Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Moving On Up, or Over

For those of you kind enough to check in here and read from time to time, I have moved my writing and blogging over to michaelvalliant.com. I am not taking The 4-1-Run down, and have loved having you all here. I've reached a point where I am trying to consolidate my writing, do more of it, and make it easier for people to find. There's already a few posts over at the new site, "A Thinking Man's Guide to Oxford," a travel, living simply, living outside piece; "Growing Up Goonies," looking at the difference in unstructured time for kids in the 1970s and 1980s versus now; and "The Head, the Hand, and the Heart," about our thoughts, our actions, and love coming together to make a life like fine art. With much more to come.

I hope you'll be kind enough to check out the new site and keep reading.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hair Wraps

Over the past few years, getting a hair wrap has become a big part of our Ocean City beach trip for Ava. It's a simple thing, which has become a summer tradition. She loves picking colors and showing friends her summer style.

It's funny what something as simple as a hair wrap can do to me now--it's a sort of emotional unraveling, full of reminders and continued gratitude.

Ava spent last August in Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. It was sudden, unexpected, loop-throwing, reality-changing whirlwind--deep breaths and prayer material. Among my most vivid memories of that month, are those of Ava making sure that the doctors, nurses, technicians, etc., didn't mess up her hair wrap. There were times when she wasn't aware of much that was going on around her, but you better not mess with her hair wrap. Other than their having to cut off metal at the end of it so she could get MRIs, the hair wrap survived the hospital.

As her sister Anna and I sat along the Boardwalk while Ava beamed getting her new "do," my mind bounced back and forth from last year to now. It's been a great year--after missing the beginning of the school year in the hospital, she was named MVP of her field hockey team in the fall (she wasn't expected to be able to play most of the season), earned honor roll every semester at school and Principal's Honor Roll for half of them, and finished her lacrosse season this spring with a two-goal game.

It's also been a trying year as a parent. Ava still has occasional seizures, as well as more frequent "spells," where she shakes and has trouble focusing or being able to respond to what's going on around her. Despite tears and protests, she had to stay out of the ocean and the sun for a day during the beach trip this past week, because she couldn't shake a series of spells that recurred throughout the day. We don't have it all figured out, and have just switched her neurology care to a new hospital after being thoroughly unimpressed with her last one. It's a process and lessons in seizure management.

When you look at the pictures above, it's hard to notice a difference in the two years. You can't tell what her eyes have seen or what she's been through. And that speaks to Ava. It's her personality; she rolls with the punches and looks to what's next--facing forward, not backward. She has taught me more than I can put into words.

I've tried to learn a lot of letting go over the past year. I've seen and felt the power of prayer and community. I'm trying to learn to hand over to God those things that are beyond my control (which is pretty much everything big). I am grateful for both Ava and Anna and the people they are becoming, and the blessings they bring to my life every day (or at least most days ;).

Our attitude towards what we find in life can color everything we encounter. I like this thought that the internet gives to Albert Einstein:

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

This morning I am thankful for sunrises--new days, new weeks, months, and years, and enjoying them all. And I am thankful for hair wraps. And Ava showing off this year's colors.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Running, Connection, and Timely Silence

Running connects me. It connects me to the earth. It connects me to the sky. It connects me to my breath, my body, my soul.

It makes me stop thinking, and start thinking. It makes me take stock, and let go.

Running lets me see the world and find myself. It is prayer, meditation, and inspiration. By the end of a run, even a not so great one, I am transformed.

Running is a way to be, a way to be outside, and a way to be quiet. It cultivates silence, even if I am listening to music or saying hello to folks I encounter. It is funny how it is easier for me to be silent, to empty my head and listen when I run, than it is sitting still.

Lately I've been hanging in the desert, in the wilderness, with the Desert Fathers. Fascinating folks, Christian hermits that lived in the third century, and decided they needed to get out of Dodge, cultivate their solitude and silence, so that they could shine their light to the world and beyond. They have drawn me for a while and I finally picked up Thomas Merton's "Wisdom of the Desert," and as I am reading Henri Nouwen, his second book in the collected tome is "The Way of the Heart: the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers." Sneaky hermits are ganging up on me.

Nouwen looks at the desert folk and points out the need for solitude in order for transformation--"solitude is the furnace of transformation"--to take place. He also points out that, "compassion is the fruit of solitude," and I can see that, I tend to be able to be around people, and look forward to it more, when I have had quiet/down time.

We live in a society that doesn't dig silence. It doesn't seem to value it. Nouwen points out how the constant stream of words that comes at us, takes away the value and meaning of any of the words themselves. You need silence to hear anything words might say.

Silence is the home of the word... The word is the instrument of the present and silence is the mystery of the future. In the sayings of the Desert Fathers, we can distinguish three aspects of silence... First, silence makes us pilgrims. Secondly, silence guards the fire within. Thirdly, silence teaches us to speak. - Henri Nouwen

We've talked about pilgrims and pilgrimages here before, and we'll come back to that. Part of what prompted these words this morning is the notion of silence guarding the fire within. That is a fire I have been coming to know and feel more and more of late. Running is part of what stokes mine.

