It’s a Wonder We Can Think at All

“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall”
from the Simon And Garfunkel 1973 song “Kodachrome”

Remember our priorities back in high school? The things we did to achieve recognition or our own self-worth? We’ve forgotten the very people we tried to please in order to fit in and be accepted.

By our thirties, we had grown out of our myopic high-school view of the world around us. It was like a now too-small suit that our parents had given us, in which we wouldn’t be caught dead. Those adolescent world views and judgments on large swaths of humanity. All these opinions and pronouncements are now gone – vanishing like someone else’s overheard burp from another room. It’s like the vicious radio talk show host who is forced into retirement after society, and all his former show’s sponsors, have moved on with other, more enlightened value systems.

What caused us to disregard what had once been at the center of our values?

Certainly it was exposure to new people and their broader perspectives in life. Likely, it was the pain of suffering – ours and theirs. The test of time ground down the inadequacies of oversimplified religion and ideologies.

It was, as Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggested, a transition of our minds from black and white to ‘those nice bright colors and their greens of summers, that make us think all the world’s a sunny day.’ Most of us emerged from a childhood where we are shown the world through a black and white lens. Perhaps out of our parent’s exhaustion and inadequate teacher credentialing, they did the best they could but wanted to keep it simple. They wanted to control things, or at least appear to be in control. To them, there were the good and the bad; the angels and the demons – “them” and “us.”

By the time we found ourselves in college, we were truly embarrassed to discover that we had actually believed what we had been told. Those millions of people, labeled as “Communists” by our parental units, turned out to just like us – only with a different political system. We discovered that everyone who is poor had not brought it upon themselves (from their lack of adapting, in a Social Darwinist scheme of ‘making it’).

To our dismay, the people and institutions, in whom and in which we were taught to trust for our religion and spirituality, were sometimes false idols themselves. They actually believed that they were the only ones right and everyone else was wrong and headed toward’ hell in a hand basket. ‘We discovered, in time, that the values we have been carrying around, as if precious and holy, were woefully threadbare – contradictory to the core teachings of all of the world’s wisdom traditions.

“Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”
Pebby Lee, 1969 ‘Is That All There Is?”

“Seargeant O’Leary is walking the beat.
At night, he becomes a bartender.He works at Mr. Cacciatorre’s down on Sullivant Street,
Across from the medical center,
And he’s trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac, lac, lac, lac;You oughtta know by now,
If he can’t drive with a broken back,
At least he can polish the fenders.
And it seems such a waste of time,
If that’s what it’s all about…
Momma, if that’s moving up, then I’m moving out.”
Billy Joel, 1977 ‘Movin’ Out’

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan’s 1965 It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

When we did begin to pull ourselves away from “all that crap we learned in high school,” we probably spent a number of years proclaiming what we don’t want for our lives. We expressed our dissatisfaction with the bigotry, prejudice and the painful social injustice. We did it with the clothing we wore, the language we used and our lifestyles. For some of us, we are lucky to be alive from risking drugs, alcohol and Californication. We were hell-bent on stating, with the canvas of our lives, that we were not our parents. We did this with our lifestyle, language and how we spend our time. We were defiantly not what we were raised to be. Or so we thought.

But we were busted. In the course of every day conversation, work-place exchanges and patterns of how we actually did things, we ended up becoming not that different than our parents. We found ourselves riddled and driven by the same fears as our parents. We overused the personal strengths that served us in the past in compensating for our fears.  Our therapists complicated by our task list of schemas which get us caught up in some of the same unhealthy over-compensations as those who raised us. This is not your father’s Buick but it’s a Toyota .- so what? (See  Tara Bennett-Goleman’s Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart)

Genetics? Probably not, except for our body types. But fear drives us to it. We write off people by the millions who approach life differently than us. We fear them and we fear change. We fear the kind of learning that forces us to set aside the old and pick up the new.

Consider how they used to catch monkeys for zoos. They carved out a coconut, attached a chain to one end of the coconut and the other end to a tree. Next, they put fruit in the coconut. When monkeys come along, they’d grab the fruit inside the coconut but refuse to unclench their fist that is holding the fruit inside. Unwilling to let go, they remained stuck to the coconut, chained to the tree.

