name tags

I had a flash encounter with God at the grocery store last week. He was scanning a bag of kale when I noticed his name tag.

“Hey,” I said, “Your name is the same as one of my nephews!”

“That’s cool. Is he doing the name proud?”

“Absolutely he is. How bout you? You doing it proud?”

“You bet I am.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” I said. “But I tell you what’s not good. I left my phone in the car, and I wish I had it so I could take a picture and text it to him. If you wouldn’t mind, that is. But I’m just gonna take a picture in my mind.”

“How bout I just give you this one, and you can give it to him?”

“You can’t give me your name tag!”

“Sure I can. I’ve got another one.”

“No, no, no. I can’t take your name tag.”

“Yeah you can.” And at that, he unclipped it and handed it to me.

“Oh, man, that is so nice. Thank you so much. He’s gonna love this.”

“My pleasure. Tell your nephew we gotta stick together.”

Now, I read a fair share of spiritual books, and from an also fair share of the world’s  spiritual traditions: the Bible, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, and that’s just the B’s. And most every book I read says roughly the same thing, that who we really are and what we’re really about has little to do with the name on our name tag or with any of the other labels with which we might identify in a given moment. We’re not really our gender, race, nationality, religion, virtues, or vices. Nor are we our bodies, thoughts, feelings, possessions, pleasures, pains, successes, or failures.  Who we really are, what we really are, is the energy of Self-giving Love that is all there really is. Everything else is temporary.

And the path of enlightenment, the way of peace, love, joy, truth, and freedom, comes by recognizing the temporary-ness of the temporary, letting go the various partially real identifications that letter our name tags, and surrendering, bit by bit or all at once, to the presence and power of the Really Real.

All that’s in the books. It’s why I love the books. It’s why I read every day. It’s why I pray, as I read, that the love and wisdom in those books might rub off on me and make me less attached to the ten-thousand temporary I am’s and more surrendered to the one eternal I AM.

The books are great.

But sometimes you walk into a store, and the peach-fuzzed 20-something who checks and bags your groceries gives you a living, breathing, spontaneous demonstration on letting go, and it feels like you just met the Author.

2020

(I was grateful to be asked to share a story at Monday night’s 531 gathering in Asheville: 5 stories, 3 songs, 1 community. This month’s theme was “Clean Slate,” and this is the story I shared.)

At some point in my childhood—

It was after the summer day I romped in the woods in a steady rain, without a shirt, kneeling for dirt become mud and smearing it on my chest and arms and face, mimicking the war paint of the Cherokee.

So it was also after the summer evening we drove to Cherokee to see the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, and on the way stopped to picnic along the Blue Ridge Parkway, at a majestic and precipitous overlook, and my two-year-old brother Tony — who had a remarkable gift for spotting a moment of freedom and making wild runs at something dangerous, like climbing out the window, and onto the roof, of our Granny’s second-floor apartment, or flinging himself into a whitewater section of mountain stream, which washed him away and compelled our dad to run downstream a ways, plunge in, and pull him out – on this summer evening beside the Parkway, while our parents spread a blanket and laid it full of fried chicken, potato salad, and Little Debbies, Tony dashed for the overlook, and Dad, hero again, dropped the food, bolted after Son Number Three, and snagged him by the waist-band, half a step from eternity.

It was after that night.

And if it was after that night, it was also after the day, a gray day in winter, that I stood at the front window and watched my mother walking down the street, toward the house. She was wearing a long coat that covered an almost-nine-months-pregnant belly – this was Tony, still plotting his first escape — and on her face, a look that said, “I am far away from here, in a place that requires my absolute, inner attention.” And she was the picture of aloneness. I did not know that word then, but I could feel it through the glass and across the open yard.

It was after that.

It was also after a Friday night, in late autumn, when Mom made oatmeal and applesauce for supper, and Dad took me to the football game at the high school where he taught, and afterwards, onto the field, to breathe in the cleat-churned dewy grass and shake hands with the victors – teenage boys they were, but they appeared to me as gods.

And also after any number of snow days when Mom made snow boots by wrapping our feet in bread bags – first the sock, then a bread bag, then a tennis shoe, then another bread bag.

