Saturday, February 27, 2010

Grab Bag (aka Three Blind Blog Entries)

Occasionally I have my morning coffee with dead people. The ones I drink with are good company. It's not a Sixth Sense, "I see dead people," kind of thing, mind you. My morning dead peeps include Walt Whitman, William Blake, William Carlos Williams. It is not a prerequisite that their first name starts with "W."

Du Fu (the artist formerly known as Tu Fu) is the most recent to join the coffee klatch. A Chinese poet, he lived during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), specifically from 712-770 AD. I've never been big on dates and numbers, but I throw those out there to ground our boy Du Fu, who had an f$%^-ing rough time making a living as a poet/writer. He kept trying to land a decent paying government post, make a name for himself, and provide for his family. He lived through rebellions, was separated from his wife and kids for stretches, and relocated his family, on foot, over several hundred miles, a number of times, trying to find peace and happiness. It's never been easy to get by as a writer, particularly as a poet. Funny how contemporary the stuff he grapples with comes across.

I can relate to Du Fu and his struggle to make a living through his writing. I feel fortunate in my own life to have landed a decent writing job as a technical writer. I don't think it's what he would have had in mind for himself, but I also don't think he was bringing bills in from the mailbox, balancing checkbooks, hitting the grocery store, and all the monetary/material baggage that our society seems to feel we all need to carry around. And I look around and see our girls and family and know that trying to make sure they are healthy and happy, well, there's not much more important than that.


One week into a new job and I find it has given me back something I had lost, professionally. Beginner's mind. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few," so says Shunryu Suzuki. I'm not one to call myself an expert in anything, but I realize stepping into something new, how many possibilities there are. A new place to work, a new subject matter, a new way of doing things, new people to get to know and work with. It is truly all a gift. "So I've got that going for me... which is nice."


Those who knew me between my NC State years and Washington College years know that I came mighty close to enlisting in the Army (if you were at our wedding rehearsal dinner and listened to Doug Hanks talk, you may have thought I actually left for basic training, but never believe what you hear from a reporter ;) There was something about the military experience that I wanted--to put myself through it, to rebuild myself, Six-Million-Dollar Man style, but without bionics, cool sound effects, etc.

I did rebuild myself during that time, through the discipline and repitition of running, through lifting weights to get ready for the Army, through time out of school to re-evaluate my life and what I wanted, and through meeting my now wife, Robin, among other things.

But I didn't quell that thought/spark about the military and looking back, I sometimes wish I had the foresight to have gone in straight out of high school, or maybe even after graduating college.

This comes back around now, writing for and working with the military, and reading bios and accomplishments of career military--the things they have done and seen, the education, both real world and continuing academics, the service they have given. It rekindles something more than a deep respect, almost a longing to have done it, or be doing it. Funny how as someone who reads and writes, I am not big on sitting still at a desk all day.

But at almost 38, some things sneak by you and I am not one to spend a lot of time on could haves, should haves, or what ifs. I try to honor and indulge that side of myself on my own terms, in my own ways, and now, maybe by being able to be a part of it by working alongside.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Something About the Sun

Something about the sun, about how it feels different on your face come spring. About how it means baseball season and free Cokes for foul balls and practice after school. And games at Memorial Stadium where, as a son, I remember the chants, "Ed-die! Ed-die!"

Something about the sun and how, mixed with sky blue it makes spring green and brings swimming in cold water at the ferry dock.

Something about the sun and how it warms memories out--a great fiery reminder of the bright beautiful memories it has given us.

Something about the sun and running as it stretches its arms over the horizon, can't help but smile back on a sunrise run.

And Sun Salutations--mountain, upward salute, standing forward bend--and how, like running the postures and movements are the same each day, but each day different, like the sun, and how each gives us a conversation, a greeting with our movement in the morning, each bowing and stretching and smiling toward the other.

Something about the sun and how it means wisdom and understanding and warmth and light and waking and day, and what we might say to it, if we thought it would answer, which, of course, it does.

The eternal, earth, air, heaven
That glory, that resplendence of the sun
May we contemplate the brilliance of that light
May the sun inspire our minds.

Gayatari mantra, from the Rig Veda, translated by Douglas Brooks

Monday, February 15, 2010

Temple of a Mid-Atlantic Lake

I wish America had more temples, though I'm not sure they'd be a hit on Maryland's Eastern Shore. When I read travelogues or history narratives of the Far East, writers frequently encounter and describe temples, which are austere and welcoming and always open. People go in and sit--to pray, to meditate, to be still, to be thankful, to be mindful. And I feel like that is something we are missing out on.

Our churches are locked when there isn't a service scheduled. You don't just walk up and go sit in a church by yourself or with other spiritual pilgrims if you're rolling through or you might find yourself meditating in the back seat of a squad car.