In potential teaching moments, we are somewhat like the monkeys. We won’t let go of what we know and believe. That’s because it requires us to do the work of stopping and reflecting outside of our usual patterns of interpreting and compensating for our fears. It requires the work and energy to empathize with others – embracing their experiences and perspectives. We aggressively surround ourselves with people who look, act, dress, think and speak just like us. It’s fortunate we all don’t become hermits and wall ourselves away from society – refusing to talk with or read about anyone else. Some people, we guess, actually die of stubbornness and ignorance. We all have bouts with it.

If you enjoy developmental psychology, reflect on what we did with ourselves during our twenties. The school degrees. The striving for certifications. We climbed up rungs up the corporate ladder. The PTA meetings and how we drove our children to “succeed.” Like lemmings, we flocked along, trying to get our self-worth out of our careers or who we are married to, our money or power. We insured everything in sight so that we can replace anything.

But when do we stop talking about what we don’t want for our lives and pursue what we want? At what point, in the short linear path of our lives, do we get down to the business of pursuing what is truly most important to the core of our being?

  • What  most important to our life?
  • What is the meaning of our life and where are we headed?
  • Who and where is our source of learning how to pursue a life of greater meaning?
  • Is there an app for that?

Maybe you’re in the process of discovering that now?

Pivotal Moments

October 11, 2010

In retrospect, we’ve all had pivotal moments. Like the time you proposed or graduated or it dawned upon you that circumstances have changed so thoroughly that your life has taken a new course.

For me, there was one of these moments at the end of a Baltimore, Maryland 9th grade after school junior varsity lacrosse team practice. An older, bigger, Norwegian-looking team captain run up to me and said, “Do you want to run a few extra laps around the field to keep in shape?”

I looked at him and wondered what planet from which he had arrived and said, “No” and began to walk into the locker room to change. I saw he had gathered about three others and his group began to jog around the perimeter of the lacrosse field as they slowly were rocking the hard rubber balls in the cradle of their sticks as they ran.

I could do this running while cradling the ball but was catching my breath from the practice that had just ended. I had gone out for the team pretty much because I thought lacrosse was cool but I was no athlete. Without motivation or any sense of wanting to develop my skill and meld that into a team contribution, I wouldn’t have made much of a team player. I would need to grow grew up considerably and come “dressed to play” or be willing to “give it 110%.” Which is why the coach came up to me on my way out and told me that he had to cut me from the team.

In that moment, when I did not have the gumption to stop and recognize that this was a pivotal moment, I simply said, “Oh.” After the coach gracefully rattled off a few apologetic sentences about only being allowed to have a certain number of players on the team, I walked off to the bus to home where I would put my lacrosse stick in the basement until it met its fate in a future garage sale. I somehow knew that the coach had asked this team captain to give me one last chance to show some potential for sportsmanship by seeing if I would take a few extra laps.

Had I recognized the pivotal moment and come of age, I would have said, “Coach, you know, I want to play on the team and if you give me one more chance, I’ll show you that I’m here to play – to give all of myself for the team and become your highest scoring forward on the team.”

So it was manifest destiny and I never entered into years of successful lacrosse playing, becoming MVP of my high school team. (The high school in Lancaster Pennsylvania, my family moved me to a year later, barely had a football team and definitely had never heard of lacrosse.) That moment in time didn’t morph into full scholarships for college lacrosse, All-American sports titles nor a lifetime of fame on professional lacrosse sports team. The Seattle Slashers. The Detroit Dominators. How my life would have been different.

Instead, I’m in the basement, scooping out three trays of kitty litter, using disposable latex gloves and my handy slotted stainless steel spoon that I got from a Dansk Factory Outlet in Niagara on the Lake, Canada. But there’s a connection to lacrosse that always comes to my mind during this task.

There are a few nanoseconds when you are digging through the mounds of litter, scooping and then slightly rocking the spoon to allow the litter to seep out the spoon’s holes until you drop the chunks into the garbage bag. There’s an art, if you will, to efficiently cleaning the litter box.

