Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 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 needs for a role in a play she’s in next week.

Learned exercise, from sister-in-law, to help open up my 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, in a plastic container, 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.

Discussed the merits of the TV show “Parks and Rec.”

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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thursday friday

Here’s the thing about a spiritual experience. It feels real as can be when it’s happening. But afterwards, when you think about it, you wonder if you’re crazy.

I woke last night at 2 am.

This actually happens to me lots of nights – waking well before dawn — and mostly it feels related to having many things on my mind. I am 100% grateful for work that feels meaningful and 80% grateful for the mix of excitement-generosity-confidence-and-gluttony in me that says yes to so many delicious opportunities. But the consequence is: I spend most days feeling like I’ve got about six term papers due and most nights “bing”-ing on between 2 and 3. (For the record, I would prefer to get another two or three hours sleep, but all in all I get by and feel good enough.)

I think of these night-time wakings as being caused by memy choices, my stress, my cortisol, my character strategies – and what happened last night may have been as me-related as any. But last night, maybe, was different.

Last night when I awoke, it was with an energy in my chest that did not feel like it was mine. It’s difficult to give words to what it was – there was terror, rage, grief, and something else I could not recognize – but it felt like I was receiving it and experiencing it on behalf of someone else, possibly on behalf of many someone elses.

At first I wanted to refuse it and push it out, but gradually something in me said yes and allowed it. It was not an easy yes-and-allow. There was some struggle in it, but the struggle did not make whatever it was, or whoever it was, feel unwelcome. After a bit – I have no idea how long this was – I was able to align with it and give it my support, and then the feeling intensified. Again, whatever it was did not declare itself with words – mostly it was a strong sensation in my chest area – but I had some awareness that it involved great suffering, that it needed holding, containing, maybe even some detoxification, and that for this bit of time, I could be its kidney, or liver, or whatever I was for it.

This continued for a while more. It got stronger. I was participating in it to some degree – there was a bit of my own terror-rage-grief-and-something-else in with it – but more than that, I was providing space for it and bearing witness to it. It crested, and I could tell this was as strong as it would get. Perhaps it knew exactly how much I could bear. A bit longer and it began to lessen, gradually but surely, and eventually it was gone.

In the midst of this experience, at some point, I remembered that it was Maundy Thursday, the night before Crucifixion Friday — the night of the Last Supper, of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood and wrestling with would he or wouldn’t he, and then being arrested, abused by the police, put to trial, and sentenced to death – all this between sundown Thursday and sunrise Friday.

It unnerved me a bit for the experience I was having to be connected with the experience of Jesus – I think this was part of my struggle to say yes – but at some point it comforted me and encouraged me to consider that maybe Jesus was helping, that maybe thousands of Jesuses, maybe tens of thousands, were helping hold this anguish.

I assume there are people reading this who aren’t Christian and won’t connect with this last part, and people reading who are Christian and won’t agree with it, but I’m just telling you, as best I can, what happened.

And I might be crazy.

Or it might be that any of us, at any moment, can be called into service of the great mystery by which burdens are borne, signs and groans are felt, and suffering finds its way to the heart of healing.

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return to cato

I’ve not seen an obituary, so I won’t use his name. But some salt of the earth has left us.

He was not a close friend. He was a psychiatrist I knew professionally. For the first five or ten of my years in Asheville, most every Friday, he met with the staff at our counseling center for case consultation. He was a sui generis blend of humor, wisdom, and compassion.

Here are a few remembrances, in appreciation of him and the One who sparkled in him.

* * * *

One morning I asked him, “How are things at the hospital?”

“Oh, they’re treating me like mushrooms.”

“How do you mean?”

“They keep me in the dark and cover me with bullshit.”

* * * *

Another morning. “How you doing, man?”

“Oh, I could be worse.” He added, “Think about it. No matter how bad it gets, it could always be worse.”

From that day forward, this exchange became our ritual of greeting. “How you doing?” And every time. Every. Time. “Oh, I could be worse.”

* * * *

 

He did not pretend that his medical degree made him smarter than others. “There’s only one way to know for sure if this patient needs an anti-depressant.”

“How’s that?”

“Try her on one and see if it helps. If it helps, she needed it.”

* * * *

He was a long-standing member of the 12-step community. His presence and participation in that community helped others feel less shame about their own struggles. Through the years, I had several patients, who were his patients, too, come back from their first AA meeting and tell me they had seen him there, how surprised they were, and how his smile at them, or nod of the head, had helped them feel better about being there and getting the help they needed.

