboure didn’t wear rouge and deep scarlet lipstick), and all the boys wanted to be St. Michael the Archangel or Padre Pio.

After the youngsters gave their speeches, the junior high kids would perform their play. Most of the time, the play was something I’d write to accommodate a cast of all boys (or all girls, depending on the year). We had no budget, little talent, but heaps of heart, so every year wound up being a minor theatre miracle.

After the presentations, the fun began–chocolate fountains, kettle corn, cake walks, egg tosses, you name it. The one thing we didn’t have this day was school. It was a for-real, good old fashioned Catholic feast day. And this is why Kolbe was so wonderful. At Kolbe, the All Saints Day Celebration wasn’t Catholic window dressing; it was Catholic culture. In many schools, Catholic identity is treated like sesame seeds sprinkled on a hamburger bun. It’s an afterthought. The “bun” is like any other bun you’d find at public school. At Kolbe, Catholic identity is like yeast sprinkled into the dough. Once it’s mixed in, it might seem to disappear, but that yeast leavens the dough and makes the bread qualitatively different from what’s available elsewhere. I think this is why parents loved Kolbe so much. We did not send our children there because of what it lacked (bullying, drugs, pop culture, whatever); we sent our kids there because of what it had: the joy of the Lord, the joy of the Catholic faith, people who were just as screwed up as anywhere else, but who loved God and wanted to live as part of His family.

I’m trying to write this too quickly, so I’m sure I’m leaving out something wonderful and not being as eloquent as I might, but I want to end with saying that the best thing about sending my kids to Kolbe is that they didn’t just learn about the saints. They befriended them. And, as a consequence, my wife and I befriended them, too. Before Kolbe, I had no idea who Josephine Bakhita, Pauline Jaricot, Pier Giorgio, or Gianna Molla were. I didn’t really know Bernandette, Jacinta, Kateri, or Jude, but because my kids made friends with them, they are now really and truly part of our family. For this, I am forever grateful.

Here is the song I wrote, “All Saints Day Celebration”:

It’s long and the sound quality is sketchy, but I don’t care. I really like it. It has some of my favorite lines I’ve ever written. I think it captures the spirit of the day. I wrote it for my good friend Mary Jo Scamperle, who was (and always will be!) the principal of Kolbe. The day of the celebration we learned that the charter school that took most of our graduates was going to open a lower school which had the potential to severely affect our enrollment. There was a good chance that year’s celebration would be the last. It wasn’t, but the end came pretty shortly afterward and for heartbreakingly worse reasons. No matter. The school lives on in our hearts and in our memories as an Edenic bright spot in hoc lacrimarum valle.

-22-

Hello! I’m not avoiding you, promise. Here is a peace offering: Surprise Endings.

I will resume regular posting on Monday, even if it means just approving all the spam comments from my wealthy Nigerian friends and hot Ukrainian women who “like what I have to say in my very well-written blog posts on this very important topic.”

-21-

I know it’s been a while–sorry about that. A lot has been going on since -19-. I had a class to finish up, jury duty to not get selected for, a poem to publish at thekindling.org, and a host of other things. Most of those things would make many mere mortals question the central tenet of my belief system (that God is good): all three of our cars, two and a half of our children, and one marriage-in-law have all broken down since last Thursday. And, as if that wasn’t enough, today my wife called me at work to let me know that, when I get home, I’ll have to dispose of the opossum-sized rat that met its demise in my living room some time last night. How’s this for pathetic: we literally have more dead rats than dollars.

Happily, I’m no mere mortal. I count it all joy. I have:

  • excellent rat traps
  • a living room in which rodents can expire
  • a job which will pay me tomorrow
  • health insurance
  • spare children (one for each day of the week)
  • poetry that wants out
  • a wife who loves me (me!)

I’m sure it sounds like I complain a lot, but I’m not really complaining. Not really. I’m blessed and I know it.

I could have been on trial like the guy whose jury I’m not on. I could have lost steady writing gigs like Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher. I could have lost my children or not been able to have any like some of my friends. I could have been bad at wordplay like Alishia Hanson*. I could have been blind-sided by divorce like my brother-in-law, one of the finest men I know.

But I wasn’t and I didn’t, so I’m grateful.

*just checking to see if Alishia still reads this!