My Three Lessons

when somebody goes far - bhatti | Sad Picture | Lover of Sadness
“Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” – Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965)

I ran into a friend the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple years. Despite the masks and the quick interaction, it was clear to me that he was suffering. I knew that things hadn’t gone well for him lately. He was putting on a brave face as men are trained to do. To be honest, there are several of my friends who are suffering these days. It doesn’t escape any of us.

Over the past couple of years I’ve written here and there about my own experience with suffering. I don’t think I’ve put it all together like this before.

My wife and I fought cancer for several years. During her last few years this beast had traveled to her brain. That was a hard fight. Several surgeries into her brain and even carefully aimed radiation beams, all in the valiant effort to slay that dragon. Being in Houston, we were blessed to be able to have some of the newest available treatments. Her last summer was spent here in hospice. It was very difficult for all of us as she faded away. She was in peace.

That fall, after she got in the boat and left for heaven, I was back teaching classes. Then the global pandemic hit in the Spring. We all scrambled to reorganize higher education. Two years later (for me) we are all just now trying to get back to a sense of normal. Guess what? It’s been four weeks and we are all reporting record class attendance. No one’s absent?? Everyone wants to get out and be around others!

During all of this dark journey, I had tremendous support, prayers, love and lots of wise counsel (just a few crackpot comments meant to be helpful). My family, friends and support system all suffered as we helped my wife fight and then held her close while she slipped away. If I had to explain to someone else, to my friend who I walked with that hot day last week, what I now know about suffering, here’s what I’d say:

God is never surprised by anything that happens to me. Even when I’m not sure what’s around the next corner. Even when nothing goes according to my own grand plans for my life. God was and is never taken by surprise to the events that happen to me – even the awful consequences that happen because of my own bad choices. Even because of the really stupid decisions that people in charge make. Somehow, there is deep comfort in this. God remains steadfast like a lighthouse, as dark as it gets. And maybe what I need when I suffer is not an explanation, but a nearness.

God very rarely is the cause of suffering in my life. A very few of those bad words of comfort that I got during those years (and sometimes now) are all about God and control. What I always do is imagine God as a father figure. This is the way that Jesus presented him to the world. His mission was to model for us this relationship. I know some people have dysfunctional father relationships. I didn’t have one at all. But when we were suffering, as I suffer now, I don’t think of God as the cause. I’m not mad at him. It helps to have people around to talk it all out with. Maybe people who are angry at God don’t always have someone near to listen?

“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” ― Meister Eckhart (1259-1327), German theologian, philosopher and mystic

Throughout each moment of suffering, God draws near and never leaves me to walk that dark path alone. I guess because I’m not mad at God and because I know he is certain and consistent, I know he is near. Mostly he is near in the presence of others. Now, if I hole up and stay away from everyone who loves me, it’s impossible to experience this dimension of God. Right? I went back to work, I stayed near to my church family, our dear friends and family members were here and remained (still do) on top of my life, all of this is how God works. He needs me to do the same thing with other people who come across my path and look familiar. Like my friend last week.

God is also near in what I read, when I write, walks in the evening, sitting in the back garden and listening to that night bird, and being still to hear the voice of the Spirit. God is near because I expect him to be. Because he has promised to be.

And who’s to say which is more incredible—a man who raises the dead … or a God who weeps?  – Ken Gire (on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)

How Long Do Two Years Take?

Silhouette of man alone and wave on the ... | Stock image | Colourbox

I just read that two years is twenty-four months or
seven hundred and thirty days or
seventeen thousand five-hundred and twenty hours or
one million, fifty-one thousand, two hundred minutes or
sixty-three million, seventy-two thousand seconds.

When there’s a global crises and everyone is acting different, locked up, face masked, afraid, hoarding toilet paper, working from home, staying six feet apart, lonely, watching way too much TV, ordering take-out again and again, lining up in cars for a vaccination, or counting off the days to normal – two years can seem to pass slowly.

Two years ought to be enough time to get on with life, to find the next path to take, but who can get through all the weeds that are now sprouting in the vacant lot that’s life as we know it? Working from home for good, retiring early, supply chain problems, school board wrestling matches, children at home or school, airplane fist fights and new variations of virus floating up from who knows where. Two years may not be long enough, right?

I’m ready for the flight director to announce over the intercom when we will be landing and I can unbuckle this seat belt that’s been constricting my life for what feels like, I don’t know, two years. When will there be time to get off and get on with what ought to be happening? Unpacking, looking at the view from the new balcony, seeing what’s for dinner, imagining the next sunrise. Isn’t it time to turn to the next page?

