Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gnarly Grown-Up Feet

Kids grow up here with tan, tough callused summer feet. Feet that have built tolerance to stones, to hot pavement, to dew wet morning grass, to oyster shells in shallow, brackish water. I did not wear shoes from the time school got out in June until after Labor Day when we had to go back. Until I bought a skateboard, but that's another story.

For the past couple months I've been carrying around Robert Hass's book "Sun Under Wood." It's the fourth or fifth time I've read it. I'm not sure why I started carrying it this time, except that sometimes books speak to me from my bookshelf. Hass speaks to me fairly frequently.

When Hass wrote "Sun Under Wood," or at least parts of it, his marriage was ending or had ended. He knocked the crap out of me with this from, "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer,"

Walking down to Heart's Desire beach in the summer evenings
of the year my marriage ended--

though I was hollowed out by pain,
honeycombed with the emptiness of it,
like the bird bones on the beach
the salt of the bay water had worked on for a season--
such surprising lightness in the hand--
I don't think I could have told the pain of loss
from the pain of possibility,
though I knew they weren't the same thing.

The pain of loss and the pain of possibility. And not being able to tell the difference. Shit. That hits like rocks in the gut. And I think of a statement I have heard from more than a few folks, "It sucks to be a grown up."

Sometimes it does.

As we grow up we put on shoes in the summer. Our child feet go soft, lose their tan, lose their feeling. They forget what cool mud feels like between the toes on a sweaty summer day. Men's feet get pointed in wingtips and women's get deformed by high heels. Runners' feet lose toenails and earn blisters, hikers' feet can't wait to be freed around the campfire. I have horrible, gnarly feet, though my Clark's and running shoes are comfortable. Mine are feet that used to not flinch walking across a gravel parking lot. Feet so shoes-pale you'd never know they were once tan, tucked under the hiking strap of a Laser or pulling a Whaler up on a beach worth exploring

Maybe shoes are our downfall. Maybe that's where we start to lose touch. Maybe shoes in the summer are the end of our innocence. Maybe we would do well to fight them off with everything we have, to feel the grass, sand, mud, oyster shells at any cost. What shoes are worth not being able to tell the pain of loss from the pain of possibility? Cripes, man!

What do we do, Hass? Hey, leave the man alone. He's just a poet trying to live his life. Why would he know anything we don't.

There was a thick old shadowy deodar cedar by my door
and the cones were glowing, lustrously glowing,
and we thought, both of us, our happiness had lit the tree up.

Happiness. Even after loss? Even after shoes? Yep. Happiness. It's still there for grown ups. It's still there after innocence. It's still there after mistakes, missteps, regrets and the summer feet fading. The kind of happiness that lights up trees.

That's good. Because I think my summer feet are beyond repair. They look better in shoes. Though I'm not afraid to put them bare in the mud, or the sand, or the dew wet grass.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dreams and Understanding

Park ranger is the first job I ever wanted. Really wanted. Daydreamed about. I pictured driving a truck around a national park, clearing trees and trails, helping out visitors, hiking trails, observing wildlife. Then coming home to a log cabin, either solo or with a wife and kids I hadn't pictured yet, hanging out, catching up, writing and reading. My writing and reading would be for me. John Muir, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder style. That was the dream, life outside and in the world. And now I drive four-plus hours to and from work and sit in a cubicle for most of the day.


Understanding. Both yourself and someone else. I don't think I really got that until this last month. That's something I have stared down in the mirror and where I've made my biggest change, I think. Really understanding someone else. Getting out of my own way, my own selfishness, my own head. Maybe it's like empathy, but deeper. Much deeper. It's both easy and hard; hard as shit, maybe impossible until it's there and then, when it is, you wonder how it could not have been there.

I understand. That maybe wasn't true until this last month. It took some rough, heavy life to find it. I get you. I hear you now, when I didn't before, and now I don't know how I didn't. And I'm sorry.

And life feels different.

Dreams and understanding. I've found one. Maybe there's still time for the other.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Transformation, aka Take My Chrysalis

I failed out of college spectacularly. There is not a single professor at N.C. State who would remember I was there. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who did, other than my fraternity brothers. And maybe one disciplinary officer who reprimanded a friend and I after we water-balloon launched an apple some 175 yards through the back window of a neighboring house. Remarkable shot, but that's a different story.

