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



"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.

Amen.


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.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Life is a Song; Turn it up, man!


Life is a song the Universe is constantly playing. The notes, the structure, the chords, can be heard and felt whenever we listen. Our lives, when they are in sync, contribute a part to the larger Song. A part that no one else's life can. The Song was going on before we arrived and will continue after we are gone, but what we contribute is our part.

We didn't write the Song/the Universe. Let's give God/Creator (or you can insert your answer here) credit as the composer. That being the case, if we just bust out a drum solo with our lives, that doesn't contribute to the greater Song, we can feel out of tune. Isolated. But I think most of us have been lucky enough, even if for a little while, to feel what it feels like when we are a part of the larger Song.

I have no idea what the Song is, where it's going, what it sounds like ultimately. I get snippets when I sit still at the sunrise. When I run. When I read or write or pray or meditate. When I love. I get snippets when I stand in the snow and rain on a lacrosse sideline, drenched and cold, and see my daughters make an incredible defensive play and lead a fast break, or score a goal. I hear the Song having coffee rocking in a blue-hued swing, watching blackbirds, grackles, rabbits and squirrels unfold their morning.

Our lives are a continuous song. We don't change what we've played, what is behind us, but we can be conscious of what we are playing now. Jim Harrison has been speaking (singing?) to me of late:

The song stays.
No new one carries us, bears
us so high, more swiftly.
And it has no place,
it changes as we change

Our song, our past, is a part of us, it is what gets the song/our lives to where we are. And there are times when it feels familiar, like it's our jam maybe, we can headbang, waltz, slow dance, kitchen dance, what have you, and we feel comfortable in knowing the tune. And there are times, speaking for myself, where the tune seems new, novel, unknown. I don't know where it's going. And that can be thrilling, exhilarating and downright terrifying at some points.

But maybe it's like Zeppelin always said, "the song remains the same." It keeps playing. And we can hear it and join in. Trust the song, trust the Universe, trust the Composer.

River at spring crest,
sky clear blue,
forest at June greenness,
delight of eye in brain fully flowering,
delight of air and light and breath.


What do you do with all that? When we can feel it; when we can hear it; we know we can be a part of it, with our lives?

"Hey man, is that Freedom Rock?"

"Yeah, man!"

"Well turn it up, man!"

Friday, April 1, 2016

I want to do what he/she does


I want to do what he does. Or she does. We start that from an early age. Firefighter. Baseball player. Skateboarder. Sometimes those models stick with us and we stay after them. Sometimes they change. Sometimes the reality sets in: I just don't have the sideburns or hair to be Eddie Murray.

As I got older, who those folks were shifted a bit. I remember reading Carl Sandburg when I was 15 and thinking, I want to be able to make someone feel/think like he just made me feel. That would be cool. In my 20s and beyond, that became Rilke, Tom Robbins, Gary Snyder. Jim Harrison.

The stillness of this earth
which we pass through
with the precise speed of our own dreams.

Harrison died this past week. He was 78. He died at his desk, writing. From the way he lived his life, it sounds like a blessing that it wasn't drawn out, to quote those who knew him, "he wasn't cut out for assisted living."

Strictly speaking, the writer's life is not for me. I have no interest spending my days behind a keyboard, indoors, deep in abstract thought or trying to inhabit the minds of characters that live in my head. No thank you. I would rather be outside, living life, and trying to communicate that in some way. And that is part of what Jim Harrison represents for me: living an interesting life.

He spent his life doing things he loved, outside. He did things that you read out, dream about, in some cases forget about. He lived a rich life. With his dogs:

Barring love I'll take my life in large doses alone--rivers, forests, fish, grouse, mountains. Dogs.

Harrison, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Abbey. Those guys are the last men standing when I look for my tribe of guys who did, or are doing, what I want to do.

Life and language. I can't get enough of either, though there are plenty of times when language fails, or I don't want it. Harrison got that too:

My heart must be open to the cosmos with no language unless we invent it moment by moment in order to breathe.