* * * *

As I was first getting to know him, I’d hear him say, “You won’t believe what Cato did to me yesterday,” then launch into a tale of some difficulty he had endured.

This happened several times — “Let me tell you what Cato did this morning” — before I took the bait and asked, “Who’s Cato?”

“Cato is Inspector Clouseau’s assistant. You know Clouseau? From the Pink Panther movies?

“Yes.”

“Cato’s job is to keep Clouseau on his toes. When Clouseau comes home, Cato has rearranged his whole apartment. Or he’s hiding from him and eventually jumps out and attacks him and they have these long fights. Once he even attacks Clouseau when he’s in bed with a woman.”

He paused, making sure the hook was set.

“Cato is what I call God sometimes.”

* * * *

So thank you, Cato. You did well with him.

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small

In one of my lives, I lead a training program for psychotherapists.

A few years ago, a specially gifted young therapist was presenting her work with an extremely challenging patient. The patient’s difficulties were several and severe, her despair was great, and the therapist was feeling, quite understandably, overwhelmed.

Despair can be contagious, as you know, and this therapist had caught it. She didn’t know what to do to help this patient, but beyond that, she was doubting herself. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she said. “This” meaning:  help this patient, help any patient, and be a therapist at all.

I already said this therapist is specially gifted, and I cannot say that strongly enough. When she interviewed for the training program, it was instantly clear that she had “it,” that impossible to describe impossible to miss quality that sets someone apart as exceptional. She exuded safety, she listened deeply, and she spoke honestly and without pretense. I remember thinking, “Whoever the baseball scout was that watched Henry Aaron try out, this is what he felt like.” And her time in the training program had proven me right. She was, and is, a great therapist.

But everyone gets rattled sometimes, even future Hall of Famers.

“What should I do?” she asked.

I said the first thing that popped in my mind. “Try getting really small.”

I bet this happens to you, too, moments when intuition gets there before the rest of you does. But you trust it enough to go forward, use it, and figure out later what it means.

I had to say something else, of course, and I did. But it was no less opaque: “Try feeling in your body how small you are in comparison to her and her problems. Notice what you can do when you’re small and what you can’t. Give yourself a minute to feel how ok it is to be small. And see if that helps.”

Which it did.

In the Christian world, today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent, I would offer, is the season for learning it’s ok to be small.

Lent is known mostly as a time of solemnity and self-denial. Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday are our last chance to go crazy and have fun before we wipe that smile off our face and give up something we love for 40 days. The chief practices of Lent, penance and repentance, both come from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry.

Solemnity, self-denial, and sorrow are all fine, if that’s what it takes. And sometimes it is. Sometimes we need all that and more to recognize our own darkness and the ways we project it and inflict it onto others. But none of that, I think, is actually the point.

The point of Lent, for me anyway, is to be brought back into proportion and restored to a proper posture. We get too big. We feel too sure of ourselves. Lent helps us learn again our right relationship with everything that is: with the world, with others — friends, enemies, and strangers — with God, with our own selves.

Think of Lent as a spiritual chiropractor. It’s where we go once a year to get adjusted.

The first words of Lent are these, on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you are returning.” Dust is pretty small.

Dust is also the great equalizer. Everything comes from the dust of that first great explosion. Grass and trees, birds and bees, and everything else a human sees.

Feeling a little big? Feeling important? Feeling pressure to make the world right? Sleep with these words for 40 nights: Humus. Human. Humility.

Hmm.

If dust is the first word in Lent, wilderness is the first location. On the First Sunday of Lent, Jesus goes to the wilderness. “Goes” isn’t entirely accurate. Matthew and Luke say he was “led” there by the Spirit. Mark, the grittiest of the Gospels, says he was “driven.”

However Jesus got there, wilderness is a mighty fine place to relearn our size and place in relation to the rest of creation. The bigness. The wildness. The lost-in-it-ness. The warmth of light. The chill of darkness. The whisper and whoosh of wind. The older-than-your-oldest-ancestor-ness of stone.

Oh how different to be on the earth, with the earth, than to look at a map of the earth. And each night, to lie down again in dust.

Lying down in dust, in wilderness, is the movement described in Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

For the past few months, I’ve been working to solve what feels like an unsolvable problem. (The details, while important to me, are not essential to the story I’m telling here.) My therapist has been saying to me, “You’re not going to figure this out,“ meaning that I’m not going to think my way out of it. And fortunately, she is skilled at helping me not-think, but trust instead the realms of the subconscious and the superconscious.