When you stop and think about it, how much is your life is diminished because you don’t play lacrosse? In contrast, how many of us in our culture scoop out cat litter? Have a group of respected business associates invited you to go out for a friendly game of lacrosse lately? Have relatives given you trash cans for your birthday with lacrosse sticks and helmets on the side? At your last family reunion, did you bring your lacrosse stick and one of those frightfully hard and heavy steel balls encased in hard rubber and a helmet with a metal wire cage to protect your face from a certain broken nose or a gouged eye socket in case one of your cousins wants to toss around a ball?

Because I got cut from the lacrosse team in 9th grade, I can now teach my patented technique of lacrosse-style-litter-cleaning in seminars at my new Alliteration Training Center. “ATC, Inc.” it would say on the natural wood sign, in a waspy-looking manicured artificial garden around it, out front of the spacious cul-de-sac of the training and retreat training center in the suburbs. It would actually be a franchise, duplicated all over the country.

Pivotal moments can happen by the litter box or anywhere because it is all connected. It’s a matter of being fully present in the moment – in the now. And in THIS moment, if you complete the enclosed application, you can transform our special low franchise fee of $500 into a multi-million dollar ATC training center of your own in your home town.Imagine coming into a trendy restaurant in your town and people turning and saying about you, “Here comes the ‘Scoopster.’ Who would have ever guessed that almost overnight, they’ve developed this fool-proof system for cleaning out the litter that everyone in town is using. I only wish I would have thought of it myself.”

So however the new year unfolds for you, know that the future awaits you with fabulous promise. Even the private act of scratching in unseemly places on your body can evolve into an enormously popular technique that will yield franchise fees and best-selling books. Runway models and TV talk show hosts will be doing it and paying you royalty fees for the privilege. It’s only a matter of being present in the moment and realizing that every moment is a pivotal moment because it is all connected. Pleasantries for your new year.

Holy Moments

(Written when I was Interim Executive Director of Canopy of Neighbors):


I work for an organization which enables seniors to remain in their homes or apartments as long as possible. We help them thrive and remain relatively independent – preventing them from having to go into an assisted-living institution.

It’s called Canopy of Neighbors.

We do this through a network of volunteers and groups which give their time to do the kinds of things you and I already do to help well-aged friends and loved ones. We give them rides to doctor’s or therapist appointments. Help them get their prescriptions. Sometimes we help them with confusing bank-account or bill-paying tasks. We flip their mattresses or set their clocks ahead or behind twice a year. We change a light bulb that is out of reach – anything to prevent them from stacking kitchen chairs and making a perilous climb and risking a fall.

We also enable them to come to free yoga classes and coffee gatherings where there are featured speakers on health and aging topics. There’s even a monthly luncheon at a local restaurant which offers a low-cost fee for everyone.

I spent a couple of hours this week talking with a couple in their 90s, answering their questions about joining the membership. They are impressed with Canopy. They live in a grand old home in a neighborhood where, in time, only the wealthiest could afford. Homes of doctors, senators and CEOs. Their home was full of life. Paintings filled their home, his paintings. Their furnishings reflected world travels and a lifelong engagement with their children, their careers and themselves. They even have a beautiful Australian border collie who has been part of their household for years.

As I summarized my organization’s services and patiently answered their questions, in my peripheral vision, I could see their daughter. She was in from out-of-town, looking a little frustrated. She’s been here before with them, I suspect. Their hesitancy. Their resistance to get involve with anyone outside of their family for their personal needs. And yet they knew they could use some assistance here and there.

I couldn’t help but think that they only reason they were a little hesitant to join is that it might imply an inability to be independent. Perhaps some giving up of control. Having ‘outsiders’ involved in potentially unknown changes in their lifestyle.

They are truly dear people. Talented and very intelligent. But my heart goes out to them because they seem so frail. He’s a retired but working artist, still holding an office with studio privileges in the local university. But his Parkinson’s is already affecting his mind-to-speech abilities. He drools as he tries to construct his sentences.

In another room, he’s got an unplugged collection of turntable, amp, radio, tuner unplugged and he hasn’t been able to reconnect them. It would take me or another volunteer probably half a day to rewire it. In other rooms, they say their computers are giving them problems and they claim not able to get back into using them. They can’t get their email working.