And after nights in bed when I’d make a tent from my covers and imagine myself in a cave, alone, but also not alone, in the presence of an energy that filled the cave, and filled me, and that I had no name for, and needed no name for, but that radiated out from my heart and enveloped me from beyond me, the energy of an expansive, resonating stillness.

It was after all that.

But it was before the night that our middle brother, Marshall, tired of me, his older brother, winning the race to bed every night – three boys in the living room, first one down the hall and in your bed wins, on your mark, get set, go! – Marshall had filled my pillowcase with wooden blocks, so that when I ended my sprint and dove for the mattress, I might bang my head, which I did, and consider not running so hard the next night, which I did not.

It was also before the Saturday morning, while our parents cooked breakfast, that Dad told us he’d be having hernia surgery in a few weeks, a revelation that led to many questions about hospitals and surgeries and hernias, and one of those questions led Dad to mention a man who waited too long to have hernia surgery and ended up losing a testicle, which led me to ask, “What are testicles for, anyway,” which led to our first conversation about the birds and the bees, or, more precisely, about the sperm fertilizing the egg, which led Tony, having somehow survived now for three and a half years, to joyfully shake salt and pepper over his breakfast and declare that he was fertilizing the egg, and which led Marshall, his curiosity running wild with all this talk of sex, to ask Mom and Dad if they’d mind providing us with a little demonstration.

Anyway, at some point in my childhood, I came to believe that I was not as smart as the other kids. It was school that did it. Second grade, in particular. Reading out loud in second grade, in particular particular.

I wanted to read. Very much. Dad read the funny paper to us, and I wanted to be able to read it for myself. So I was trying. But I wasn’t getting the hang of it. I was slower than the other kids. It took me longer to figure the words out.

The teacher, Miss Stillwell, would call on me to read aloud, and it would go something like this:

Me:  “The . . .” —

Little girl next to me: “Cat.”

Me:  “Cat. . .” –

Little girl next to me: “Sat.”

Me: “Sat . . . on . . . the . . .” –

Little girl next to me: “Rug.”

Me: “Rug.”

Miss Stillwell:  “Thank you, Russell.”

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I just knew I couldn’t read like the other kids. And it was frustrating and confusing. It was like there was something stuck inside me, trying hard to get out, but it didn’t know how, and I didn’t know how to help it. I didn’t even know what it was.

Around this same time, when I was in second grade, I began wetting the bed. Two, three, four nights a week, I’d wake up, and the sheets would be wet, and I’d have to go get my parents. I remember one night, I was spending the night at Granny’s. She lived in a three-room apartment. There was one bedroom, big enough for her twin bed and a roll-away cot. And sometime in the night I wet the cot, and my parents hadn’t packed me any extra pajamas, and Granny suggested that I wear a pair of hers – hers! – and I said, No way, I’m not wearing women’s pajamas, call my Daddy! And she laughed until she cried. But she called my Dad, and he, God bless him, brought dry pajamas.

But this reading thing, this feeling stupid thing, this feeling that I was fighting to shake something loose from inside myself, and not knowing what or how, it was a millstone around my neck.

And then, one day, a lady came into Miss Stillwell’s second-grade class at Camp Laboratory School in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and she asked Miss Stillwell if there were any children in this class that needed their eyes checked. And Miss Stillwell looked around, and her eyes fell on me, and she told the lady, “Check him.” And the lady walked me down the hall, to a dark room, and sat me in front of a machine with a screen. And two days later, Mom drove me to Asheville for an appointment with an eye doctor. And a week after that, she drove me back, and I got my first pair of glasses.

And it turned out: I wasn’t stupid. I could read, after all. And whatever it was that was trapped and straining and struggling inside me, it found a way out. And I stopped wetting the bed.

Now, the instructions to storytellers at 531 are very clear: just tell a story. Do not interpret, or editorialize, or preach. Just. Tell. A. Story.