At the same time the predetermined open/closed nature of an American church seems a good analogy for how we see God/the Universe/Creation: we worship only at certain set times, say Sunday mornings. Beyond that we don't have time in our fixed schedules. And we need an ordered service spelled out for us to tell us how to go about it; an instruction manual, Salvation! Some assembly required. Why would we know how to do something like that ourselves?

If there is a "temple" that is American, in its architecture, in its meaning in our history, in the way it/they dot our countryside, I'd vote for nominating the barn. You could take that shape with its connotations and turn it into something cool. But don't go poking your head into someone's barn to sit and pray or meditate or you're likely to find yourself at the wrong end of a double-barrel scepter...

A few years back Mike Keene and I went to Appomattox, Virginia, to run 34 miles on trails around a lake--our first ultra marathon. It was February, pitch dark, and 14 degrees cold when we started. There were about 250 of us. The lake was frozen.

As we ran and the sun came out and the day warmed slightly, this strange, beautiful, eerie, welcoming, off-putting, awe-inspiring sound began to unravel as we ran along the lake. I've never heard a dinosaur bellow, but it might have sounded something like this sound. It was the ice on the lake cracking and melting. Living on rivers that is not a sound you will ever hear.

I think about that morning and that race and the people I met and talked to and why they were there, and the things we saw and heard and experienced that day. And that lake and that sound and the cold and my body and endorphins and soul warming over the temperature, and that is the first thing that comes to my mind when I picture a temple that I have been to. A temple of a Mid-Atlantic lake and the pilgrims who were there, that morning, that day, to pray.

Holiday Lake 50K++, Appomattox, Virginia, February 2007, with some fellow trail pilgrims, from the race that got me to start writing this blog, three years ago. Photo by Andrew Wilds Photography.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Life Studies & Hopping the Pond

I've spent more time with Robert Plant than Robert Lowell. And that's legit--a 15-year-old discovering Led Zeppelin is a bigger life-changing experience than almost any ground-breaking book. I'd still take Zeppelin's first album over Lowell's "Life Studies" any day (though I'd go for the book over Plant's solo "Now and Zen").

But Lowell gets my attention now with his autobiographical/biographical detail and the confessional tone of his writing. What is a blog other than a confessional medium?

In my own life studies I am starting a new chapter. Leaving a job at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum where I have worked for the past seven-and-a-half years.

I started out when our eight-year-old daughter Anna was just a couple months old and our five-year-old daughter Ava was born during my time there. It's been the only place our girls have ever thought of as "Daddy's work."

We moved into the house we're living in now; I finished my first marathon and ultra-marathons; published my first feature article for a nationally known magazine; celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary; and have met folks I now count among my closest friends, all while or because of working at the Museum.

It's the kind of job I wondered if I'd have for 20+ years when I started. The kind of job that isn't just what you do for a paycheck, but is a part of who you are.

It's also become a job, for me, that I know when it is time to move on from. A place in my own life studies when it is time to refocus my creative energies, step up to a new challenge, a new field, one that allows me to better provide for my family (after all, as the Wu-Tang Clan has pointed out, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M. ;) But Benjamins aren't the only ones speaking here.

I'm going to be working as a technical writer/editor, shedding a bit my marketing skin and doing more of the writing and communications that I truly dig. I've got a D.C. commute, something I thought I'd never do, but that I am looking forward to. I'll be working with a creative team, something I love, which is an aspect of the Museum that disbanded as staff changed until I was the last standing.

So there's a big open road ahead, for which I am grateful, humbled, thankful, and excited. And now it's also cool to look back and reflect.

A friend/mentor/co-worker sent around a poem dedicated to my leaving the Museum. He knows I am a fan of Tony Hoagland (who warrants his own post here sometime soon) and now this Hoagland poem carries another layer of meaning on it for me:

"The Loneliest Job in the World"

As soon as you begin to ask the question, Who Loves Me?,
you are completely screwed, because
the next question is How Much?,

and then it is hundreds of hours later,
and you are still hunched over
your flowcharts and abacus,

trying to decide if you have gotten enough.
This is the loneliest job in the world:
to be an accountant of the heart.

It is late at night. You are by yourself,
and all around you, you can hear
the sounds of people moving

in and out of love,
pushing the turnstiles, putting
their coins in the slots,

paying the price which is asked,
which constantly changes,
No one knows why.

CBMM has certainly been a job of the heart and a part of my life studies. Now I'm looking forward to a job of the heart and the mind, looking forward to the next chapters and studies of my and our lives.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kielbasa, Wives, Babcias, Laureates, Faith

There will always be a place at my table for the Polish. Anyone who has ever contemplated the consequences of commandeering kielbasa off a tailgater's grill at a football game can relate. Throw in halupki (stuffed cabbage) or pierogies sauteing up with butter and onions and you're describing a winter meal(s) with all the stops pulled out.