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”C.S. Lewis

Two years of everything on hold while working together to keep afloat. The past few days seem like the space of two years. I can’t seem to get started on putting out all the fires that burn in any normal week. There just wasn’t time to move on. Grief needs to have its time and space to breathe and find a place. These past two years just didn’t have any time for me to pause for long – and yet I did way too much sitting like bump. Maybe just a little shock settling in every now and then.

“God has mercifully ordered that the human brain works slowly; first the blow, hours afterwards the bruise.”  ― Walter de la Mare

I recently trudged through a few airports lugging a too heavy suitcase. It wasn’t modern enough. Didn’t roll very well. We’ve all been there, right? Trying to get across three football fields full of people in five minutes lugging two sacks of cement on roller skates. Traveling for the novice is such an adventure. Two years hauling around a grief I’ve not had time or space to check.

Should You Shrink or Plastic Wrap Your Checked Luggage?

 

“The tears I feel today
I’ll wait to shed tomorrow.
Though I’ll not sleep this night
Nor find surcease from sorrow.
My eyes must keep their sight:
I dare not be tear-blinded.
I must be free to talk
Not choked with grief, clear-minded.
My mouth cannot betray
The anguish that I know.
Yes, I’ll keep my tears til later:
But my grief will never go.”
― Anne McCaffrey

A View From the Hilltop: Don’t You Forget About Me

How to Forget a Bad Memory

“The degree of slowness is directionally proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directionally proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” ― Milan Kundera

What speed is your life moving these days?

click here to age yourself quickly

I’ve written before and said to others many times that as I get older time seems to be speeding past me. The days are slipping through my grasp. I lay my head on the pillow each night and it seems I was just there a few minutes ago. I bought a t-shirt with “I though getting old would take longer” written across the front.

And yet, at other times I look around at family and friends who are busy with the normal activities of living and I feel as if I am sitting on a bench under a tree of memory still where I was so long ago. Time doesn’t seem to have moved much at all. There are moments each day when I am suspended in memories.

I believe that it’s important for all of us to spend time remembering events and people that matter to us. This helps to make us more whole.

Day by day, I perceive that my life is moving along at a faster pace and simultaneously there are moments when I know I am at a dead stop and all the rest of the world is shooting past. I don’t think this is an uncommon experience. The trick, I suppose, is learning how to balance back and forth between these two speeds of living. We must all stay on the bus as it hurls us through our life but also, when necessary, step off and sit on the curb for bit and catch our breath (or let the nausea pass).

“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I have given my first day of class speeches now. This year it’s different. We’ve come through another disaster. We’re getting through it, I’m reminded as I look out on my class full of young faces, many wearing masks, most with looks of uncertainty peering back at me. Probably not the same as usual. This time there’s something more, an extra tinge of worry. Or is that just me looking for something?

Last week we heard from an expert telling us all about the characteristics of this generation of students – a group that grew up feeling anxious and worried about their future. And then a global pandemic came and took away their high school graduation. It made me think that while caught up on the business of everyday activity, it’s critical to always be thoughtful, to let memory and reflection anchor action.

There have been two young boys sitting with their dad several pews in front of me for many years in our church worship. I looked up recently after we’d all come back from being locked out and isolated for so long. How did those two boys get so tall so fast? I think they each doubled in height! I can’t even remember so much of when my daughter was a child – and I was her caregiver during each day. I guess I just wasn’t paying attention. These days I’m always ready to shout out loud to my grandson’s parents, as if a meteor were about to strike, to be careful and remember as much as they can.

“Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.” ― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 

It’s important to find a balance to your life by anchoring your pace to meaningful memory.

Maybe balance isn’t the right word here. Once we begin the habit of memory, it serves to stabilize our lives during the chaos and commotion that frenetic living often brings. This is what I mean by balance. An ability to stand on both feet at once, living and remembering, and thoughtfully move in the right direction.

“It is a phrase that may well perplex a poor modern, girt about on every side by clocks and chimes…For we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realise, and castles in the fire to turn into solid habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought and among the Hills of Vanity.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson

There’s a balance that’s necessary between living an ordered life with a purpose and at the same time making time and effort to pause, remember and reflect.

  1. Memory is important because it helps us to anchor what we now do to what is important and meaningful – it helps us to understand a larger context. We must steal time away from our speeding lifestyle and create habits of reflection.
  2. Memory helps us to know how to feel. Our memory is a reminder of deep longings and essential emotions. When it first happened, we didn’t know how we felt. It takes time to understand what a feeling really means as we mature and discover new depths to our character.
  3. Memories become a language that we use to share and connect with others. They become a common bridge we can use to communicate deeper experiences – sometimes without having to say everything out loud. Memories are meant to be passed on to others, shared and used to enrich the lives of our ancestors.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”  ― Julian Barnes

The moral of my post: sit down for a few minutes today and remember someone dear to you. Write a note or a journal entry. Say a prayer. File something away in your heart. Save it to pass on to someone who will need it later.