Her physical condition has left her barely able to move. She has had some disfiguring strokes and yet she is fully engaged in conversations. Reflective, insightful and empathetic toward others. But she says ‘I know we are vulnerable.’

I already know that whatever my organization can offer them, they will need more. Much more. They’ll soon have to contract with outside healthcare organizations for in-home nursing and home-care aids. How much longer can they remain in their lovely home? Who will take care of their dog?

They will be thinking their membership over and will let me know in their own time.

They both have had me thinking, today, of how frail we humans are and temporariness of life. We can get to the point in life where we are blessed with good minds, more-than-adequate resources and all the time we need to pursue anything we’d like. Yet our bodies wear out, out of our control. There is no Toyota to replace parts, even beyond their usual warranty. Our bodies die out from under us. They slip away from us, as do many of our component parts. ‘Moth and rust doth corrupt.

So today, I’m mindful that being present with others, in the moment, is the only place where the meaning and authenticity in life resides for any of us. When I left them, I touched their shoulders and genuinely told them it was a pleasure being with them.

When I got home, I embraced my wife as if it was our anniversary and said I had a great day at work because there were holy moments. ♦

Hierarchical Thinking and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

April 13, 2011

Where did we get the idea that some people have more worth than others? The “we” in that sentence means you and me. For some reasons, you and I seem to believe that some people deserve more than others while others, conversely, deserve less.

Living in America, we acan’t excape the power of of capitalism over our thinking. Those who work harder and are more creative and innovative deserve rewards for their efforts beyond the medioachre. So we have “self-made men” who have “picked themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of themselves.” The assumption, here, is that those who haven’t received rewards for their efforts are medioachre, lazzy and less productive. “People who have made bad choices” in the words of one political executive in our region.

A close companion (and perhaps lover) to this simplistic, self-satisfied, judgmental and completely compassionless outlook on life of the mythic “American Dream” is Soocial Darwinism. This philosohy was brought to us in the mid 20th centry by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Darwin’s insight in biological evolution through adaptation of species who were judged as more fit for their changing environment came to be applied to sociological points of view. The poor and the disadvantaged came to be judged as mal-adapters, unmotivated, lazy. The rich and prosperious came to be judged as better adapters, more evolved in society. Better.

So in various societies, particularly in the US, there are those who believe that there isn’t enough to go around and that it is up to the more evolved to preserve what they have, protecting their things from those who haven’t adapted and propered as well as they have. The other group of people seem to be those who believe that there are enough goods and services in the planet for all to not only survive but thrive. Karl Marx knew of this dicatomy in societies and warned that if the few affluent dictators with power and wealth oppressed the masses, there would be revolutions.

Unfortunately, accompanying this class warfare, there is the myth of redemptive violence. I quote a large section of Walter Wink, The Powers That Be because I believe you find it to be profound.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

“The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. I myself first became aware of it, oddly enough, by watching children’s cartoon shows. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the “death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted. I distinctly remember hearing God’s death being announced on the morning news, and then seeing, in a cartoon show moments later, Hercules descending from heaven to earth, an incarnate god doing good to mortals. I began to examine the structure of other cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructi­ble hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and. equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three-quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.

Thankfully, not all children’s programs feature explicit violence. But the vast majority perpetuate the mythic pattern of redemptive violence in all its brutality. Examples would include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the X-Men, Transformers, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Ice Man, the Superman family, Captain America, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and Tom and Jerry (plus the Power Rangers, where real people act out cartoon characters). A variation on the classic theme is provided by hu­morous antiheroes, whose bumbling incompetence guarantees their victory despite themselves (Underdog, Super Chicken). Then there is a more recent twist, where an evil or failed indi­vidual is transformed by a technological accident into a mon­strous creature who—amazingly—does good (Spider-Man, The Hulk and She-Hulk, Ghost Rider). It is almost as if people no longer believe that heroes of sterling character can be produced by our society, and that goodness can transpire only by a freak of technology (such as electrocution or radioactive poisoning). In all these shows, however, the mythic structure is rigidly ad­hered to, no matter how cleverly or originally it is re-presented.

Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a scream­ing and kicking Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oil, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honor Olive Oil’s humanity and repeated pummelings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

Something about this mythic structure rang familiar. Suddenly I remembered: this cartoon pattern mirrored one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E. The merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god. We are the outcome of deicide.

Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value. Nor are we created to subdue the earth and have dominion over it as God’s regents; we exist but to serve as slaves of the gods and of their earthly regents. The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.

Later, Marduk was fused with Tammuz, a god of vegetation whose death and resuscitation was enacted in the humiliation and revival of Marduk, an element that is preserved in cartoon shows by the initial defeat of the “good guy” and his eventual victory over evil, as it were, out of the very jaws of death. The only detail in our modern rendition that is different is that the enemy has generally ceased to be female.

As Marduk’s representative on earth, the king’s task is to subdue all those enemies who threaten the tranquility that he has established on behalf of the god. The whole cosmos is a state, and the god rules through the king. Politics arises within the divine sphere itself. Salvation is politics: the masses identify with the god of order against the god of chaos, and offer them­selves up for the Holy War that imposes order and rule on the peoples round about.

Walter Wink, The Powers That BeA Theology for a New Millennium, ISBN: 0-385-48752-5 (Galilee/Doubleday; New York; 1998) Pages 44-48.

That said, the folks who influence us from the Buddhist outlook on things, suggest that the first place of discerning mindfulness happens in our heads. Here are a few questions:

  1. What groups of people do we judge to be of less worth than us?
  2. What gives us (you and me) our worth?
  3. If our circumstances (yours or mine) changed because of war, disease, natural disasters or our own ineptitude, would our worth change in any way?
  4. Isn’t the worth we attribute to ourselves or others actually a value we have in our head?
  5. Who taught us that value system?
  6. What is the value system of your faith expression?
  7. What is the value system of the people who have and do nurture your life, somehow impacting on your current lifestyle, beliefs and activity?

Only you have answers for those seven questions. But here’s one last question for your consideration.

Life is pretty short. When you come to the end of your gig in, as Ira Glass terms it, “This American Life,” what affect will your existence had on people where you’ve been?

Try wrestling with these questions. We’d benefit from hearing from you because we are all in this together for what seems to be a very short time. We are open to learning.

Being Present in the Transitions

We do a lot of grasping throughout our lives  We like our stuff. We want to hold on to our things. We want to keep our activities and surroundings the same. We maintain the way we do things, the way we think and what we value. We go from day to day as if we will always have and control our life’s experiences. ‘To have and to hold to cherish’ suggest our wedding vows. “My Precious” said J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Gollum in  The Lord of the Rings.

But what is it that we hold on to? Pretty much everything. We prefer things around us to stay the way they are. We’re often ‘change-resistant.’ The way things are have become the way we do things around here. That goes for how we stack dishes in the cupboard, where we store things in the closet, the people we strangely judge as not as equal to us because of their differences. My gosh, we’ve put our socks in the same place in our dresser for years.

It’s probably why couples, at least in the first couple of years of marriage, fight over the way toothpaste tubes are squeezed, cars are parked in the garage and the lopsidedness of perception of household chore responsibilities. It is a miracle that two people can amiably negotiate the ordering of their household. Then there is the use of how we handle power. The extent that we can create an environment of fair and consensus-based decisions. If nobody ever modeled it or taught us or we never learned how to use our power and influence in decisions in an egalitarian way, we are doomed to a life of loneliness.

Not to mention that all this grasping and controlling, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how we measure our self-worth. We mysteriously think that if we have a lot of things or financial power, we are doing pretty well. House. Car. Gadgets. Job. Things, you know, <strong>my</strong> drill, <strong>my</strong> lawnmower, <strong>my</strong> position in the company. Keeping up with the Jones. Maintaining a lifestyle that approximates the TV and movie characters with whom we seem to identify.

This is immediately fertile ground for the topics related to personal growth and fulfillment. If we relentlessly strive to hold on to the way we do things and what we now possess, we don’t grow or mature. We wall ourselves into a nice little box. A person wrapped up in themselves makes for a pretty small package.