So I hope I won’t get into too much trouble if I just add this:  When you’re a kid and you’re not seeing the world clearly, you don’t know you’re not seeing the world clearly. You think you’re seeing the world as it is. And for that matter, when you’re any age and don’t have eyes to see, you probably don’t know you don’t have eyes to see. All you know is:  something’s not right, and you don’t know what to do.

But sometimes there’ll be someone around who does see, someone still well enough to recognize what’s happening. And sometimes they can help.

So, hail, hail, 2020. Maybe, with a bit of help, we might see our way clear.

finding each other

Jeanine and I are sitting at a wobbly table out front of a coffee shop in Portland, Maine. It’s a hot day here, July 1, but we’re in the shade, there’s an occasional breeze, and the brick sidewalk, which spends long months of its life covered in snow, just has an aura of cool.

I brought a book with me, but the world around is way too compelling and will not let me read. A man pushing a shopping cart full of Gatorade sees me watching him: “I keep people hydrated! A drink and a bag of chips for a dollar and a quarter. That’s a good deal, right?” A woman, also pushing a cart, this one stacked with bottled water, shouts to a friend across the street, “They’re a dollar-eighty-eight for a 24-pack! At CVS! Today’s the last day!” A passenger in the front seat of a Jeep sings along to the radio: “Hey, hey, I wanna be a rock star!” Homeless women and men trudge along, with thick tans, dirty backpacks, and the slow, numbed footsteps of elephants. There are dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, teenage girls with iced lattes, millennial males on skateboards flying past at 20 miles per hour, and a small white feather sliding along.

This feather, I think, maybe it’s what’s left of the unlucky seagull selected for slaughter this morning outside the bedroom window at our Air-B-n-B, which is where all the seagulls of Portland seem to gather and, I can only assume from the desperate, strident, blood-thirsty, ceaseless screaming that’s happened at 4:15 every morning since we’ve been here, choose some member of their tribe to be offered to the gods in a brutal and gruesome ritual sacrifice.

I might be wrong, of course. This particular feather on the sidewalk might have nothing to do with all that.

We’re here visiting our daughter, Peyton, who moved here three months ago. She’s off and running in a career, and living in as wide a circle as she can before the commitments of relationship and responsibility that will come later and shrink the radius of possibility. Right now, the epicenter of that still-very-large circle is a fourth-floor apartment, across the street from the Portland Sea Dogs minor-league baseball field, and a sea dog of her own, Emmy Lou, who dearly loves the sea, and also the seaweed, and the sand, and all the other dogs who get to run free at the beach before 9 am.

(And speaking of free, and sea dogs, the baseball Sea Dogs let fans in for free after the sixth inning, and that is how, a couple nights ago, we saw Tim Tebow ground out to first in the top of the ninth. That’s the Tim Tebow, who used to play football for the Denver Broncos and now plays baseball for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, and so I can’t help but wonder, what is it with Tim Tebow and horses? I’m thinking that, one day, he will win the Kentucky Derby.)

Earlier today we walked and swam at Mackworth Island State Park, just north and across the bay. Mackworth Island is a glory land of trees. Maple, oak, large pines, basswood, and what looked to me like the remaining twelve feet of a long-gone American chestnut. I can’t imagine that could be true, over a hundred hot summers and harsh winters after the blight that decimated this great, giant giver of food, lumber, oxygen, and pride. But what remained was massive in diameter and had the twisting, knotted pattern of trunk that chestnuts have, so who knows. Fifteen years ago, I found an old chestnut stump in the forest above our house. It was rotted through entirely, save for the outer ring, two inches thick. I brought it home and took it to my office, where it leans against a wall and offers me something I won’t even try to explain, and probably don’t need to.

And the swimming at Mackworth, in the icy cold water of the North Atlantic. Man, oh man, I do love cold water. I can’t stand it much more than a minute, but that minute is amazing, and the amazement birthed in that minute keeps living in me and extends to most everything else I encounter for the rest of the day. Which may be why I’m so smitten with the world wandering past this coffee shop.