 

Starting Anew

If you could, what would you like to go back and start again?

“Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” ― Meister Eckhart

I went to a rock concert last week. My first in a long time. Certainly since the pandemic has kept us all so isolated. It was like my experience at the ballpark a few months ago – the first game since isolation. All the people, and the little boys running around with their gloves. It made me think the world was right again.

Each time I go to rock concerts the audience always gets older and older. They always used to say that 11 am Sunday mornings was the most segregated hour in America. We all like to congregate by kind when we worship. I think that’s changing. I do notice the same thing with music styles. Classic rock tends to attract old white guys. Go to a RUSH concert if you want to see senior males and their sons. So, when I go to rock concerts, everyone looks like me, sort of.

I’m a social observer by training so I tend to look for “types” when I get around groups. At these rock concerts, there’s always two guys who keep getting up every five minutes to either go to the bathroom or get another beer. Then, up in the balcony overlooking the stage at many venues, there’s a lady who wore her Stevie Nicks skirt and wants to twirl and twirl and twirl all night long. I’m always afraid she’ll get too dizzy and pitch herself off the railing. I’ve been to some concerts with people sitting behind me that like to talk really loud (over the music) nonstop throughout the whole night. I can’t ever figure out why they came in the first place.

Hot Classic Rock Concerts to Warm Up Your Winter Nights | KC Limo

Sometimes, as happened last week, the band has saved up and wants to keep playing and playing. The lead singer has important thoughts to communicate. Lot’s of rifts to work through. As the audience gets older and older every year, once 10 pm arrives, they start looking at their watches. It’s getting late. Gotta go to work tomorrow. Need to remember to take my nighttime medications. With all that inflammation and a new hip, getting out to the parking lot is going to be a real chore.

Despite the current uproar about wearing masks again and the surge in new virus cases among the unvaccinated, I really do hope normal is around the corner. College classes are starting for me next week. I have been looking forward to this for a long time. Looking forward to that kind of experience that had been replaced by something foreign for the past year and a half. I’m making a list of what I’d like to do over again:

  • Give more detailed feedback, sooner so it’s not too late
  • Demonstrate that I’m on your side
  • Find more ways to make meaningful connects
    (students tend to not remember the class, but do remember the instructor)

I spent a day this week in a professional development seminar led by a speaker full of tremendous ideas about how to effectively teach today’s college student. It was very inspiring and full of great ideas. Made me ever more eager to get started.

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.”Hermann Hesse

Time to get (re)started on something, isn’t it? Someone asked me today, how do you carve out the time to accomplish more intentional tasks? To get started on what you really want to do. I don’t think I had a good answer. Before the pandemic, I started to learn how to live more day-to-day and less long term. Career collapse and fighting cancer will do that to your perspective. I’m much better now. Much healthier, if that makes any sense. It’s easier for me now to pay attention to little things that really do matter more. Like people’s ordinary lives – people with broken hearts and dying dreams and faith that got lost and not enough relationships to fill up half a day. A note to a friend who’s spouse is heading off to a cancer screening.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ” ― Donald Miller

My friend told me recently that my blog is drifting a little dry. Probably a symptom of the locked down living and working arrangements around here. Very difficult to write about a made up life. But right now, I’m hopeful as next week approaches. A week with classes of students getting ready to start another chapter. That expert I heard from this week believes my students are probably extra anxious, full of pent up fears about the future. I’m planning to pass out some hope.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” ― Graham Greene

I’m ready to to start something new as well, to be someone new, a survivor who is always being transformed by the good and the bad. What do you want to go back and start again? Where’s the next chapter in your story going?

A person reading a book, close up - Free Stock Video

A View From The Hilltop: Automatic Love

HD wallpaper: man with backpack standing on gray rocky mountain at daytime, man walking on rocky pathway overlooking rocky mountains during daytime | Wallpaper Flare

Loving is something to never take for granted.

There are two distinct memories from my early childhood when my father would make his every other weekend visits. One was being taken to the park to ride on the miniature train. That’s a child’s fun remembrance. The other memory is laying back with him on the hood of the car parked by the side of the road at the airport and watching the planes land (back in the ’60’s, when you could park that close to an airport). How long did a preschooler lay still on a car hood between jets? That’s a memory an adult hangs on to. My very young and probably broke father was trying to find a cheap way to spend time with his son who he knew he had already lost.

“Grown ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” ― Roald Dahl

Most of what comes out of us as adults has been automatically “wired” into us through our early experiences in life. I think it’s impossible to be deliberate in each decision we make about every response, choice and attitude toward others. Patterns get laid down with all our early interactions with parents, teachers and peers. These ways of thinking and feeling help us to unconsciously organize our sense of self. This process works out well for most. Some people can get trapped in patterns that are dysfunctional.