But our lives are full of transitions. Everything changes. This is why we cry at marker events like weddings, births, graduations and funerals. Things keep changing and the ceremonies frame the transitions to new changes.

There are few circumstances that bring us to face the temporariness of life more obvious than the first day of retirement or walking out of the courtroom after the divorce is finalized. This is because we’ve programmed ourselves to define who we are in our introductions. Like, Hello, my name is Bill and I am the Vice President at BigBox Corporation. Or Hi, I’m Sharon and I’m <strong>married</strong> <strong>to</strong> Bill and we have 2.3 children, we <strong>own</strong> a house in the burbs and I’m <strong>a member</strong> of the PTA and <strong>work</strong> as an investment broker for Too Big To Fail Bank, LLC.

We broadcast who we are by defining ourselves by what we do and with whom we are in relationship. Somehow, just us and our own interests, likes, passions and allergies and phobias aren’t enough. We even tend hold on to the things we don’t have but aspire to have or do. We spend years holding on to our careers (and roles) because we think that if we keep doing the same thing with ourselves, things won’t change. We won’t have to give up anything.

Career wise, we pursue excellence in what we do. We pursue further training. We try to meet company goals. We seek to excel and win the approval and admiration of those who are higher up on the corporate latter. Throughout our lives, we seek to hold on to our position, our title, our salary level. We pursue tenure as if craving for oxygen.

Frankly, there isn’t much in life that we don’t strive to keep the same. So unless we are creative artists and musicians seeking new venues and textures in our work or performances, we strive to keep things as they already are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This brings us to transitions.  There are changes foisted upon us or self-chosen migrations to different experiences we feel we must make. We resist change and frankly haven’t cultivated pursuing change in our lives in order to grow.

If we define our sense of who we are by what we do and with whom we are in relationship, when those things change, our life can seem to unravel – at least in our mind. Like it or not, despite our overwhelming predisposition to prefer things to stay the same, they don’t.

But what happens when the people who once related to us only by our position in the company are not there. The social circumstances, once resulting from relationships we had, may disappear. We’re now looking at different visual imagery throughout our day. Our daily communication with others has remarkably changed – maybe stopped in several ways. The phone. The emails. The conversations, the meetings, the written reports. Say, presentations, deadlines, calendar management. Social obligations.

  1. Who we are in the company has no significance (although who we are as a person is huge).
  2. What we do for an external group is no longer a valid means of weighing our self-worth.

The fact is, a corporate position, salary and power doesn’t add anything to our worth. (But note that nobody in America thinks this. That’s why we seem to be obsessed with holding on and adding to what we have and can control.)

The absolutely transforming thing you get when you are beyond your full-time career years or are experiencing less of a socially connected life is that you can come home to yourself – to be at home with yourself.

Come home? you ask as you fiddle through your now empty calendar on your smart phone in vain. Come home as if I’ve been away? you continue to muse. But where I have I been that I would come home?

Well, that’s the point. Where have we been all these years? Chances are that we’ve not been real present with our spouse or significant other. That’s because we’ve put so much more of ourselves in our careers because we thought that would bring ups more or ensure that we keep the level of money we needed to maintain control of our lives. More of what we like – what we’re used to. ‘Keeping things the way we like them.’

But sometimes at transitions, we find that we haven’t been very present in our lives to begin with. Some of us couldn’t be present in the moment with our spouse for the time it takes to eat a meal. We’d feel uncomfortable with moments of silence (as if is mandatory that one or the other of us has to be laying down a bed of words to dispel the silence).

Check this out. When you are in the room with your significant other for ten minutes, do you know how they feel? At the end of the day, if you were magically transported to a college classroom and you were asked to write an essay on what is most important to your spouse, how many sentences would you be able to scribble out?

Complicating almost any transition is our lives is that we haven’t been very present with ourselves, those closest people to us or even the transitions and changes themselves. How present are you with yourself, those around you and what is happening in your life in this very moment?

“Riley, do you love me? “Peg asked.

Riley responded: “Well I live here, don’t It?