I was a horrible student. I left Raleigh with my tail between my legs, thinking the only option that would make any sense was to go into the Army, do things differently, be out of school for a while and save some money. I've been over this here before, but during the next few months I got myself into Ironman shape and got ready to ship out. And then I met my wife Robin.

My life came down to a decision: go to the Army on April 22, 1995, or opt out and stay. If I stayed, I didn't know what I would do to get back on track. But I knew after meeting Robin that I couldn't go. I had to find out if what we had was as cool and big as what I thought it was. So I stayed. I started cooking again at a seafood restaurant in Oxford. Robin and I moved in together.

I'm a serviceable line cook, prep cook, expediter in a kitchen. I'm not a chef. Words have always been my currency and where I knew my vocation had to be. That meant back to school.

When someone fails out of college, I wonder what the odds are of them going back and graduating are? Not particularly good. What gave me the thought that going back to school would be different, that the outcome would be different? Because I knew. I knew the person that failed out of N.C. State was gone. I knew the outcome would be different, because I knew I was different.

Dean's List at Chesapeake College and an Associates Degree. Scholarship to Washington College. Graduated 10th in my class, 3.8, departmental honors in English, minor in Philosophy, Magna Cum Laude. All while cooking in the evenings and weekends, getting home from work, showering and writing papers all night. My life was different. The person I had become with Robin, there was never a doubt in my mind what the outcome would be.

It seems in my life I have to fail spectacularly in order to get off my ass and make things happen. That's really something I should try to process. Who am I kidding, it's all I've been trying to process lately. Maybe I masochistically like to get knocked to the mat in order to get up and do something really fu**ing cool. Maybe I go through bouts and phases of depression, where I check out, drop out, and need some huge external stimuli to rock my to the core and make me get the fu** up. Wake the fu** up.

But once that happens, I don't go back. I can't go back, because the person that let that sh** happen is gone. Has been annihilated. Has been transformed. A butterfly can't go back, anymore than it can be a butterfly before it is time, anymore that it can get out of its chrysalis before it is time. But once it breaks out, it isn't fu**ing going back inside. It's different. Transformed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not calling myself a butterfly. I've got tattoos, but I'm not that colorful. I'm not much for flying. But I am transformed, again, and I can't go back. My own version of a chrysalis is shed. No more wasted days.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thank You Lightning; Fu** Auto-Pilot

How does it happen, where I put my life on auto-pilot? And not at the good times, where I'm cruising and digging where I'm going and what I'm doing. No. Auto-pilot on the long stretches when I'm not paying attention and just letting my life cruise away, not engaging myself or those around me.

I know how. I tend to live in my head. And when bills are due, four hours of commuting each day is wearing on me, the kids are nuts, those are the time that, hey, what's wrong with dwelling in the cranium? I can change the view up there. Change the drapes. Open a window. Put a different song on the world of the head.

The funny thing about living in my head and letting my life cruise on auto-pilot, it doesn't work so well. I end up getting out of the car/truck/land-speeder, and I don't recognize where you are, how I got there, or maybe fully who I am when I look in the mirror. Fu** auto-pilot. Life is too short, love and people are too important.

I'm an introvert by nature. Writing, reading, running--time and activities spent in solitude recharge my batteries. But what good are fully charged batteries if I don't use them, or if there is nowhere to use them after life has been on auto-pilot for too long.

Sometimes it takes a lightning strike to zap your life on auto-pilot, to bring it back in front of you for inspection. Do you like where you are?

Thank you, Lightning. Fu** you, auto-pilot. I'm driving.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beer, Conversation, God, Repeat

Bryan Berghoef is clearly on to something. He's coined a term for something I've been doing since I had my first beer with friends (at age 21). But it's not about the beer. I'm thinking of times and conversations at Pope's Tavern in Oxford or Greenshield's in Raleigh, N.C., where the the superfluous sloughs away and you are pondering Life's big questions over a pint.

I can remember walking to philosophy class at N.C. State (a rarity, given), and thinking about some question or another and having it addressed in class while discussing Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" or Bertrand Russell. Philosophy seemed to cut through the details. Which is why I studied it at Washington College and why, had the ball bounced differently for us, I would have been a PhD philosophy graduate student at Duquesne University and likely teaching it now.