Being open to the Universe as a source for language. And as a guide for life. I have been digging the remembrances of Harrison the man, and Harrison the writer. Obviously those two aspects are one and the same. He was a part of his Michigan landscape, the region. He knew it, lived it, and could write about it like no one else. I have the Eastern Shore in my bones that way, I sometimes feel.

I like when you can use the term "rugged individualism," and not have it be hyperbole or false praise. Harrison is the poster child. And that's part of how he inspires me. He doesn't make me want to go to Michigan and do what he did. He makes me want to get out and find, strike up, live my own life. To get outside. To chase dreams.

My advice is, do not try to inhabit another's soul. You have your own.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Hosanna


I've been searching for a writer to remind me why I love to read, why I love to write. Sometimes I go through a dry spell; a longing where I pick up 10 different books and put each down. Books and words are right when they are right. Mood, time of year, what my soul is seeking.

Hosanna. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Hosanna is a word that takes me back to St. James church services, "Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Just before communion.

It's a word I've always dug. Just the sound of it, to say, to hear. Hosanna.

March 18 was Franz Wright's birthday. He died last May of lung cancer at age 62. It's not a name most people will know, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize. Poets don't get to be on Oprah or make the best seller list.

Wright is one of those writers, who lights up my soul, points it in different directions.  Yesterday I picked his "Walking to Martha's Vineyard," up off the bookshelf. He is a writer who has been to, lived in, the depths, the mud, the suck, and found religious transcendence; used his struggles to fuel him:

This sky like an infinite tenderness, I have caught
    glimpses of that, often, so often, and never yet have
    I described it, I can't, somehow I never will.

Hosanna. Palm Sunday. The crowd is going crazy. Rock star Jesus is coming in to town and Hosanna is the word they are using to sing his praises, thinking he is going to overthrow Rome. But they got it wrong. That's not what He was up to. Yesterday's sermon in church touched on the crowd, waving their palms, waiting and pleading for the wrong thing.

Back to Wright, last night, on the couch:

Rilke in one of his letters said that Christ
is a pointing,
a finger pointing
at something and we are like dogs
who keep barking and lunging
at the hand


Spring is rebirth. Renewal. It's a return. Saturday was a return, on a cold, rainy afternoon, to Tuckahoe State Park, and a 10-mile trail run loop that we've done countless times over the years, but I'm not sure when I'd run the full loop last.

I went out there to put a hurting on myself, to make good on a promise to log some trail miles and find something in me that I haven't found another way to access. And there were times on the trail, particularly the parts I hadn't seen in some time, that I found myself smiling, laughing, for having returned. I found some part of myself that maybe I keep out there as a reminder.

Hosanna. I was playing with the word like a puzzle, like a challenge. I was repeating it in my head, the sounds, the word, the language. But mulling the meaning. A friend pointed out that "Hosanna" is frequently translated as, "Lord, help us."

And then I saw someone talk about how the word has changed over time: "It used to be what you would say when you fell off the diving board. But it came to be what you would say when you see the lifeguard coming to save you... the word moved from plea to praise; from cry to confidence."

During the course of a run, during the course of years, during the course of a day, perspectives, words, meanings can change. When I am active, exploring, paying attention, I can have something to do with that. The weekend was/is a journey of meals, runs, worship, dog walking, reading, reflecting. It takes getting my feet wet, metaphorically and literally, to get on that path.


As I came down to the creek in the middle of Saturday's run, a Great Blue Heron flew horizontal to and parallel with the creek. One of my favorite things to experience while running.

Wright, in his searching, in his writing, in my reading...

Still sleeping bees in the grove's heart
(my heart's) till the sun
its "wake now"
kiss, the million
friendly gold huddlings
and burrowings of them hearing the shining
wind
I hear, my only
cure for the loneliness I go through:

more.

I believe one day the distance between myself and God will
              disappear.

Hosanna.