Prior to 15 years ago, I couldn't have told you much about any kind of Polish food and my knowledge now is limited at best. But there will always be a place for the Polish at my table because my wife has some pretty strong Polish heritage going on. Robin is Pittsburgh Polish with a bit of Italian and Belgian thrown in, which, when mixed with my French/English/Scottish/Irish lineage, gives our daughters a more fully realized conquest of the European genealogical continent, by way of the United States, of course.

This past week Robin's grandmother died, her last living grandparent. Our girls didn't know her well, but referred to her as "babcia" (pronounced "bub-cha"), which is the Polish word for grandmother. Robin had always heard the Americanized version of babcia's maiden name, which her family called "Sway," and reading her obituary, Robin saw for the first time that it was actually "Szwaja"--funny since we have friends who are Szwajas in Easton.

Babcia was hardcore Polish Catholic, heritage, family, and religion. She lived next door to her church and was there like clockwork. The priest at her funeral gave a great description of his view of the Christian life cycle--(paraphrasing) "We are all eternally in the mind and thoughts of God, then we take these bodies and live out our human experience, then we return to the mind of God, though we've really never left it, you see?"

You could change some words around and use that idea to describe a number of religions. There was a peace and lightness and grace about this priest--qualities they should all have but too few actually do--even during a sad time. He was older and spoke in choppy but eloquent, coherent, and clear chops. Thinking about the service later that night, Robin talked about the comfort and (because of the) familiarity she has with the way Catholics do things. She has grown up knowing it and its structure is easy to fit inside.

Growing up Episcopal is not so different in form and structure, but certainly less in degree. Having said that, I was certainly familiar with the services and the words, but never with the whole concept. I've never been able to cross the chasm of unquestioned faith, more akin to Kierkegaard's Knight of Infinite Resignation than to the Knight of Faith.

Reason and Truth (loaded word) have to be at the party as well. Yet, I'm the first one to admit, Reason's bus won't get you all the way to the school either. I've always found myself looking for a middle path, one that brings reason and faith together--not the Catholic faith and not the empirical sciences. Though I've said I'm all about the Catholicism of Thomas Merton or of Mike Keene, but that's not the norm and maybe another story.

The best description of that synthesis of faith and reason that I have found comes across in Mahayana Buddhism, which I found or found me in philosophy class and has continued to build over the years. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama actually cranked out a book titled, "The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason," which breaks it down into a nice, bite-sized back cover blurb:

"It is vital for us to obtain genuine confidence in the nature of the mind and reality, grounded in understanding and reason. What we need is a skeptical curiosity and constant inquiry, a curious mind drawn toward all possibilities; and when we cultivate that, the desire to investigate naturally what arises."

So there we have a bridge from kielbasa to the Dalai Lama, who may or may not have ever sampled any of the former. I'll bet he'd like them if he did and could get past the whole karma thing. But the latest of the things Polish I have found that are welcome at my table is the Polish poet/Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz. His cool, quirky book of poems, meditations, reflections, prose, and aphorisms, "Roadside Dog," has kept me thinking in the mornings and his book, "Second Space," hit me between they eyebrows with ethics and actions and art with relation to God or no God. Here's one called "On Prayer:"

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Translated by Robert Hass

I dig the idea of compassion and acting and striving for something here and now, regardless of what is at the end/or other end of it all.

Remembering the priest at Babcia's service, both his words and his way of being. And thinking about her faith and her devotion to the church, which isn't mine, but is no less real or valid, and what it meant to her and what it gave her, and it all makes me think, "cool."

So my love and appreciation for things Polish. My wife, my family through her, food and history and culture, religion and its baggage and promise, and Czeslaw Milosz. Quite a full table.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Storytelling (and Patience)

I've never been the best storyteller, but I've always dug trying. Once something--a memory or someone else's story--has lodged itself in my mind, it ticks, waiting to go off, to detonate and fling shrapnel into those standing within earshot (nothing against those folks who are nearby, mind you).

I am mindful of the re-teller, who fires up the same story at any occasion, to the rolling of the eyes and the thinking of the need to refill drinks or later on some reasonable excuse to escape. Nobody wants to be (or be around) that guy.

But to be the teller who slowly pulls a crowd around them; who can spin them in; bust them up laughing; fling them along a roller-coaster narrative to set them off at the end of the ride, a little wobbly-kneed, only to want to get back in line again...


I don't have the vocabulary to talk about jazz or good beer and I don't drink wine really.

I don't have the memory or the one I have is odd in its rememberings. I need to clean the filter more.

I don't have the rhythm, I'm not much of a dancer.

I don't have the patience, I'm always looking at my watch and setting my mind on the next thing.

What I have is questions and bridges. And a comfortable chair perched at a panoramic view.

What I have is broken. But I've got the tools to fix it.

But, man, the patience.

Let me find it next to the phillips-head that is sitting out on the bookshelf.