Merry-go-round

He was alone. Last year, he wouldn’t have guessed that things would turn out as they had. And here it was again, the holidays. The calendar told him it was 2012 and his life had dramatically changed.

The change went deeper than a turn in the seasons or aging another year. It went under his skin and pervaded soul.

Life was like that, he thought. Everything could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. Yet everything could be restored. Things change.

He knew that now as he remembered his wife handing him the ticket.

For Michael, his life had hit bottom. His relationship with a colleague at work had violated his relationship with Michelle, his wife and his professional boundaries. He knew it was wrong and things went from bad to worse. Had he been in any other career than clergy, he might have been able to work it out.

The denominational officials thoroughly investigated and found no predatory behavior on his part. Just a brief and stupid consensual interoffice affair. Michael took full responsibility for what he did, resigning from the church and the denomination.

The Bishop, however, wanted to make him and his behavior an example and prepared to bring the whole matter to a public ecclesiastical trial. To save Michelle from further public humiliation, Michael defrocked himself from the ministry.

It also didn’t help that the denomination fired the Bishop. Somehow there must have been clerical consensus that though clergy screw up, they can find the redemption they proclaim but now two clergy were unemployed.

Some fitting career ending for the owner of a Doctorate of Ministry degree who had once gone on a book signing tour with his new work on the equality of women and men. Michael even had to quit his adjunct lecturer position at the university. No more feminist lectures there. “You want fries with that?” Michael was guessing to be included in his next career communication.

It did help, though, that he knew his way around computers and networks and was able to land a job. What really needed help, though, was Michael’s remorse. He had made himself and Michelle victims of nothing other than his own mindlessness. As often as he had tried to figure out his insular mindset that irrationally separated his life from his wife and the community – there he was – himself, the hypocritical Elf.

Through the months, Michelle had forgiven him. That was miraculous in itself. But nothing could get rid of the remorse that lived within Michael. Nothing could exorcise this dark visitor inhabiting his soul. Michael knew he had committed the unpardonable sin – to violate the quiet, sacred, loving trust of his soul mate. He knew too much to rationalize otherwise.

When Michelle handed him the ticket to the merry-go-round ride at the local Zoo, he laughed, a little confused.

“Here,” she said, “you need to take this ride. You’ve always been a merry-go-round freak!”

The next day, Michael stood in line at the merry-go-round. As parents corralled their excited children, he saw the unabashed joy on the parents’ faces as they watched their children fly through their air on their painted horses. They looked like cherubs.

Their joy, though, contrasted with the despair Michael felt. He was not standing next to his wife now, as they once had done in watching their daughter years ago. He was alone, in line, waiting to get on a merry-go-round like some kind of homeless outpatient looking like he was in between prescription refills.

The carney, boarding riders on this circle of brightly painted horses, looked a little rough. His beer-sculpted gut and missing tooth suggested he had experienced hard times of his own. Yet he cheerfully boarded the cherubs, their parents and Michael as the calliope music began.

Michael stood beside one of the stationary horses, choosing to stand and not sit as it began to move. He had always loved carousels. The movement. The colors and antiquated steam-driven calliope music from another time and land.

The carney was now standing in the unmoving inner circle of the carousel. As Michael looked ahead in the counterclockwise moving platform, the calliope music sounded like an old Public Television Masterpiece Theater song.

When the tune suddenly changed to the old Rolling Stones Song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Michael thought something was wrong. Yet the parents and children in front of him didn’t seem to notice. He saw no one reacting to the shift in the music.

Michael turned around and looked behind him and then when it hit him. Seeing the fronts of their faces, . . . they all looked familiar. He somehow knew these people. He was looking back in time.

The one closest to him, riding on the next horse behind, was MaryJo. MaryJoe from high school. The first love of his life. Michael remembered how he dated her for months, only for her to declare she was interested in someone else. It broke his heart and he drove home, that night, crying and feeling utterly alone.

He walked over to her and saw the joy on her face as she looked ahead past him, as if he wasn’t there. He could see scenes into her life beyond high school. She had married a football star who became a business owner and politician. He saw scenes of her collecting her children from the private schools. How she helped her husband on his campaign trail of conservative values and fiscal integrity.