How we go about loving (or not) is mostly automatic. Expressions and experiences are typically not conscious but internalized routines. For me, my early environment was not always one in which learning how to love was automatically normalized for everyone involved. As I look back, maybe it was a foreign concept?  As an adult, I haven’t been very successful at doing what comes natural (“nurtural”) for most people concerning loving relationships. Instead, I have had to try and be much more conscious and work on it – a lot of trial and error (mostly error). Usually learning about it academically and watching others.

I’m sitting here right this moment actually looking at a real Rocky Mountain. Surrounded by a breathtaking landscape, it makes me wonder about the things I’ve missed because I just wasn’t looking. Or just didn’t know how to feel? The other side of automatic love could be automatic indifference. When people don’t really know how to love other people, and don’t know that they don’t know, life is lived in a gray sort of twilight. Thanksgiving dinner with no side dishes!

Where to get Thanksgiving dinner takeout on the South Shore

All of us have know people who aren’t very good at relationships. Probably because they didn’t get the chance, early on, to have love wired into their thinking and feeling. They just need more time, forgiveness, space and extra syrup on their pancakes. Some people may not understand this about themselves and end up living unloved lives because they don’t know how to do anything else. I hope you can find within yourself the abundance to keep loving, in demonstrative ways, someone like this in your life. They mostly don’t know how bad they need it.

“You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” ― Amy Carmichael

From up here on the hilltop at this point in my life, I see the reason love was so hard to find and then give. Because it wasn’t automatic. These days, due to circumstances, I’ve made a promise to love my children and grandchildren twice as hard. That’s a task and treat. But I know it’s even twice as hard for someone like me, who needs to be rewired. This project will go on and on in me, like searching for the Holy Grail, but I deeply know it’s worth every step in the right direction.

“I no longer believe love works like a fairy tale but like farming. Most of it is just getting up early and tilling the soil and then praying for rain. But if we do the work, we just might wake up one day to find an endless field of crops rolling into the horizon. In my opinion, that’s even better than a miracle. I’d rather earn the money than win the lottery because there’s no joy in a reward unless it comes at the end of a story.”  ― Donald Miller

A View From The Hilltop: God Draws Near

“When someone is close by, you just know it.” ― James Dashner

Teacup Mountain | Texas hill country, Junction texas, Texas city

When we were growing up, car trips were made through the year to Junction Texas where part of my family had come from. My great-grandmother still lived there. As children, part of the journey was the competition to be the first to see Teacup Mountain. We don’t really have “mountains” in Texas – until you get to the very edge of West Texas and run up against the Davis Mountains – sort of the tail end of the famous Rocky Mountain range to the north. The Teacup was really a tall hill with a rock formation at the top that made it look as if it were a cup turned upside down.

“If all we had were roses, would the thorns then be beautiful?” ― Kamand Kojouri

One summer at church camp, when I was a teenager, I was wrestling with one of those big life altering decisions that only adolescents tend to run up against (too often). My youth director was sort of a summer intern from college. We all thought he hung the moon. I was especially needy for a role model and some guidance about this decision. As I think back, he was uncharacteristically wise for a college student. He told me I had to do my own wrestling with God. He didn’t offer any sage advice or walk me by the hand through the necessary steps. So, I headed up to the nearest hill, planted myself down and refused to move until I had figured out the fork in the road.

During our marriage, even when we couldn’t really afford it, my wife and I loved to travel to New Mexico. The northern part of the state is a higher elevation and has its own mountains. Driving from the airport in Albuquerque each trip, we slowly ascend as we head north into a cooler climate and stunning landscapes. The views are each filled with their own inspiration. The climate is a refuge during overheated summers in Texas and it seems the light is a different shade of bright. Each time I leave I think about how the very atmosphere breathes so different in and out of my lungs.

Rear View Of A Woman On Top Of A Hill Standing With Extended Arms While Looking Away Photograph by Cavan Images

Everyone, as they make their way through living, will have experiences up on a hilltop. These are times to catch you breath. Life lets you stop for a little while and you look backwards over the path you’ve come. Then you look down or ahead and see where you might be heading next. I think some people just sit and gasp for air without paying enough attention. I know I have too many times.

Something I’ve notices lately from my hilltop experiences is that God so often draws near to me to help, to guide, to inspire and to give me a lesson. Mostly, I notice from my hilltops, that I am unaware of when God has gotten close during my hard climbs. I’m learning to be more conscious – to catch him in the act.

God draws near through circumstances, other people, something you are reading, people who are further down the road than you, and those good old signs and wonders.

“It is your omen, only you know the meaning. To me, it is but another star in the night.” ― Gerald R. Stanek

Most of us have become so self-sufficient that we don’t think we need any help from God (me too!), so we really aren’t looking for him when he does draw near. Ultimately that’s a very disappointing life, in the end.