In my session last week, I closed my eyes and saw myself in milky white cloud. There were no objects by which I could orient myself. I could not tell where I was, but all the same, it felt like a safe space. I felt relieved, at ease, and unhurriedly curious.

“What’s happening in there?” she asked.

It was not immediately clear what to say. I could describe the cloud, but I had to wait a bit for words. “I’m feeling . . . happily . . . lost.”

Lost, because I don’t know exactly what to do. Happily, because I feel relieved and content to wait and wonder, to move with less speed and less certainty, to be led rather than be in charge of leading. When, by “knowing,” I have painted myself into a corner, maybe a little not-knowing is the best way forward.

So I invite you, Christian or not, to enter into Lent.

The world is a mess. Maybe you are, too. And you might be tempted to muscle up and see if you can overpower it.

But maybe try some time in the dirt instead.

Try being lost.

Try getting really small.

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a rose e’er blooming

I could tell you about the single thread of spider web I saw one morning, stretched 40 yards across the Neuse River, between trees, a lucky shot on a windy day, the spider-equivalent of winning the powerball, and how, since spiders can’t see a lick, even with eight eyes, it probably never knew what a piece of spider history it had created, and probably never bragged to its buddies or posted it on Facebook, it could only remark to its neighbor that, dang, did it ever feel tired.

Or about trees, how they talk with each other underground, passing news about aphids and blights and such, and how they share food, and not just with each other, but also with fungi, how fungi hunt down and deliver up minerals that make a tree a tree, that make it strong and tall rather than some floppy four-foot weakling of a plant, and how trees, in turn, share up to 80% of their sugar with fungi, sugar fungi need to live and . . . fung.

Or about human embryos, how they develop by dividing, one cell into two, two into four, and so on, and how in one of those divisions, one thing splits (our ectoderm), and half of it becomes our nervous system and the other half becomes our skin, and that’s why the most soothing or exciting or wonderful thing in the world is to be touched.

Or about the woman who carried my wife as an embryo, my mother-in-law, how her heart is weakened and not working as it used to, how tired she gets at the end of a day, but how she rises up from tiredness and tells me a joke, and we both laugh, and there’s light in her eyes.

Or about a boy raised by abusive parents, how they locked him out of the house, even on cold nights, how he’d give up knocking on the door and tapping on their bedroom window and sleep in the truck, and how he grew up and married and treated his wife the way he was treated, horribly and mean, but how he loved his children, and how, over time, somehow, the love he felt for them infected the rest of him and changed him, and how he came to his senses, and his heart broke for his wife, and he grieved for her for three years, and he apologized a thousand times, and he learned to treat her like she matters, and he’s on the way to treating himself that way, too.

Or about an 18-year old girl in a small town in Mexico, her family’s farm ten years wrecked by NAFTA-cheap corn from the U.S., working without a future in a dollar store, a peso store, how despite her circumstances she was full of fire and fight, how she told her parents she wanted to leave, like her brother was planning – “But you can’t, you’re a girl, it’s not safe,” “But I must,” “But you can’t, you won’t,” “But I will” – and then no more arguing, no more talking, only the weary passing of week upon week, and how one day her brother told her, “Pack your things, we leave tomorrow,” and how they rode the train, and made the crossing, and how twelve years later her daughter plays violin and her son plays with Legos and she uses her fire and fight to help others make a way in the world.

Or about me, waking one night to music rising from my chest, a looping fragment of a tune, a wordless La-La-La-La descant above a song sung into my bones as a child, how it was my voice but not my voice, how my singing was accompanied by piano, banjo, and glockenspiel, how the music poured up from my heart and repeated, over and over, for how long I do not know – five minutes? 20 minutes? – and how joyful it was, and how all the next day it played in me, radiating, vibrating, and how that afternoon, running in the woods in the day’s last light, I came to a complete stop when it hit me that the words of the song include the line, “Tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

I could tell you about all these things.

Or I could just tell you this: The Beloved is ever being born among us, and there is no end to miracle and wonder.

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wakey wakey

This is how my mom would wake my brothers and me when we were little: She’d turn the light on in the hallway, enter the room quietly, place her hand softly on our heads, and whisper, “Wakey wakey.”