Michael was glad she had found happiness for herself and he understood. He was happy for her.

Michael was wondering if he was dreaming this magic ability to see people of his past and how their lives unfolded.

“No” the carney said, instantly appearing next to him, answering his thoughts. “You’re on this ride and I need your ticket. But keep looking behind for a while” he said as he took the ticket from Michael’s hand. He quickly stepped back into the carousel’s inner circle and disappeared in the arc of the moving ride.

Michael looked further back and saw his parents. They were in one of those brightly colored fixed benches.

Michael remembered when he was five, they had left him behind at his grandparents’ house, driving off and leaving him crying in the driveway. He remembered feeling abandoned, crying outside on his grandparent’s steps. When they soon came back to retrieve him, they were laughing, saying they were trying to teach him to be more prompt when they said it was time to leave.

As Michael moved closer to his parents, who couldn’t see him either, he saw snapshots of their lives. The distance between them. Their preoccupation with their jobs and he felt sorry to see their futile attempts to control so as to appear good enough by those around them. Michael forgave them.

Michel was just starting to grasp the magic of this dream-like ride. As he looked to the center of carousel’s hub, he saw the carney laughing as he looked over at him.

The carnival music tune changed to the Sam Cooke’s tune of “Wonderful World.” He moved further back and found a tall European-looking man he remembered to be Chris. He was the vice principle of his high school who had violently slapped him in his face for running down the hall into class.

This administrator never knew that Michael would feel the reverberations of his slap as it woke him from dreams decades later. But Michael also saw Principal Chris’s suffering from traumas of his own military experiences. He felt compassion and forgave him.

One after another, figures from Michael’s past appeared on the ride.

The calliope played on with the tune of the national anthem. This time it was the college Army ROTC sergeant teaching the class. He was explaining how the Army was placing artificial animal dung bombs along the Viet Nam trails to blow off the legs of hapless villagers. Women, children, hard-working and honest farmers. The sergeant said, “War is a nasty business and we’ve found this to damage their spirits so that we would gain a psychological advantage in the conflict.”

Like the others, Michael saw the Sergeant had eventually liberated himself from his career. Michael forgave the ROTC instructor.

When the music tune changed once again, it was now playing the tune to Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.” This time, Michael saw a dejected figure sitting on a bench. Unlike the others in his past life, this figure was sitting sideways with his feet on up on the bench with his head turned away, held by his hand.

“There’s one more person to forgive, Michael” said the carney’s voice beside him. To his surprise, it wasn’t the carney standing next to him but was his Michelle. She put her arm on Michael’s shoulder as they both walked closer to the seated figure. “It’s why I gave you the ticket” she said.

The calliope organ softened and changed to the violin in the original Chapman song. Michael could hear the some of the words. “I’ll find my way back to you” were gently sung as they moved closer to the figure. Michael leaned over to see the face of the figure. It was himself. . . . “Please say you’ll be waiting . . . ”

Michael stood, looking at himself. He realized that he could forgive all of the people in his own past but he couldn’t come to terms with himself.

Michael sat down next to his own image. Scenes from his own life were already within him. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and then his wife’s warm embrace. She encircled his head with her arms. He felt the place where his own remorse had lived so many months had been vacated. Through her forgiveness, he had been released and could forgive himself. The waiting for forgiveness was over.

The music ended and the ride slowly came to a stop. As Michael and Michelle turned to exit, the carney said “Come through here” leading them both to the inner circle of the ride.

“But how do we leave?” Michael asked, looking at the carney and Michelle.

The carney had now changed in appearance, looking more like a kindly uncle. He said, “It’s not a matter of how you leave but how you return. You can come here whenever you want.”

Suddenly, Michael and his Michelle were surrounded by all the others who had been on the ride. As if participating in a centuries-old laying on of hands ordination ritual – each one reached out their hand and touched Michael. As the calliope started again, the carney said to them, “What is sacred in this dimension is how we are connected. It’s forgiveness that heals us and makes us whole.”