Do you feel that who you are, without any career position or social relationship, is just as it (you) should be? Do you feel that if you suddenly found yourself living in a totally new context, that whoever you’d meet would find a good and worthwhile person in you? Do you feel that in whatever context you’d find yourself in, others would find you to be a worthwhile human being who positively contributes to their existence?

This is a far cry, another planet or cosmos if you will, from the daily striving to get, hold on to and protect what we have and have been for all our previous years. It’s an entirely different orientation to life.

It’s not the money. It’s not the investments that may or may not be working for us while we’re sleeping. It’s not the house, the car, the boat, the property, the career. That’s because when all of the ownerships and responsibilities into which we’ve placed our energies are gone,  all we have left is ourselves. To whatever extent we’ve been able to be present in the lives of our most significant others, it comes down to< now. What we’re left with is just us. Can we even be present, in a comfortable and loving way, with ourselves?

You see, it comes down to this moment. Be present in the transitions. Our lives are full of them.

The good news is that you’ve got a wonderful and noble person along with you in all of these transitions and change – you.

As I Transition Out of Your Care

A letter to the staff of the Western New York Cancer Care Center

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Dear staff members,

Today is the last of my 45 treatments for prostate cancer. The Maker should have recalled these defective parts centuries ago but a successful class-action suit has yet to be achieved. One out of six males – one out of four on African American models.

Then there’s the design flaws. The main fluid draining conduit runs right through the middle of this walnut-shaped little part but integral to one of the higher orders of human experience. Location, location, location. If you get any swelling or irritation in this flawed part, you’re stuck with the ridiculous drama of having  to know the location of every public drainage facility for miles around. Clearly Google and all of silicone valley partners should have resolved this problem by now.

The same should be said of breast cancer and those who blithely and casually dismiss the worthiness of 99% of the rest of humanity who don’t measure up, in their judgment, to their station in life. Didn’t society move beyond the 19th century classicism portrayed in PBS’s “Upstairs Downstairs?”

But you work at Cancer Care of Western New York and you are doing significant things to resolve these parts of the problems. You serve on a team of gifted individuals who are successfully battling cancer.

Now all of us are compensated for what we do in our careers. No matter where we go, they’ve got to pay us to work there. What is different about what you do is that you are called to be present in healing encounters. Those of us who come through your doors come with some brokenness. We are in transition, having learned that something in our bodies is in need of repair. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of them all.

We come into your office, as you well know, with a the waterfront of fears, unknowns, anxieties and sometimes depression being expressed by all the personality types of humanity.

The cancer, with which we’ve been diagnosed, lingers on like a giant outdoor billboard plopped down on our front yard. It says YOU HAVE CANCER! To our dismay, the giant billboard also appears in our living rooms, kitchens, certainly our restrooms, our cars and at work. CANCER no less. . . . Me, <em>for cripes sake</em>.

So your patients are jumping in and out of all of Kubler-Ross’ s stages of <em>On Death and Dying</em>. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Regardless of our grasp on reality, everything is temporary. No matter how many years we’ve enjoyed the comfort of our personal lifestyle and all of its familiar coffee shops, dollar stores, local pubs, favorite shopping malls and TV shows, ‘we’re just a passin’ through.’ Everything changes.

As patients, we also carry into your office a real sense of loss. As we are jolted into realizing that we are in the ever-shortening last stage of our lifetimes, we sense that our lives are going to change. Our lives will never be the same as before.

What we all don’t immediately realize, after our biopsies, is that while you provide care and services for us, we become part of the Cancer Care of WNY team. The closer we follow the play book (the protocol advice of each module’s specialist), the smoother and more effective the results will be in bringing about our healing. But we’ve got to become team players ourselves.

In any spoken or printed words of what would help us, we are not quickly seeing all the work that has produced it. Unless we have benefitted from medical training, we don’t see the thousands of research and practice hours behind each aspect of treatment. We don’t know about the published and collegial-scrutinized research papers, the doctoral dissertations, the measured and evaluated clinical trials, the blind and double blind tests that thousands, before us, have undergone to determine the best courses of treatments. We don’t hear any of that but in a way, we trust that all of those things are behind everything we experience.