During these days in my life I am learning to be more aware to try and see God’s nearness. Probably because I need it now more than ever. I teach a class where we learn about the concept that humans tend to “see” what they are looking for and miss what they aren’t expecting. Our brains are wired to do this. Some people live expecting the worst. Low and behold, that’s what they end up seeing all around. Others have what we call a “rosy retrospection” – only remembering the positive aspects of their life.

When I write this, I’m addressing something bigger than this normal human habit. My topic here is the supernatural experience of God himself in multiple ways, day in and day out, not just a cognitive bias in thinking and perceiving.

I flip back through my journal and I see a record of examples. Times when God came near to me – always at just the right time.

“God desires that man should be. God does not wish to be alone. The meaning of existence is the conquest of loneliness, the acquisition of kinship and nearness.”  — Nikolai A. Berdyaev

These days friends tend to be wonderful examples of the presence of God. I can’t tell you how often a song drops out of the sky and it’s exactly the inspiration, encouragement, or gentle nudge I needed. So many times, God draws near to remind me and motivate me to do something. In the past, God made his presence known by sending birds, but that’s a whole other blog post…

Why Not Lend A Helping Hand Today | Teton Gravity Research

My experience has been that:

  1. God always draws near, somehow. It may not meet my expectations or hit all my own deadlines, but in hindsight I usually see that God did come. He kept his promise and held my hand as I went through those dark days.
  2. I often miss seeing his nearness because I’m too worried, self-absorbed and running around as my own independent free agent. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean he’s not there, holding up the roof as the storm beats down.
  3. God’s purpose is his own. He doesn’t work for me. For most of my life I wanted to believe in a God that I could plug in when needed and ignore (put back in the drawer) when I felt like I had things in control. It’s a grand illusion to believe that I’m the master of my fate. Why would I want to be?
  4. God is motivated by pure love and the desire for an ongoing, evolving relationship. When I realize this, I need to over and over again, then it’s always easier to see and sense God’s nearness in hundreds of ways.
  5. God is relentless. His feelings don’t get hurt. He has all the time in the world. He knows all about me. He always has my best interests in his focus.

“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” ― Meister Eckhart

For what it’s worth, this is my view from the hilltop I’m on these days.

 

Stream of Consciousness

There were loud booms from the fireworks going off as I went to bed to start on another book. Actually, the fireworks have been going off for three nights in a row. Maybe everyone bought too many to fire off in a single night? Exploding rockets and the rumble of thunder each evening has made it an ominous end of the week. 

I sat out in the back garden this early evening while the thunder rolled past me. There was a cool breeze blowing the branches of trees and a little black and white Carolina Chickadee was on the bird feeder after a quick snack.

Carolina Chickadee Expedition Blog | Smithsonian's National Zoo

Sitting out in the evenings I watch the grackles gather over my head, hollering at the squirrels coming in for the night, there’s much more commotion going on once I just sit still and wait. At first I would watch the barren garden that had been laid waste by the February freeze. Now I watch all the new green appearing like magic from the dark earth. There are second chances. As the evening passes, the sounds from HWY 6 start to dim, and it seems that I am alone and it’s as it should be. 

“There is a loveliness to life that does not fade. Even in the terrors of the night, there is a tendency toward grace that does not fail us. ” ― Robert Goolrick

Yesterday was a dark and dreary day. I had a load of work to get accomplished. I’m behind schedule. Sitting here narrating presentations to be uploaded for an online class is a strange experience. Talking aloud to myself in the haunted house. Now, besides my refrigerator moaning and groaning, the air conditioner is periodically popping. It’s 25 years old, a creaking miracle waiting to blow – once the temperature get’s over a hundred.

Back in February I hoisted my grandson up on the bed so we could watch nursery rhymes on my phone. He loves doing this – it really keeps his attention – he’s only three. Well, that pull up onto the bed brought me a case of “tennis elbow” that I have been limping along with ever since. Finally saw the doctor in May. Taking medicine and using YouTube for rehab. Insurance won’t cover the real the thing. If you see me from afar, I’m probably not waving at you. 

I told my Sunday School class today about remembering how much of a grace filled saint my wife was all during her cancer battle. She never complained or felt sorry. Just went to war every day. Me, on the other hand, I’ve just about finished my dissertation on self pity! I’m just like Jonah, whining and belly aching about all my problems to God. Then I come to my senses and think about my wife and feel waves of shame. I’m ready for my adult diaper! What a baby I am. Her example inspires me to get a grip and grow up. She lives eternally, in heaven and right here in my memory, giving me the inspiration and courage I need to make it one more day with all my little problems. 