Immediately Michael found he was standing off to the side of the merry-go-round, watching parents and their children enveloped by the joy. He knew Michelle was back at home, waiting for his return.

As Michael drove home, he couldn’t wait to thank her for the carousel ride and for everything else she had done.

TTL

Moonset

Back at the end of the 20th century when the human genome was sequenced and mapped, genetic and biological scientists had made amazing gains in understanding human life. They came to master elements of human growth and death through the DNA sequencing. This enabled us to dramatically increase our knowledge of the human longevity.

By 2030, medical science could implant a small biometric device that counts down how much time remains for a person to live. The device was composed of miniature DNA biofeedback transducers that are attached to the skin’s surface but connected to the subdural cellular DNA material of the body’s central nervous system. These plasma diodes provided a tiny digital readout on a skin-like mesh, showing the date when the individual will expire.

The medical research teams, that first configured them, called them “TTLs.” They derived the name from the computer term TTL meaning “Time To Live.” It was the hop limit on our computer mechanisms that measured the lifespan of data on our devices. The inventors initially thought the term would soon change but for some reason, it stuck.

Today, with TTLs, no fortune tellers or spiritual guides are needed. The embedded biometric chip indicates the exact date we will expire. You’ve got, say, exactly 17 years and 14 days left to live. For your sibling, it might be only 8 years and 27 days. Your time remaining shows on the digital readout on your skin’s surface at your clavicle (hidden just under your neckline).

~

By 2035, a TTL marketing plan rolled out and with it came an enormous uproar. The influential people from organized religious circles decried it a fraud. They did so until several of them, in their dying moments, created death-bed videos, admitting they were wrong.

At this point, a few entrepreneurs begin marketing software which was said to hack past the human biological countdown mechanism. In their product launch, they “guaranteed” an extended warranty on the lifespan limits, amounting to an additional five or more years of life. While these surgical implants initially cost above 3.2 million dollars for insertion, these life-extenders, when added to the TTL implants, would add years to life and modify the digital end dates. But these biological extender implants were cost prohibitive and were kept from the public knowledge. Most people could only watch and wait out the count-down on their TTL digital readings.

Within several months of the introduction of the TTL life-extender devices, the FTC exposed the fraud. These “life-extension” add-ons were only a programming modification of the logarithm of the TTL biometers, temporarily replacing the true expiration date for a later one.

After all the hoaxes and con artists were prosecuted, most people slowly began to adjust to the reality of knowing the true brevity of their lives.

~

Initially TTLs were a boom for the life insurance industry. Their sales soared or dipped according to the number of years remaining on people’s TTLs. Eventually, though, people stopped purchasing life insurance altogether and the industry collapsed.

Yet people are reluctant in accepting the inevitability of their death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross correctly suggested in her 1969 landmark book On Death and Dying.

Most people tend to avoid looking at their TTL readout. It is only when their TTL date enters the last decade of their life span that they actively make some changes their lives.

As expected, many quit their careers and ventured into entirely new fields. Currently, on all corporate resignation forms there are check boxes to indicate “Approaching TTL Date” under the reason for quitting.

In their final decade, some divest themselves of unneeded wealth while others gamble their life’s savings away, just to see how much they can accumulate.

Some abuse drugs and alcohol and venture into dangerous experimental nihilistic lifestyles. Many self-medicate and prematurely die of liver failure. To whatever extent that people shorten their lives through neglect, their TTL is a constant and fixed date.

Many flock to religious institutions and groups, seeking meaning for their lives as they near life’s end. After all, NOW is the only meaningful event or tangible commodity that seems to matter. Most of the population is exclusively focused on who they are with and the quality of their relationships. Medical offices frequently have Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as part of their standard office Mosaic® playlist.

In the last TTL decades, some engage in risk-taking. Some try skydiving, scuba diving or mountain climbing while others try to brave public speaking. Comedy clubs find that their ‘Open Mike’ sessions have hundreds signed up well in advance. One club in San Diego calls itself “I’m Dying Up Here” and broadcasts live performances.