This is a pleasure trip for us, but the shadow of grief is fallen across it, too. A year ago, in April, Jeanine’s brother Marshall spent a weekend in Portland with his daughters Jess and Hannah. That was the last time they saw each other before he died in June, and we have brought with us, for Peyton, a beautiful blown glass vase holding a portion of her Uncle Marshall’s ashes. An artist friend of Marshall’s wife, Michelle, made these vases a few months ago, and Michelle distributed them to us at a gathering, in June, that Peyton was unable to attend.

When Marshall died last summer, our son, Walton, said it felt to him like Marshall had shattered into many pieces, and flown into us, and we would all carry pieces of him – his goodness and his suffering – with us. Now we have these pieces of Marshall, ashes, to release whenever and wherever we decide is right, and these exquisite, graceful vases, pieces of sand, shaped by fire and breath into pieces of art.

We came to Portland by plane, and at the airport, when Jeanine sent her luggage through security, the TSA agent made her unpack the vase so she could check it for explosives. “Tell me about this,” the agent said, understandably and kindly. “What’s in here?”

“These are some of my brother’s ashes,” she said. “We’re taking them to our daughter. My sister-in-law made all of us a vase like this.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. And this vase is beautiful. Tell your sister-in-law this is a wonderful idea.”

What Walton said, that there are pieces of Marshall everywhere, I am finding to be true. I see him and sense him in others – and not just in family members or others who knew him. Last week, in a fresh gush of sadness and shaking, I felt him swirling around inside me, in a wild, fast, figure-eight infinity loop, and a piece of him popped out of me and landed in the friend sitting across from me. If that sounds a little wacky to you, well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But it is increasingly my sense that the Mystery is greater than we can imagine and that all reality – everything — is connected. Things seen and unseen. The world, the underworld, the overworld. You, me, Marshall, the guy who wanna be a rock star, the trees, the water, the dogs, even the squawking freaking seagulls: a congregation of one, continually rearranging itself.

Last night I dreamed I was with a group of people gathered beside a river. We were singing and waiting for Marshall to join us. I could feel him approaching, from somewhere behind us, but I awoke before he got there.

And then, a few minutes ago, in front of this coffee shop, a family wandered up from behind Jeanine. A mom, a dad, and two little girls. And the younger girl, two or three years old, in a lime green shirt with multi-colored hearts and a silver unicorn, stopped and draped herself, arms and face, across Jeanine’s lap. She snuggled in and stayed there for half a minute, and her parents, thank God, just let her. Then she lifted her head and smiled.

Pieces all around and everywhere. Broken, shimmering, and finding each other.

Jeanine and girl in Portland

 

 

 

spanking stories

Today is my dad’s 85th birthday.

Whatever you might say about your dad, I bet my brothers and I are the only ones who can say this: Our dad invented the spanking story.

Mack is a born story-teller. He and his identical twin Bob arrived 10 weeks early, during the Depression, in rural South Carolina. There were no ICU’s and IV’s. They slept in a dresser drawer, and they were nourished off goat milk. But they both made it, and I like to think they started telling stories in that dresser.

Their first language was one they created themselves – when twins do this, it’s called cryptophasia – and they spent their childhood making up stories together and acting them out. When they were adults, Uncle Jack asked Uncle Bob why neither he nor my dad pursued a career in acting. “Jack,” Bob said, “It just wouldn’t have been any challenge.”

Dad told my brothers and me stories all the time, animated with the voices, gestures, and facial expressions of the various players. We absolutely loved it. Lots were about his childhood – the other kids they went to school with, the games they played, the grownups they observed. I guarantee you, any one of us could mimic AJ Kinard’s mother calling across the field to her son: “Junior, don’t you eat those blackberries. They’ll burst your appendix!” Or Rita Dorn reciting “O Cardinal Bird”: “O cardinal bird” – slurp — “With frost-powdered wings” – slurp — “Composing new lyrics” – slurp — “To whistle in spring” – slurp.  Or Fats DeLoach, when Miss Lester called on him to pray before lunch, just after Fats had already snuck a bite of his peanut butter sandwich: “Mmmm, ah cane.” “And why not, Edward?” “Mm’ mowf fuwwa pnnna buhh.” And if we told you about poor little Poochie Chapman’s glasses – taped and smeared and filthy – you would cry.