“All happiness depends on courage and work.” ― Honoré de Balzac

Saturday evening was bleak and I was tired and didn’t get anything accomplished, telling myself I would do it on Sunday (I didn’t). Then, while the distant thunder was rolling, I heard that night bird calling out so loud again. He’s been drawing near over the past month. He arrives at dusk and sings a song to wake the dead, to awaken my own dreary soul. I jumped up and threw open the back door and listened. I heard him in my heart and knew the truth.

The pandemic seems to be finishing up with us all. I’ve longed to get back to a normal life – to figure out what that will be. I used to spend way too much effort and time dreaming about the future. I ended up missing too many todays. I don’t think about the future much anymore. Probably because it’s too close and frightening. It’s not that much of a conscious fantasy for me. I’m stuck in right now. Trying to figure out what to check off the list and what to do with too much today. 

“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.” ― Jorge Luis Borges

The Reward of Overcoming Struggle — Texas Kayak Fisher

As a little boy I would travel with my grandfather up to our ancestral camping grounds on the banks of the Llano river. His giant clan of brothers/sisters would spend the the July 4th week fishing and camping out. We did this for my whole life – the leftovers are still doing it! I don’t know how many times I almost drowned in that river. It was an “every man, woman and child for themselves” environment. I survived and it was a wonderous experience camping under the Texas stars and listening to all my far flung relatives tell their stories year after year. 

I looked down and saw my grandfathers skinny pale legs the other day. He wore shorts very rarely. But there they were, pale, hairless, really sad looking. They were sticking out of my shorts! How did I get to this stage of deterioration?

“You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.” ― George Bernard Shaw

For almost her whole life I teased my daughter about how impossible it was for me to understand all those Harry Potter movies. She is a major devotee. I told her I would sit down in June and watch all of eight films back to back! Either I’m a glutton for punishment or have completely run out of everything else to watch. Or, I’m watching WAY too much TV! Actually, the Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, has written a series of detective fiction – under a male pseudonym. I’ve read these and enjoyed them. They have also been made into a TV series. Very good. I read her latest edition in this series last week (over 900 pages). I even enjoyed the happy ending!

Why does that lady who cuts my hair keep trying to get me to buy her hair growth tonic? And who is that guy with the bald spot I see in her mirror behind her chair every time I visit?

Now that everyone has a cell phone, photos and video clips keep appearing. There’s this funny sounding old man in my house and in our family gatherings. As I catch glimpses of him I again wonder to myself, how did that happen so fast? The collapse of civilization should have taken a little longer, no?

“Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.” ― Alain de Botton

WARNING: When you start living by yourself, it may take you stops at three different stores before you realize your zipper has been down all day. There’s just something to be said for constant feedback, even if you don’t think you need a co-pilot’s driving directions to the gas station. 

How can it be that June went by so quickly? Summers are a strange animal for me. One summer I came down with a rare virus. It took the doctor almost a month to diagnose it and then to say, you’ll just have to ride it out. I had a fever and was exhausted for six weeks – all while trudging through a Houston summer (like crawling through the Amazon rainforest wearing a parka!). Ever since then, I don’t think I’ve recovered. Summers down here seem to make me feel as if I’m in perpetual slow motion. Maybe I should join the YMCA around the corner and take up swimming laps every morning? I have a friend who did that – she always seemed to be full of energy. 

I’m finishing up my big project, ready for July, ready for a next chapter, ready to paint some pictures, put some plants in the ground, find some cool jazz, locate something meaningful to teach in SS (finally!) and figure out how to get strong. Probably will take me the rest of my days.

But what else have I got to do?

 

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“You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town” ― Anne Lamott

Tied To You With a Silver Chain

The wedding you have always dreamed of - Sofitel Hotel

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be able to be the “officiant” at my niece’s wedding. She and her new husband had been dating through their high school and college years together. They are now launching a bold new life as husband and wife. I’m so thrilled it is a post-pandemic adventure!

“To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the wedding cup, whenever you’re wrong, admit it; whenever you’re right, shut up.” ― Ogden Nash

Can you imagine what it must have been like to try and plan a wedding a year ago, not knowing what the conditions would be like THIS June? Weddings are already filled with stress. They and their families pulled it off brilliantly – you would never have known they had all this uncertainty hanging over their collective heads.

“Normal, in our house, is like a blanket too short for a bed–sometimes it covers you just fine, and other times it leaves you cold and shaking; and worst of all, you never know which of the two it’s going to be.” ― Jodi Picoult

As I stood there and walked them through the big and life-long promises they were making to God, each other and all their family and friends…I knew they were nervous wrecks. I had sent them their vows ahead of time so that they would know what they were getting into.