With the deployment of TTLs, the travel industry has skyrocketed. Thousands seem to be fulfilling their ‘bucket list’ as they travel around the world. There is considerably less worry about traveling to suspected terrorist-affiliated countries. If your TTL still shows a number of years remaining, you book your travel, knowing that it won’t be during this coming trip that you expire.

~

TTL specialists typically give Ted talks about achieving excellence in focusing on the present moment. They’ll frequently admonish their audiences to direct compassion toward people in need – particularly those who struggle in coping with their coming endpoint.

News reports have turned from what a particular national leader is threatening other to more positive stories. The focus is more on the things the TTL people are doing in society to make a difference for the better. Awards and honorariums change to TTL behavior which brings society new methodologies of physical, social or spiritual healing. Award nominations are no longer based on box office revenues or the numbers of previous popular nominations.

For recent years, “TTL Specialists” have appeared on talk shows explaining their theories about overcoming the drawbacks of death. Doctoral theses, accompanying books and programs have proliferated on the subjects like “Managing Our Endpoint.” New social science fields teach why we should no longer be anxious or striving. Doing so, it is said, robs us of energy and focus on the being present with the remaining life that is before us. Those who used to say “have a blessed day” more commonly say “have a precious present.”

Faith-based organizations have migrated to new leadership of the laity. Almost as if they are ad-hoc gatherings of passengers on a sinking ship, organized religion has become characterized by open sharing sessions instead of liturgy and fixed readings. Life stories and philosophical learnings are regularly shared, giving speaking priority to those with quickly approaching TTL dates.

Out of those faith-based gatherings have emerged groups who called themselves “Visitors.” These are TTL-mindful people who simply visit people. They come to be with those in prison or they eat their lunches at the soup kitchens with the homeless and indigent. Members of “Visitor” groups share how they have divested themselves of their excess resources, sharing with the needy and compassionately treat others like brothers and sisters.

Young adults, with several decades remaining until their TTL date, stop aggressively competing in the office for the manager positions. Instead, they personally try to become the technical support and customer service center for all of their colleagues as well as their clients. They intentionally try to empower their colleagues around them by sharing their own talents and knowledge to help them excel in what they do. They display marvelous levels of creativity and innovation – just for the joy of it.

~

The TTL readout on our clavicle bone has been the start of new social consciousness that is transforming our society. The social change has begun because it is unmistakably clear that we can’t take things, money or power with us beyond our own TTL date.

For the most part, those within the final decade of their end date, tend to be uninterested in how much money or power or social influence they have. Instead, they tend to use their energy and resources in trying to make life somehow better for those who suffer. They spontaneously grab a hammer and nails and join the neighborhood kids in building a treehouse. They create a website for the folks in Brentwood who are trying to save the Coral Trees. They transport some wheelchair-bound seniors across the street from their rest home on Ocean Boulevard so they can see the exquisite Palisades Park view of the ocean. They buy them an ice cream cone when taking them to the Prominade.

~

In time, societies benefitting from the TTL readouts will continue to evolve. Segments of society will become known as the ‘Places of Paradise.’ They will be countries and cultures known by the current generations as the most favorable places in which to dwell. That is because no matter what is going on in the world, the people who are most conscious of their time to live will be more fully living in the present. They, and the communities they create, will be considered the most elevated humans ever to inhabit the earth.

Near large shopping centers, unneeded automobiles and previews of the available homes are on display. Anyone needing transportation or shelter is able to access these regional auction centers which distribute homes and cars donated by those with expiring TTLs. Homelessness has largely disappeared. Automobile and home prices have plunged.

In proximity to the auction centers are also so-called “Final Word Studios.” The studios are be staffed by volunteer camera crews and set designers to help people record their final parting words before their death. One franchise calling itself “Finally” has as many locations as McDonalds or Starbucks. These studios work with soon-to-expire people who want to create a final last-words video for their family, friends and posterity.

A person nearing their TTL date are able to sit down and work with the studio crew on creating their final video. People can say their last words from their favorite mountain top view, in the comfort of their own home or with almost any background set of props they can imagine.