It's why when the ground feels shaky under my feet, I pick up Thomas Merton or Thich Nhat Hahn or Alan Watts or Chogyam Trungpa or Frederick Buechner to help calm it down.

Church services are not discussions, generally speaking. They wouldn't work too well that way. You sit, you stand, you sing, you pray, you reflect. If you have young kids, you might be equally focused on making sure they aren't crawling under the pews or coloring in a hymnal. But dialogue is largely absent.

Not to mention, if your spiritual lineage includes Buddhism, Fritjof Capra, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walt Whitman and Sunday morning trail runs, well, I'm still trying to figure out what all the means.

It's also true that you don't want to be the guy, or girl, at the bar watching the game or celebrating a birthday, who wants to scale the walls of existentialism. That guy doesn't get invited to happy hour.

Berghoef figures it out with his idea of "Pub Theology." Beer, conversation, God. All backgrounds and beliefs are welcome. Open, honest discussion, each week (don't most churches meet weekly?). If you are a narrative cat like me, you can read how he describes it for the Huffington Post. If you look at how many places are starting their own version of pub theology groups, Berghoef isn't alone in his thinking. And that makes me happy.

That's why a pub theology group has kicked off in Easton. Every Wednesday, at the Washington Street Pub, at 7:30 p.m. A place, an outlet, for pondering Life's big questions, in a casual environment, possibly over a pint.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The hero and the chain

Nobody wants a supporting role in their own life story. We're all after the lead role, the hero. Unless you posit that we've all got supporting roles in God's story, or the story of the Universe. But my consciousness isn't that big, I'm still centered on my own life and my family's lives around it.

If you've ever watched a movie or read a book, you've probably pictured yourself in the hero's shoes. Further, maybe you've been out for a run, bike ride, walk down the street, drive or walk to work--there are times when you picture your life as it happens like it's a movie. Maybe you've got some theme music going for your big scene coming up. I've been devouring graphic novels lately, so I've had heaps of that perspective lately.

It's a frame of reference thing. We live our lives as ourselves. That's our reference point. But reading Matt Fraction's "Immortal Iron Fist," I was reminded of a train of thought I've ridden on before. Iron Fist, or Danny Rand is training and meditating and realizes:

I'm a link in a chain extending backwards through time and forwards, simultaneously.

Time and my life as a chain is interesting. If we're the heroes in/of our lives/life stories, we're a link in a chain. The previous link is our father and a different one is our mother. Their life stories are individual chains, which then link into the future through us. But like my story, my father's goes back to his parents, etc. There are a lot of chains that link together in me. I am a link connected to a lot of folks in my family's chains. It's more like a web than a chain, but I like the chain image better.

Each of the other links are/were their own heroes. A zoom in on a different part of the larger chain and the chain tells a story.

I'm not fully sure where I'm going with this, but that's the beautiful thing about having a blog: I don't have to go anywhere with it ;-) If we're all the heroes in our life stories, and their are a lot of us, a lot of stories, and even in the story of our families, it isn't as simple as our own story, because our story is connected to the ones before and after us. You could look at the chain links as chapters and the chain as a book.

Maybe we are heroes, but at best we are heroes for a chapter. Then it's on to the next.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Gravy List

I don't know what I think about bucket lists. I'm not sure that life needs to be judged like a list, just checking things off and then determining happiness or success, or how good a life lived was based on check marks. But I do make lists. And my mind seems to function more efficiently when I've created and am working from a list.

I was thinking the other day about a "gravy list," a list of those things that don't determine whether you've lived a good life--let's leave that to things like character and family, legacy, satisfaction--but a list that we each create to say, you know, life is cool, but it'd be even cooler if I was able to do some of these things.

So I present, 10/11 items, in no particular order, that comprise my gravy list.

1. Complete a rim-to-rim trail run of the Grand Canyon. Running one way it's a little more than 20 miles. It's been done as an out and back run, 40+ in a day. That's great, but I'm just looking for the basic. Here are some details and helpful training tips. In my experience, the natural world, and cities for that matter, are best experienced on foot. Trail running stirs my soul as few other activities have. I'd love to cross the Grand Canyon, on foot, with some running peeps, in a day.