But, when I stand there these days there are things going through my head…

  1. I’m teaching classes every semester about the state of marriages and families in our society right now. It’s not a very pretty picture, especially for children. What’s most alarming is that no one seems very concerned – notice what we are all currently “worked up” about in the news and social media.
  2. Anyone who’s been married, and stayed the course for any length of time knows that it’s hard to avoid thinking about your vows, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…” As I looked into the faces of this beautiful couple I couldn’t help but look into the future and think about the trials and tribulations that awaited them, that awaited all of us who got married.

“Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.”Erma Bombeck

Sailing into the Sunset Photograph by Robert Shard

One Valentine’s Day (I think) as my wife was starting to fade away (a brain tumor ultimately ended her life on earth) an old song from our past struck me as very appropriate. I copied down some of the lyrics and tried to create a symbolic gift. I don’t think it worked well, she wasn’t ready to “catch it” that day. But it still works for me – here I am three years later and it’s making my life more meaningful than yesterday.

The song is Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Talk about an old classic! Stephen Stills rewrote the original lyrics basing it on a sailing experience he had after a failed relationship. Well, that’s NOT what I got out of the song!

Flag of New Zealand.svg

The Southern Cross is a star constellation that sailors can see in the night sky from the southern hemisphere. Before technology, they would use it to navigate. That star constellation is a part of the flags of New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

Think about
Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’
What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten

What I heard in the lyrics was a story about never being able to escape true love – that no matter what circumstances you end up sailing through – that vow you made long ago before God and all your loved ones is meant to last. Don’t let go, even though the fickle voices all around are urging you to abandon ship. Don’t turn loose. If you do, you’ll never get back a part of yourself.

So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a-dyin’
And my love is an anchor tied to you (tied with a silver chain)
I have my ship and all her flags are a-flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name

On that Valentine’s Day I gave my wife a silver chain with an anchor (along with the lyrics). I think it meant more to me, now that I realize her condition at the time and all that was overwhelming her. That’s okay. All of us need to do things for others and just not worry about the outcome. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it’s not how you thought it would turn out. And other times it’s meant to be for you (when all is said and done).

The newly married couple zoomed off later that morning in their father’s sports car. It was a wonderful scene for the assembled crowd of loved ones. Racing ahead into a future of happily ever after. Maybe a darkened sky every now and then might appear. But surely they had found and were building enough true love to carry them through all the days ahead. Tied with a silver chain, anchored to withstand all the choppy waters the future might bring.

Just Give It Some Time

Frozen Garden - Stefan Eber - Photography

“How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it. How many slices in a bread? Depends how thin you cut it. How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.” ― Shel Silverstein

The big freeze in February seemed to kill off the whole back garden. I sit out there in the evenings. The birds are making their last run. What’s left of the squirrel population seem to be heading off to their cubby holes – stopping in their tracks to give me a hard stare.

I began these vigils in complete despair. I had planted a whole new batch of plants all throughout the newly landscaped little back garden. Then a month later came the killer freeze. As I would sit there and look at all the dead plants and think about the wasted dollars, it would be such a discouraging experience.

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” ― E.B. White

But as the weeks went by, the miracle of life began to show itself all around me. Green slowly appeared. Those bare and cut back branches, barren roots, black soil, all began to take on a new vibrancy. My own spirit started to hope. There were a few specimens I had all but given up on. Even some of these began to come to life again. Just give it some time I whispered to myself each time I looked and saw a different garden.

I thought again and again, what a necessary motto this was for so much more in my life. Just give it some time. There’s always such a hurry all around and deep inside. So much dissatisfaction all over the place. But, it’s not done until it’s done.

Just give it some time. What’s meant to be will come back, one day, bit by bit, never all at once. Just like relationships, second chances, and unplanned transitions. Wait just a little longer, one more evening. I sat and watched the baseball game with thousands of others and it seemed the lock-down was miles away. Just give it some time, all the time it takes.

20 Best Annuals for Shade - Plants & Flowers for Low-Light Gardens

Sitting out in the garden has now become a wondrous experience, looking at all that has emerged from the soil of hopeless despair to the burning sun of tomorrows yet to be. It’s gonna be really hot as each day passes. Are you sure you want to start sprouting in this heat? But it is a very different time in garden now than it was at first.

Maybe whatever that’s heavy on your heart or mind these days just needs you to stop for a little bit, put it down, step back and just give it some time. Like sliding that cake back into the oven for a few more minutes. Instead of fretting about your feeling of powerlessness or stewing about mistakes, try to just give it some time. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, people and situations need distance, space and days to go by before what will be, will be.

Now, as I sit in the evenings I’m planning where to dig the new holes and introduce the new additions to what’s already on the move. What a completely different feeling. Just give it some time. 