This is how my dad would wake us: He’d stand tall in the doorway, flip on the overhead light, and speak in a theater-voice: “Rise and shine, me lucky lads! You’ve never had a better opportunity!” And on some days, the alternate line: “Wake up! Tee-tee! The world’s on fire!”

Waking up is a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. We’re sleeping, we’re clueless, we’re susceptible to lies, we’d sell our very birthright for a bowl of porridge or crucify the Beloved and not even know we’d done it. And then we awaken, are awakened. Abruptly or gently. To reality, to truth, to ourselves, to God.

The Buddha is said to have responded to a series of “Who are you?” questions – “Are you a god?” “Are you a healer?” “Are you a teacher?” — with the answer: “I am awake.”

And Christians, today, on the first Sunday of Advent, heard Paul saying, “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” and Jesus imploring us to “Stay awake.”

Most of us are ambivalent about being awake. On the one hand, being awake means we experience the height and breadth and depth of Love in all things – all things — and are One with it, which is a-maz-ing. But on the other, being awake means we also experience the suffering of Love, the heartache and bodyache of Love, in all things — people, animals, plants, air, water, soil – and it becomes impossible to ignore, and that – be honest – is kind of a pain.

Being awake is a mixed bag in this way, too: the face we wear for the world becomes unnecessary and un-wearable. This is a liberating and exhilarating experience, for a while, anyway. Until suddenly it’s not, at which point we feel exposed, vulnerable, and ashamed, and want our mask back.

One consequence of this ambivalence is that being awake, like everything else in the spiritual life, is not a permanent condition. We wake, we sleep, we wake again, we sleep again. I’m awake some of the time, I think, at least to a degree, but I’m also facedown and drooling on my desk a lot.

Being awake is a bit more do-able and sustainable in the company of others who are awake. It seems to help to be among people (and other creatures) who are curious, humble, truthful, rooted, reaching (trees are rooted and reaching), grateful, grieving, brave, embodied, mindful, powerful, delighted, amused, clear-eyed, and open-hearted.

And most of us know the things that support and sustain awakeness. Walking in the woods. Reading a sacred text. Throwing a ball back and forth. Offering kindness and hospitality. Experiencing some work or moment of art. Moving intentionally towards brokenness, suffering, and injustice. Eating a meal with someone you love. Making love with someone you love. Traveling someplace you’ve never been. Returning to someplace sacred. Being thankful. Playing with children. Making music, hearing music, dancing, or engaging in some other form of worship. Praying. Meditating. Laughing. Sweating. Making something.

There are times we need a high-alarm wake-up call like my dad would deliver. Opportunity’s knocking! The world’s in trouble! Let’s go!

But a lot of us got one of those on November 8, I think, and for a while we might need a mother to wake us. We need to wake up, for sure, and get up. The world is on fire, and we need people who can work with fire, people whose nervous systems are regulated and voices are smooth and who know how to use themselves as instruments of peace. This is so hard to do, to move toward fire without my own hair catching fire, too. But we need a few less linebackers waiting on the ball to be snapped and a few more singers waiting on the downbeat.

Last night Jeanine and I watched a documentary about the musical Hamilton, which I hear is highly underrated. There’s a moment in the film when Lin-Manuel Miranda says this: “I’m just trying to keep my eyes open and live it as slowly as possible.”

That’s it, isn’t it? Keep awake. And slow down.

Wakey wakey.

thanksgiving at night

Thanksgiving has been a federal holiday in the United States only since 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed it so. Lincoln’s proclamation happened in the middle of the Civil War, and if he thought giving thanks was a good idea, even then, I suppose it’s a good idea now, too.

(An aside about the Civil War, that I kept trying to delete but could not: T. Geronimo Johnson, in a relevant, provocative, and hilarious novel called Welcome to Braggsville, defines “civil war” as “when people of the same race argue over what to do about people of another race.”)

So here, in no particular order, are a smidgen of the things I’m thankful for.

I’m thankful for my parents, Betty and Mack. They grew up South Carolina poor, children of broken and unstable marriages, but they found each other, found a way, and made a happy, healthy home for my brothers and me to grow up in. They also did work to be proud of, laughed a lot, and taught me to play Rook. Nobody had a better start in the world than I did.

I’m thankful for the woman that married me 30 years ago. I have sung Jeanine’s praises in these pages before (see 30 great things), but today I’ll mention how accepting she’s been with me the past two weeks, when all I’ve been able to do is go to work, come home, cook, eat, clean, and go to sleep. Love is patient and kind, indeed.