They can write and choreograph the scene as they imagine but producers and writers are available to help with them with their script. Volunteer actors and actresses are also on hand to add to the production. They can do a final monologue or soliloquy. They can narrate pictures from their own family scrap books. They can read their poetry or curse at their Ex. They can get out whatever it is they wish to express, knowing that this is what they are leaving as their sign post of their life’s experiences. The only stipulation is that at the time of the taping, their TTL reading must be within the final few weeks before their expiration date.

~

This author’s TTL device now shows only hours remaining. So I simply wish you a precious present, hoping you live your remaining time with the fullest mindfulness of the incredible beauty that resides within you and those around you. Know that as your remaining time transpires, all that you are and have been has been part of the height of humankind’s universal beauty and celestial nobility. Good job.

… Philip Siddons

Your Way

It was 12:50 and church had gone over again. Michael pulled into Burger King. He was starving and with church letting out late, he
had to throw something down the hatch before he quickly changed into his jeans. He had to get back to church to help. A few of the guys were putting together a wooden Noah’s ark for the children’s nursery.

“One of these days God ought to do that again with the flooding” Michael said out loud to himself as he pulled into the restaurant’s drive through lane. He had just seen a lot of people in casual clothing coming out of the Blockbuster
Video store across the street.

“It’s clear they never darken a church door” he muttered as he waited in line with the others in the drive through lane. “They live like there is no God and if they ever really knew they’re going to be coming up short on judgment day, they’d be
shakin’ in their boots, dying to get into church – but it’ll be too late.”

What Michael didn’t know, when he was about to place his order, was that the voice coming out of the intercom would be God’s. That’s right, the Almighty was sitting inside with
the earphone and mike, taking orders. God had never done that work before but was giving it a try, . . . actually helping out one of the workers who had gone home ill a little earlier.

“May I take your order” Michael heard through the intercom, surprised that the voice wasn’t as crackly and artificial as usual.

“Yes, I’d like a double cheeseburger and an Adventure Cappuccino . . . and make it quick. I’ve got to hurry to get back to church” Michael said, surprised that he told this minimum-wage person why he was in a rush.

“Admirable” said the intercom attendant with some warmth. “Since this is Burger King, we’ll treat you like a king and you’ll have it your way, of course.”

“Yea, that would be the day” Michael said with scorn, . . . clueless about what was soon to come. “The day I have it my way,” he added, “this whole town would be cleaned up and you’d be able to walk the street and never worry about being attacked by the hoodlums and the ungodly.”

“Sounds like you’d get lots of votes if you were running in the next election” the voice cheerfully said through the speaker system.

“You know what I would do if I really had it my way?” Michael continued. “I wouldn’t pray for three atheist Supreme Court Justices to die, like Pat Robertson suggested. I’d get the whole job done at once. I’d send everyone, who feels they’re too busy to show up at church, right to hell, . . just like that. If these Godless-liberals want to drive our country to hell in a hand basket, let’s ship’em there permanently and save them the work of dragging the rest of us there.”

“That’s a pretty tall order” God said through the intercom with seriousness. Is that what you really want?”

“Sure,” said Michael. I’d send them all there, . . . ‘like a thief in the night.’ Throw ‘em all in the infernal region and flame broil them over the open fire ‘my way’” Michael concluded, proud of his tying in the restaurant’s advertising rhetoric.

“All right, it’s your call” the voice said. “And one thing further, do you want fries with that?”

“No,” Michael responded. “I’m trying to stay healthy” he said with a smile on his face. “Your body is a temple, you know!”

“Yes, . . so it’s said” God responded with a touch of sadness. “Please drive around.”

When Michael came up to the window, there was only his bag of food and no cashier. He called into the window and no one was in sight. He waited another couple of moments and called again, even beeping his horn. Finally, in exasperation, he just took his food and drove off.

As he passed by the restaurant, he noticed that no one was in it. The food in the bag felt hot but there wasn’t a soul in the entire place. Neither was there anyone on the street or across the way in front of the Blockbuster Video store. He was
the only one driving on the street.

It felt a bit eerie. Sure it was Sunday but there were a lot of people out and about just minutes before so he turned on his radio. Nothing was coming out of his radio except the sound of someone humming a tune.

