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.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Bare Handed


Bare handed the man contends with spring...

It's a slow conversion, it's taken maybe 40 years, and the last two, to realize I'm becoming a spring soul, rather than fall. Last year was the first time it really hit.

This year, walking home for lunch with no jacket; warmer temperatures and t-shirt sweat for running; sitting out on the deck for happy hour and reading, after shunning it for the winter. There is both a calm and an energy in the warmer weather, the sun on my face. I've dug into William Carlos Williams's "Spring and All."

Bare handed the man contends with home...


Sharing deep, unscripted conversations with the girls is one of life's profound pleasures.

Home is.... Since July, the girls and I have been fortunate to call a great house in Oxford, "home." They have taken to Oxford. They have taken to the community center in town where I work. Anna and I were talking this week about looking forward to spring and summer in town. Riding bikes, paddleboarding, the Strand (beach), Schooners Landing and the Masthead (dock bars/outdoor restaurants) re-opening, along with the Scottish Highland Creamery (best ice cream on the planet). We got talking about the house, which is our second in two years, and not wanting to/having to move every year. Then we both said the house hasn't felt like "home" yet. That's a curious feeling to both have.

Maybe it's inherent in not knowing if you can put roots down in a house. Maybe it's a part of renter's remorse. Maybe the girls living between two parents and two houses has shifted the notion of what home feels like. Probably it is all of those things. I fully believe that home is a feeling; home is a mindset; home is a community; home can be people. But the physical home of where you put your stuff, where you lie down at night, where you cut grass and eat meals, that has a big role in being "home." Oxford is a place that goes quiet in the winter, especially for 11 and 14 year olds. After moving in last summer, Ava spent a month in a Pittsburgh hospital to end her summer. Hoping the return of spring, of bike rides, swimming, ice cream and sunsets in the Oxford Park; of grilling in the yard, will stoke some homey vibes.


In "Spring and All," Williams writes, "Bare handed the man contends with the sky, without experience of existence seeking to invent and design."

Bare handed the man contends with the sky...

I fully love that, and feel it. We don't have the tools or experience to fully grasp it. We are bare handed, minimally equipped to take it all in. I've had this feeling a few times this week already. Walking down the street to the shore line on the cove with my morning coffee to watch the sunrise. And two nights ago, standing out in the field next to the house, taking in the clear, spring night sky, and seeing two shooting stars in about 15 minutes time. Contending with the sky can overload the soul.

Bare handed the man contends...

Sunday, February 28, 2016

On Noticing: Cops, Kings, Life


We were in middle school, it was dark, and we were bombing our skateboards down the grass hill/dip next to the Oxford Bellevue Ferry dock. Get up a little speed on the road, and see if you could stay on your board bumping down the grass.

Standing back just a ways in the shadows, was the late and venerable Oxford Police Chief, Wally Jones. No one ever accused him of being stealthy. We all saw him there.

"We NOTICE you!" called one of our crew, with his hand cupped around his mouth. Chief Jones, perturbed, came out of the shadows and let us know what he thought about our new nighttime activity and our attitudes.

I have had that quote, "We notice you," in my head ever since. It was funny, because it came from a kid who none of us would have guessed to say it, and because he used the word notice instead of see.

Yesterday, the girls and I were bombing that same hill/dip, though on our bikes and during the day. It made me think of that night. And it also made me think of noticing things.

Over the past year, I've been noticing birds. Birds I never gave much thought to. A month or so ago, as I sat drinking morning coffee on the couch, I noticed Ruby-Crowned Kinglets in the pyracantha hedge in the yard. Kinglets (along with Cedar Waxwings) are one of the birds I had been waiting to see there. Two years ago that would have been just another bird in the bush.

A few weeks ago, driving over Trippe Creek bridge, sitting on the telephone pole wire next to the bridge, there was a Belted Kingfisher. Clear as day, it was like slow motion, how obvious, like having a flash card perched there. Again, for those who cared to notice.

I had stopped by chair at that exact place, coming out, because right there the spice of wisteria that hung around the house was invaded by the freshness of apple blossoms in a blend that lifted the top of my head. As between those who notice such things and those who don't, I prefer those who do." 
- Wallace Stegner, "Angle of Repose."

Stegner was on to something. Being around folks who notice the odd, the novel, the sublime moments, events, people, smells, sights, around them. Those that notice life. They help me do the same.

And that is something I have tried, over the course of 43 years, to cultivate. Noticing things.

When every day seems the same, it is because we have stopped noticing the good things that appear in our lives. - Paul Coelho, "The Alchemist."

Sunrises. The warmth of a sunny day in February. Wind against my face riding bikes through town with my daughters. Ava's laugh as she hangs upside down for split seconds on a park swing. Laughter while bike bombing grass hills. Searching for and skipping shells on a beach, even one I've seen more times than I can count.