But lots of people are great story tellers. Our dad’s special invention was the spanking story. He believed every boy needed two things each day: a good story and a good spanking. So every night, my brothers and I would brush our teeth and climb into bed. And every night Dad would make up a new story – let me say that again, every night he would make up a new story – that ended with a playful spanking. I only remember one of these – about a bear named Marvin, who was on a journey with many adventures, and as he neared what was the obvious climax of the story, he tripped on a root, flew through the air, and bounced down a hill on his beary-derriere. And as Marvin bounced down the hill, Dad bounced around the room, lovingly administering our nightly spankings (or as he might have called it, patting us on the poo-poo’s).

Brian Doyle once said, “Stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives. Stories save lives. They crack open hearts. They open minds. We could change the world if we told the right story.”

I woke this morning thinking about my dad. Feeling grateful to be the child of a story-teller. And to live in a world of infinite stories. Some of which end with a spanking.

Happy Birthday Dad!

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time out of mind

Last night I went to bed with a heavy heart.

I won’t say all the reasons why. Some of them are public knowledge, and you can read about them elsewhere, wherever it is you get your news, perhaps from a publication in print, in newsprint, like the one in our town that keeps shrinking, shrinking so that a few years ago our son stopped calling it “the paper” and started calling it “the pamphlet,” or perhaps from a source online, or perhaps from a book, because books that took years to write and be edited and published also contain news, news to us anyway, of places and people and multiple other species, and tragedies and conflicts and compromises and courage, and sometimes, oftentimes, actually, the slow-steeped news of a book is way more true and relevant than the news that gets delivered simultaneous to its occurring, the news we call “breaking news,” and whatever else that phrase means, “breaking news,” it frequently does involve some actual breaking, of lives or environments or hearts or hopes, which is why news, old news and breaking news, often weighs so heavy.

And some of the reasons, of course, are personal and private, and include persons other than just me, and thus are doubly triply quadruply private, but are reasons you can imagine, and are likely familiar with yourself, and involve various sorts of bruising, bruisings I’ve received and  bruisings I’ve given, and the second kind is worse, of course, way worse, and now that I think of it, it’s interesting how the word bruise, in its verbal form, “to bruise,” can mean something you do to another, as in “I bruise you,” or something do to yourself, as in “I bruise easily” – I think the grammar-class way to say this is, “bruise” can be a transitive or an intransitive verb, but maybe someone who reads this and knows about these things would be kind enough to confirm or correct me on that – interesting, yes, and true, that when we get a bruise we also receive one.

But one of the reasons I went to bed with a heavy heart, the reason I’ll share here, is that I’ve been working on something that’s not working, working hard and steadily and persistently and yet dadgummit! it’s still not working, not working to the point that I’m thinking of it as “failing,” and no matter how often I hear the Thomas Edison quote about the thousand times he failed not being a thousand failures but a thousand times he learned what wouldn’t work, and whether what I’m working on actually is or isn’t failing, right now it feels like failing, and the feeling of failing is heavy, as I’m sure you and Sisyphus both know.

So, I was lying in bed last night, talking about this with one of the people I’ve bruised, and she said, “It feels like you’re trying to make this happen too fast, and I wonder what would happen if you didn’t feel the pressure of time, which looks to me like it’s self-imposed pressure anyway, and you could let this thing happen at an easier pace,” which is the sort of wise and kind thing she says rather often, God bless her, but I’m sure you know that sometimes someone can say something wise and kind to you, and you’re not ready yet for wisdom and kindness, you’re still brooding and stewing and sighing and needing to be stuck a while longer, and the wisdom offered, even kindly, is so radically different from your current and probably long-standing approach to things that it just doesn’t land, it won’t compute, there’s not even a file in your brain to put it in, which was the case for me with this comment about the pressure of time, because let me tell you I am always, always, always aware of time, in my professional life as a therapist, where I’m forever looking at a calendar or a clock and where what I say or do in any moment depends to some degree on what time it is, whether there are 20 minutes left or 10 minutes left, and in my personal life, where I have worn a Timex Ironman wristwatch continuously, for 30 years at least, while I work, play, eat, shower, sleep, you name it, taking it off only when the battery dies or the wristband breaks and I have to go buy a new one, so you can say, and be both literally and metaphorically correct, that I wear time like a handcuff, and you can also understand, I think, why those words last night, about not feeling the pressure of time, sort of bounced off me.