I’m thankful for our children and the ways they’re making the world a better place. Peyton is working to increase non-partisan conversation and action on climate change. (Here’s a four-minute video she helped produce this fall.) Walton goes to college and volunteers at Bounty and Soul, a non-profit that provides fresh produce and wellness education for underserved populations here in Buncombe County.Both of them are people I consult with internally – “What would Peyton do? What would Walton do?” — when I’m trying to find my way forward.

I’m thankful for the work I do: talking with people who want their lives to be better, educating a next generation of therapists, and helping lead a professional organization that supports the care of souls. I work hard but am paid, in wages of friendship, love, and nourishment, far more than I earn.

I’m thankful for trees and the chance to live and move among them. Every few weeks I read a new study about how awesome trees are. Being around trees, even just sitting and looking at them, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, and decreases measures of depression, anxiety, confusion, anger, and fatigue. Trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which, when we breathe them, cause our bodies to produce more of a white blood cell that kills viruses and tumors. Children with ADHD show reduction in symptoms when they spend time around trees, and patients in hospitals recover faster when they have a view of trees out their window. Trees give without asking a lot, they’re made for the long haul, and when it’s their time to go, they lie down and begin nourishing the next generation.

I’m thankful for what I saw in the grocery store last week. A few days prior, I had read a horrible story about an African-American woman here in Asheville, in line at the grocery with her child, being harassed and called “nigger” by two white men behind her. This woman got $40 cash back and left it with the cashier to pay for their beer and potato chips – an act of dignity and strength if ever I heard one – but when she got to her car and was safe, she broke down and wept. Reading that story broke my heart and was part of what put me to bed at 8 o’clock every night for a week. A few days later, I was in line myself at the grocery. In the lane to my right was a white man behind an African-American woman and a child of about 18 months. This man looked much like I imagined the others looked: greasy hair, scraggly beard to his chest, camouflage pants. But he was reaching around his shopping cart, holding hands with the little boy. They were talking to each other and laughing. The mother was also talking to the man and smiling at him, and he was smiling at her. That moment, that man, that child, that woman, are like trees for me, and I’m still breathing them in.

I’m thankful for one of my favorite writers, Brian Doyle. His Mink River is the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read, and I learned this week that, at age 60, he has a quite large brain tumor. His doctors have not been encouraging, and he had surgery yesterday. He gave a few interviews this week, prior to the surgery, and he made several comments that amazed me. Here’s one: in response to the many, many phone calls and emails of support he received the past week (including one from me), more than he could ever return, he offered a public word of thanks. Then he said that what would mean the most to him from people who care about him would be this: to keep laughing and to be tender. “I’ll hear all laughter,” he said. “Be tender to each other. Be more tender than you were yesterday, that’s what I would like. You want to help me? Be tender and laugh.” That’s the real deal, right there. Brian Doyle is a mighty oak.

I’m thankful for a single word in the Hebrew Scripture that’s been helping me this week: tehom. Tehom means “deep.” It’s tehom, the deep, that God hovers over at creation and makes the whole world from, including us (Genesis 1), and tehom remains alive and active and mysterious and longing in everything, ever since. You get the feel for tehom simply by saying it aloud. It’s a radiating, vibrating word – the breathiness of the h, the resonance of the om — and it names the spacious, humming, thrumming substance-that’s-not-a-substance at the deep heart of reality. It’s easiest to notice, I think, in music – listen to Springsteen wail at the end of “Jungleland,” or to the Soweto Gospel Choir sing “O-o-ohhh” at the end of “Biko,” or to anything Leonard Cohen or Mavis Staples ever sang. But we can feel it other places, too, when we go slow and notice from our heart: in our heartbeat, in our breath, in the vibration of blood as it moves in us, in a thought, in a whisper, in laughter, and in the connection between us and another. “Deep calls to deep,” says one of the Psalms — tehom el tehom korei (Psalm 42:8). Deep beckons to deep. Deep horse-whispers to deep. Whatever divides us, and there is much that does – disturbances of the Force and rendings of the Temple curtain that leave us dumbfounded and grieving — there is ever and always this murmuring tehom that connects us and calls us to each other and to God. And this little word, tehom, this giant word that lives within time and beyond time, this word, this week, has comforted me and reminded me what to listen for.

I’m also thankful for you, who’ve read these words, and for whatever ties of love and friendship connect us, including the tehom. I pray that the pause and practice of this day has nourished you as you needed.

Happy Thanksgiving.