“You have to imagine
a waiting that is not impatient
because it is timeless.”
― R.S. Thomas

Just Like a River

I went to an Astro’s game on Memorial Day. As I looked around me and took in the crowd, all the fans and so many young boys in caps with their gloves, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of normalcy. It seemed like life as it should be. The past year of was a stomach turning shoot down the rapids at Stinky Falls in New Braunfels (where I spent my summer Saturdays).

I grew up each summer on a river. We camped out, fished, and swam up and down the wild shores every year. It was an adventure, I didn’t realize at the time, I was building into my memory. I just thought it was how every kid was supposed to “do” summer. So many of my summers in the Texas Hill Country were on a river. It gets hot in the summer! Not just the Llano, but the Comal, Guadalupe and Frio rivers are in my soul. I also swallowed a lot of water from each river every time I was pulled under their rapids. 

For me, when I think, dream and write about living, a river is the picture I paint. Those of you who read, know that this is a very common practice. If you take a minute to reflect, you’ll see that your life has had dangerous rapids, mysterious turns, predictable stillness, muddy banks and deep calms. 

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” ― Norman Maclean

While we watch the enormous social changes talked about on our screens every other day – global pandemics, economic shifts, wars and rumors of wars, racial conflicts, new levels of political correctness going right and wrong… remember that the river of living keeps on moving – through every single landscape.

Ten perfect Florida places to float a tube down a river | Summer Guide |  Orlando | Orlando Weekly

Everyone has had weddings, funerals, graduations, surgeries, dates, doctor visits and a few planned trips. Our nieces, nephews, cousins and children keep growing up and moving on into their next chapter. All happening despite whatever current catastrophe or historic event is or is not upon us. It’s always been that way.

Living life rolls on, despite the larger than life crisis that might be looming over the next horizon. Most people have had to figure out ways to keep living, to keep floating, as the river pushes us onward. All of us know people who have struggled to keep their heads above the water. But the water keeps moving onward, pushing and pulling everything toward something else. 

When you sweep down the river rapids, hold your arms and legs up. The inner tube is blazing hot on the top from the sun. the sound of the water gets louder by the second. Keep an eye out on others ahead of you. Maybe you can quickly figure out someone else’s mistakes and make an adjustment or two in a microsecond. But, in a few minutes, it’s going to be all over and you’ll be shot out into calmer waters, sitting safely atop your tube or gasping for breath from under the current. 

I was telling friends the other day about how our neighborhood experienced the 500 year flood in 2017. All of us rushing through the roaring rapids. It’s now a memory and adventure, like so many others through time, to share around the campfire. At the time it consumed us. Now it’s an adventure story about navigating dangerous rapids. Here we are, on a different part of the river, trying to stay afloat in different ways. 

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island, among others)

I’m looking at old photos now. All those summers spent on those rivers. Sacred memories sealed into my everyday living like handprints in wet concrete. I can’t forget those rides through the rapids or the long peaceful floats. They are all one long river flowing through the living of life. In the end, what always matters is the time spent floating, mile after mile down the longer river. That’s what living is, really. Every passage of time, relationship we build, weddings, graduations, hospital visits, shared meals, road trips, they all matter. All compose the perpetual  float. I hope you like opera, this one never seems to end. 

Low turnout for Labor Day float down Sacramento River as Chico State  students are gone | KRCR

I watched a news story this morning. Someone interviewed a historian about parallel’s between now and the last pandemic, the 1918 Influenza Outbreak. Once it subsided we experienced the Roaring ’20’s. The news story was about the possibility that we might be leaping into a boom time, with bobbed hairdo’s even!

No one mentioned the Great Depression. 

Typically, after the ride down the rapids, few remember the first quarter mile of riverbank scenery. Too much excitement and relief shared among the floaters and boaters. The truth is, there’s always been a longer story to see, more living to swim in whether we notice or not. The wise on the river are able to pay attention and not get distracted by the siren song of past adventures or barely escaped dangers. There will surely be another bend, more noisy waters and care to be taken in the navigation of living. 

Being swept down the rapids, that happen now and then, aren’t the river. The young and inexperienced tend to look only at the fast waters. All the froth and fun distracts from the long view. As Robert Frost wrote, there are miles to go. The river is more than all the turbulence, rising floods, drought dried mud and deeply dark pools under the pecan trees. Sometimes, you have to go a few more miles before you’ll know for certain.

“I was born upon thy bank, river,
My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever
At the bottom of my dream.”
― Henry David Thoreau

As I lay my head back on my hot inner tube and feel the cool water run past my body, I know that all of this is life. As the sun starts to set, the frogs in the mud start their songs, a chorus sung for thousands and thousands of years. It’s more difficult to hear and now see that water rolling past as the darkness falls. Maybe a moon will rise up over the hill? Maybe I’ll get better at looking, noticing what’s always been all around me. 

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me
– Roseanne Cash