Only maybe they didn’t, or not entirely. Because unbeknownst to me, something happened in the night. And this morning, when I awoke, my wristwatch was gone.

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light

This Christmas we rented a friend’s house beside a lake at the top of a mountain. “We” are various members of my wife’s family. Some of us will be here three nights in all, others two, others one. Some came yesterday just for the day. Others are with us only in spirit.

We are doing the things families do at Christmas. Eating well. Going for walks. Playing games. Making music. On Christmas Adam (the day before Christmas Eve) my daughter and one of my nieces cooked a meal so wonderful it moved someone to ask, “What’s the best meal you remember?” and we spent the next hour, around the table, talking about pizza in Italy and blueberry pie in Maine and the people we were with on a certain night, in a certain restaurant, in a certain city.

Last night, after another feast, we played Dictionary, a game this family has been playing for longer than the 32 years I’ve been part of it. One person picks a word from the dictionary, writes the real definition on a slip of paper, and collects fabricated definitions from everyone else before reading them all out loud. If you guess the correct definition, you get a point. If someone else guesses your made-up definition, you also get a point. But the point of this game is not points. The point is laughter. And there is abundant laughter in a world where “rusticate” means “to fornicate in the country” and “rodomontade” is “what wise people make when life gives them rodomonts.”

This morning five of us sang “My Girl” at sunrise on the porch. (That’s a story you can read on my sister-in-law Michelle’s blog.) Four of us ran the Hilly Hellacious Holyday Hanny in Dupont Forest. We lingered over breakfast casserole and fruit salad till almost noon. And people are playing cards in the living room right this minute.

We are also grieving. We lost Jeanine’s brother Marshall this summer. I have not had words or heart to write about it, and I still don’t, really. All I can say right now is that it shattered us, we miss him, and he is still with us.

No one said any of this aloud. No one needed to. Our togetherness – and when we needed it, our separateness – said it plenty well.

When I awoke this morning, the first words in my mind were these: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a verse from the Gospel of John, and it has always been one of my favorites. It acknowledges the agony and ache of darkness, twice, but it also affirms the unceasing, unfailing power of light.

We’re here by the lake because none of us wanted to do this first Christmas without him in any place that felt familiar. But we’re laughing and singing and remembering feasts gone by because the light keeps finding us.

I hope it is finding you, too.

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4:30 to 6:00

Here are things I did today between 4:30 and 6:00.

Took a short walk with Jeanine, in 70 degree weather, under a sky blue and clear from last night’s good hard rain, a light breeze stirring the smell of honeysuckle and the sweet wild rose which is everywhere right now.

Listened to 15-year-old niece play violin. She had her back turned and didn’t know we were there.

Spoke her name. She turned around, smiled, and hugged us, then showed us pictures from prom, which was last night.

Saw 18 year-old niece’s prom pictures and her just-dyed-red hair, which she’ll sport in a play she’s in next week.

Learned exercise, from sister-in-law, to help open up my tight-from-too-much-running hips. Involves stepping back and forth over a rope, which she has strung across her front porch.

Visited with friend who drove up, bringing two small frogs, both about the size of lady bugs, to transplant to the pond.

Greeted brother-in-law when he awoke from a nap and joined us on the porch.

Threw stick from the porch and watched dog propel herself from deck, to bench, and through the air, again and again.

Learned two new songs on the guitar, courtesy of brother-in-law.

Walked back home, ran into father-in-law, who was returning from a walk. Conversed with him about one of his favorite topics, eldering.

Cranked the lawn mower for the first time this spring and cut the grass diverse things growing in our yard, which takes 10 minutes.

“These are days you’ll remember. When May is rushing over you with desire to be part of the miracles you see in every hour. You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you” (Natalie Merchant, “These Are Days”).

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