Nouwen quotes Diadochus of Photiki, who says:

When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good... Ideas of value always shun verbosity... Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.

Timely silence. That's it. That is something that I find when I run. That is something I find outside, with the sunrise or sunset. And that is my part, make the time, find the time, whether to run, or be silent outside somewhere. To guard the fire within. Because when I do, I find a hand that isn't mine, comes along and stokes the inner fire.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Uncovering the Path

I pack a small backpack: water, fruit and nut trail mix, binoculars, a birding book, a notebook and pen, rain coat, pocket knife, a slim book--maybe John Muir, or Wordsworth, or Thomas Merton, or Gary Snyder's "Turtle Island."

I think about the movie "Empire Strikes Back," where Luke Skywalker looks into the cave that is his test and asks, "What's in there?" And Yoda's response, "Only what you take with you." Be light and free. Be open. I start up the mountain with Muir in my head:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. - John Muir

Hold on, who said that, Muir or Yoda? Maybe Muir is the Yoda of the mountains.

For 20 years or more, I have used, lived, and contemplated the metaphor of life, and the life of the spirit/soul, being a journey up the mountain. I think that too many of us--speaking for myself--wear a path back and forth or around the base of the mountain and think (or tell ourselves) we are making progress upwards; that we are getting somewhere.

And that's where Yoda comes in, we find only what we take with us. And what we take with us are our habits, our worries, our fears, our doubt, and in some cases our stuff--our material things. And those things either weigh us down so heavily that we can't climb, or we have to wrestle with them before we get anywhere.

This past Sunday, at church our pastor put Henri Nouwen's "The Spiritual Life," in my hands, a tome of eight of his books brought into one. We were talking favorite spiritual writers while on a mulching expedition during the week and he couldn't recall Nouwen's name as we threw around Merton, Bonhoeffer, and Buechner.

"This is for you," he said, with his best Yoda smile. What he had first mentioned about Nouwen was that he walked away from prestigious academic positions to focus on helping men and women with intellectual disabilities. I've been spending my morning coffee with Nouwen this week. Books and writers have a tendency to find me at the right time.

This may not be the most indicative picture of Nouwen, but come on, he's on a skateboard :)

Nouwen talks about how our time and schedules are filled, how we are always busy, because being busy is a status symbol--look at how busy and productive I am--nd yet our spirit is unfulfilled because we are not filling our lives or schedules with the right things.

Only having the girls half the time, I spend a lot of time alone. That can be both good and bad for an overthinker. The only times I can really turn my brain off, or allow my thoughts to slough off are when I am running or in prayer/meditation, which can be sitting with coffee, watching the sunrise or sunset, staring at the stars, but it has to be intentional time.

For all my alone time over the past couple years, when I looked closely, I found myself circling the bottom of the mountain; pacing back and forth in a rut of my own footprints. My habits, my lack of clarity, my inertia, nothing was helping me push up. And yet, climbing the spiritual mountain, carpe'ing the diem, asking the big questions and looking for answers, and being on the move rather than one place--these are all things that make me, me.

My time alone somehow wasn't solitude, or at least not enough of it.

Once the solitude of time and space have become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude. We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and at any time. Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while remaining always in the presence of the living God. - Henri Nouwen

There are times when it feels like you've just unloaded rocks out of your pockets or backpack and feel lighter and ready to climb.

I have much more to say about the mountain--maps, compasses, the virtue of discerning your true path vs. switching paths at every pass, the people you meet along the way, whose paths overlap with yours and who you walk with for a time--but let's call this part one. Beginning again. Or uncovering a path I had let get overgrown.

As I swill some water, smile at the sunrise, and keep on up the mountain, I look into Wordsworth's lines that are among the favorite I have ever read:

...And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things. I heretofore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains, and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and in the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the muse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my mortal being.
- William Wordsworth, from Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

Sunday, May 29, 2016


"Amen," had been in my head all morning. That's not uncommon, it has been a mantra of sorts for years. An affirmation. Acknowledgment. Gratitude.

Tom Robbins wrote that there are only two mantras in life: yum or yuck. Amen has been part of my yum.

In church later that morning, the pastor looked at "Amen." Amen is "yes." And praying is you saying Amen (yes) to God, and God saying Amen (yes) to you.

That struck a soul-chord with me, as my favorite notion of prayer has been both the pray-er and God sitting quietly, listening to each other.

Amen. Yes.

To course corrections. To waking up and realizing what things, activities and people bring out the best in me. Amen.

Annie Dillard wrote that, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." And Andy Dufresne in "Shawshank Redemption" said, "Get busy living or get busy dying." For realizing and spending our days as we would spend our lives. Amen.

For the smell of honeysuckle bringing back childhood memories on a morning walk before work and for taking the time to notice and watch small, odd fish swimming in unusually clear water by the shoreline. Amen.

For the girls getting pulled into and excited about working on projects, even at the end of the school year and watching them think, create, and accomplish. Amen.