2. Attend Washington Nationals spring training games. I've written here a number of times about our family's fandom for the Nats. I've been following baseball since I was a kid, collecting baseball cards, pouring over statistics. Our girls don't like watching football in the least, but they love going to Nats games. I've always thought it would be cool to go to a few spring training games, warm weather, laid back, getting to see the team as they gear up for the season. I don't need to go to all the games, just a couple.

3. Complete a book-length manuscript. I'm a writer. It's what I love, it's what I spend much of my time doing, or thinking about, or working on, etc. To this point, my writing has taken the form of essays, reflections, articles, stories, aphorisms, fragments, poetry, etc. I haven't wrapped my head around a big, book-length project. I've got some ideas I'd like to explore.

4. Buy/drink a beer with a living writer whose work I dig, but who I've never met. Maybe this is a fan boy thing, but it's also wanting to talk shop, pick the brain, hear stories from someone I've read and enjoyed, someone who is doing the kind of stuff I'd like to do. A way to say thanks and to learn. There is not one particular person I have in mind, but I can think of a number of them.

5. Take a hut-to-hut family hike in the White Mountains, via the Appalachian Mountain Club. The White Mountains were a game changer for me. I've written about it on here and our hut-to-hut adventures became part of a Trail Runner Magazine feature I wrote on fastpacking. In this case, I'm not talking epic in terms of miles, but expanding the notion of epic with our girls. Something easy, starting at Pinkham or the Highland Center, going to the nearest hut for the night and heading back. Something to let them know what is out there. We live on the panoramic Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is beautiful, but flat. The girls get excited for the hills of western Pennsylvania. I'd love for our family to imbibe the whole AMC experience.

6. Attend a Liverpool Football Club game at Anfield. I've been bitten by the English Premier League soccer/football bug to be sure. I've also never left the United States--I've been from the Florida Keys to Maine to California, but never had a passport. My life won't be incomplete if I never get a passport. But hearing Reds fans singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in unison would be a different kind of sports spectating experience. And the writer in me, and the beer drinker in me, would want to add to the trip with pub life and a day hike through the Lake District, in the footsteps of Wordsworth, maybe a stop through the Eagle and Child Tavern, a la Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

7. Complete a full arm tattoo sleeve of personal images and symbols. I'm on my way with my right arm sporting an elemental heron and an image form a rune with St. Patrick and snakes. My tattoos have been slower going, based on finding an image/symbol with deep, personal meaning, and time and money to get it done. But, as folks with tattoos know, the scheme digs in, the feeling, the result, walking around as a personal art gallery, yeah, sign me up.

8. Attend a Sonny Rollins concert. I prefer old school jazz to contemporary. The legends I dig listening to are mostly gone. Rollins is still touring at 82 years old. If you want some more background, Men's Journal ran a great story on Rollins in September. When Rollins was thought to be one of the top saxophone players out there, he pulled back and spent three years playing on the Williamsburg Bridge just to get even better. There is only one Saxophone Colossus.

9. Deliver a Sunday sermon. I'm not fully sure why this is on here. Part of it is an embrace what you fear approach. I'm not big on public speaking. I don't pretend to know anything profound that I could impart by means of a sermon. But I like the idea of exploring an idea, history, humor, personal experience, stories, and life with a group of folks in that way. Maybe I might even come up with something to say.

10. Create a recurring comic strip/series/story, working with an artist/illustrator. Through middle school, I devoured Marvel Comics, mostly Daredevil, The Avengers, The X-Men. Comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Pearls Before Swine, condense humor, wonder, compassion, hard knocks and friendship into memorable images and turns of phrase. We live in a visual age. I love the idea of visual storytelling. I've been reading graphic novels of late and digging the work of Matt Fraction, Frank Miller, Rick Remender. I'm not sure how, where I/we'd start, but I've been formulating some ideas. And we live in a digital age where many things are possible.

So there are ten. If I included 11, the next would be learning to play the piano. But let's stick with ten. This is above and beyond kids' field hockey games and days at the beach or park, making time for date nights and time with friends and family. Those things are the framework. The meat, with apologies to vegetarians. These ten things, they're the Gravy List.