He pushed the button to switch to this favorite Christian
station but it was the same thing, . . . someone humming a tune.

“What the hell is going on around here?” Michael said half to the radio, half to the deserted street in front of him.

“Well that’s just the point, Michael” the voice said to him from his car radio speakers. The voice he heard was the same one he had just heard from the drive through intercom. Michael slammed on the brakes and came to an abrupt stop in the middle of an intersection. It didn’t even matter because there were no cars anywhere in sight!

“What’s just the point?” Michael nervously said, wondering if he was having a breakdown or a sudden bout of insanity.

“What the hell, that is going on, is just what you ordered” God said from the radio. “You’ve just sent seven billion people to hell. They’re all gone but you’ve got a couple of problems with
that order.”

By now, Michael realized to Whom he had been speaking and took courage. “You mean You took care of all those unchurched heathens for me, just like that?” he
asked with some pride.

“Yes” God answered back through the radio. “But since there isn’t a literal place called “Hell” I brought them over into my place, just to get them out of your way. “And by the way, the only people who are left in your life are the two hundred or so who go to your church. There’s nobody left where you work. I’ve got most of your relatives. Have you noticed that your wife and kids have been bored to death with your church? So enjoy the quiet and the simplicity” God concluded.

Michael’s radio made a pop and a sputter sound and was silent. He saw a car coming toward him from the opposite direction. It was Hal Linden and his wife Brenda from church. He looked as bewildered, as Michael felt, as their two cars slowly stopped so they could talk.

“I can’t believe it” Hal said. “It’s the rapture or something and everyone’s gone. Maybe this is it” he concluded with wide-eyed excitement.

Michael looked at him and responded, “If it is, how come we are left here?” In the prolonged silence that followed, neither of them could speak.

Michael continued home. His neighborhood was virtually empty. It was as if a bomb had dropped and sucked every living thing away.

Michael’s radio snapped on and God asked one more question. “By the way, Michael, what’s a hand basket?”

Compassionate Presence

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of sadness around us. As Buddhists would point out, that’s because of the almost constant attempts to control, predict, grasp or fearfully run away from (or avoid) it all. They also teach that everything is temporary but not to the point of existential meaningless where nothing seems to be connected or to have meaning. It is to teach that whatever is, will ultimately change. “Where moth and rust corrupt” in the tradition of your early years of teaching.

To say that compassion is the only thing that is ‘permanent’ is probably better understood if it is said that when all things and people are gone, what seems to endure is compassion.

We remember a person’s character of caring and self-sacrificial love for others. That seems to stay with us when they are gone. It won’t be their temporary ownership of a Heisman trophy in the trophy shelf of the back room of the mansion (that the next mansion owner will likely try to sell to the highest bidder on EBay). Neither will it be the amount of political or financial power one accumulates during this relatively short lifespan.

Instead, what will endure will be the extent we are able to be truly present in the moment with others in such a way that we can fully accept and take them in a loving and unconditional way. It is in those moments we find avenues of reaching out and truly connecting, as kindred spirits, so that we can be agents of compassion and healing. As we form a community (which knows no boundaries), we join in something that is greater than ourselves and become more fully mindful that we are truly connected with all others and all living things.

We gain a keener sense of this in the practice of meditation. That’s because in this sedentary activity, we first learn to be fully present with ourselves. (How many people in your life are really there with you – who aren’t frantically eying their Blackberry or looking at their watch while they speak at you with no eye contact?) Learning to be fully present in the moment with ourselves yields learning to be fully present with others. We need then learn to be open and present with the Spirit Who created us.

Now all of that sounds like a Hallmark card on steroids but a lifestyle of being truly present in the moment, . . . being at home with yourself, others and your Source . . . brings you to compassion. I believe this life of compassionate mindfulness is at the core of all world religions that seem authentic.

These core teachings are present in all religions but are more, in my opinion, intentionally taught in Buddhism. If you’re interested in reading some more on this, take a look at Jack Cornfield’s The Wise Heart. ISBN: 978-0-553-80347-1 (0-553-80347-6)