For spending a Wednesday evening paddling longer/farther than intended and watching skate swim under the board and Great Blue Herons flying overhead and calm, cool water and welcome sun, and Tred Avon memories. Amen.

For community gatherings and talks on Blackwater Refuge and carpe'ing the evening diem to go catch the tail end of the sunset after. Amen.

For understanding what "community" means and coming together to celebrate times of joy and newness and to grieve and help and support in times of sorrow. Amen.

For cutting grass, moving dirt, planting tomatoes, weeding gardens, yard-earned sweat and outdoor smiles. Amen.

For morning runs, endorphins, and sweaty-striding solitude appreciated in the moment and after. Amen.

For stars strewn across a night sky overhead, summer breezes, Chris Stapleton playing on the deck, arms wrapped around neck and waist and slow dancing, swaying, and storytelling and laughing. Amen.

For watching the girls appreciate and enjoy the town I grew up in, on their own, doing some (but not all) of the same things I loved doing. Amen.

And the pastor prayed:

Lord, I ask that you would speak directly to each one here; that you would give them each one word that they might know your presence; that they might know you are there, Lord.

As I lifted my head up and opened my eyes, I wiped away tears from my cheeks that I hadn't felt start.

I already had my word.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Gifts and Gratitude

Every day is a gift. Even the gray ones. And there are things I notice on gray days that take a back seat when the sun and blue skies take center stage. Like the color green (not pictured). On a drizzly morning run earlier this week, the green taking over the trees, how lush the grass was, it all jumped out. And when I got to a favorite turnaround spot, with no sunrise to steal the show, it was driftwood and the stones on the beach that grabbed my attention.

Every day is a gift. Even the gray ones. This past Sunday, it was rainy and cold and the girls had a field hockey tournament at Washington College. A skills clinic in the morning, and games all afternoon. It would have been easy to bail on the day, given the weather, but none of the girls on the team really did. Last year at the same tournament, Ava and I passed the field hockey ball back and forth on a nearby field in between Anna's games. Ava was too young to play; Anna's team went 0-4. This year, both girls played, each of their teams went 2-2, and the girls played great. It's the kind of day I never want to take for granted.

Every day is a gift. We aren't guaranteed any given number of them. I have always loved and believed the quote that each day is a gift from God, and that what we do with them is our gift back to Him.

Let's play with the word "gift" for a minute. Gifts take many forms. There are the sublime and profound gifts like sunshine (anytime now), like family, like time spent doing something we love, or being with people we love. There are the gifts we have--whether you are an artist, an accountant, a gardener or landscaper, a boat builder, a lawyer, a doctor, a writer. Our individual gifts are part of what make us who we are, and part of how we give back to the bigger picture. Part of what we do with our lives, whether as a job, a hobby, a passion.

There are material gifts, those things that we are given for birthday, holidays, or just because. They are the least important kind of gifts, but sometimes they can show us love, thoughtfulness, remind us of things, hold memories. And sometimes they can inspire our other gifts. I was going through a box of books a couple weeks ago and found the journal pictured above. When I was an English major at Washington College, my sister took a trip to Italy. She shared her travel itinerary with us and asked if I wanted anything from across the pond. She was going to Florence. I was studying Dante. I casually said, "Hey, Dante was from Florence, just pick me up something from there." What she brought back was that journal, I think from a street vendor. Not particularly valuable, there are a bunch like it. But it caused a funny thing to happen.

I was going to school full time and working, cooking at a restaurant full time. The only writing I was doing was after work, writing papers for classes. I wasn't writing anything for myself, just to write. But I always claimed to want to write. I started carrying that journal and writing in it. After college, I still carried it and still wrote in it, as we started a writers' group. When I flip through it now, there are memories and artifacts tucked in the pages--writing, both my own and from other writer friends, a letter back from Tom Robbins--an aesthetic museum or time machine. That journal was, and is, a gift that inspired me to try to do something with my own gifts, humble as they may be. It changed a direction in my life.

So this morning, on yet another gray May day, I am sipping coffee and thankful for gifts, in all their forms.

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was "thank you," that would suffice. - Meister Eckhart

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Stars, Barns, and Wendell Berry

Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

I like simple in my profound. And profound in my simple. My mind gravitates toward the deep end, can get bored in the shallow for too long. But some things I prefer not to think about, but just to imbibe. Take in. And smile.

Sunrises. Sunsets. Hammocks. Barns. Stars. Barns and stars. Put those two things together and I can go on bliss autopilot. And with a shout out to @SpaceAttraction for pulling these few, I appreciate the soul candy.

... And we pray, not for new
earth or heaven, but to be quiet
in heart, and in eye clear.
What we need is here.

I have said before that barns are like churches for me, they frequently stop me in my tracks and make me stare. And I can't count how many times I have walked home at night, or gone out into a field and just stared up. I don't know constellations, I can't calculate light years, the science is lost on me. Happily.

So this morning, let's combine barns and stars with a writer who gets both, and whose writing I would put in the same category: simply profound and profoundly simple. Wendell Berry. His words are in italics.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.