<strong>Trust.</strong> That’s something all of us patients cling to with a lot of motivation. Your white coats are actually not necessary. You’ve got 5 million dollar IMRT machines buzzing their merry way around our bodies like R2D2 on steroids. So we know your competence must precede your responsibilities amidst the mammoth financial investment in this life-sustaining infrastructure around you.

Hope is the holy grail of the healing process. Every one of us is looking for hooks on which to hang our hope for our futures.

By now, we know life will not be the same from this point on. Our frantic but unrealistic hope for lack of change always must yield to reality. “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Reality always trumps and holds all winning cards. With whatever cards we hold, we optimistically call the other side of our transitions “the new normal.”

At Cancer Care of WNY, you are essentially working in a battle zone. You see a lot of suffering and pain. You see, on our faces, the fear, the pain, the depression. Sometimes the brokenness. You see some of us shuffling in and wonder how it is that we are still ambulatory. In nanoseconds, you can sadly see other eminent medical problems that will necessitate care in other clinics.

The other day, in the waiting area, an elderly woman was brought in for therapy in a wheelchair. Shortly after arriving, she began to cry. She was weeping from her unbearable pain. Whatever was the cause, the enormity of her internal pain could not remain silently contained in her frail body.

Fortunately, your staff colleagues rushed to her side and helped her into an examination room for immediate pain support.

Despite all the suffering you see in your patients, you stay focused and resilient. Your energy and fortitude in the midst of the suffering is remarkable. You are thoroughly professional and somehow you remain personable and caring.

But here is where you shine, not only here at the Cancer Care Center of WNY but on into your future.

Not only are your patients in the midst of transitions themselves, all of us experience transitions throughout life. You already have and will definitely undergo changes of your own. You’ll experience transitions in your relationships, in your careers. You’ll change your thinking on some of the things you once valued above all else. Some of the things you pursued will be left behind for other matters you will come to value as more important. As the old Simon and Garfunkel song said, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

As much as we like to embrace our seemingly unchanging world, it changes and we simply can’t control most of it. As do those of us who are patients, you, will go through transitions in your life.

Most of us already have migrated through changes, however old we may be. But when you think back through your transitions, you know there were some difficult ones. But who were the people who helped you most during those transitions?

Significant others. It was a friend or relative who was particularly present in your life when things got out of hand and were most scary. They listened to you when you made no sense. They stayed with you to help you get more information. They were there for you to take in and absorb your frustration, your denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately your acceptance of the way things landed. They were “your person” as the Christina and Meredith characters portray in ABC’s <em>Grey’s Anatomy</em>.

As the same time, that’s not what your job is at work. You have a very medical, technical or clinical responsibility. Certainly the pain and uncertainty you witness on a daily basis causes you to sometimes leave work with your batteries totally drained. You’ve undoubtedly experienced burnout. You may have seriously wondered if there is another line of work that would call forth from you yet untapped yearnings and dreams without leaving you emotionally shredded and run through the wringer.

I was a Protestant minister for fifteen years. I loved the work. The teaching, the counseling, the writing and the many opportunities to be creative were at the center of my academic, intellectual and emotional career life for 60 to 80 hours a week. But I was burned out. I had to get away from the endless hours amidst funerals, crisis counseling and the usual petty skirmishes over which color to paint the lavatories or whether investments on the youth groups should triumph over architectural repairs.

One year, I changed careers. I went into marketing, advertising, writing, technology and videography.

At first, people were utterly shocked that I’d make such a change. Early on, though, I discovered nothing had changed in me. I found the obvious truth that customers (seeking my marketing or technological support) needed the same focus and caring as those who were once my  parishioners. Obviously different contexts and delivery of services but the same focused listening and human caring is needed.

So how is that relevant to your truly brief daily interactions with those of us who are your patients?

It’s clear that your patient encounters are not lengthy sessions on helping us sort through the problems and hardships of our lives. Your job is to empower the therapy and to teach how how to make adjustments that support the therapeutic protocols for our healing.

Your presence in the tasks at hand is the same as how you and I relate to a neighbor when we’re handing them a poorly aimed newspaper. It is the same when we exchange a few words with our mail carrier or a clerk at the store. We’re looking them in the eye and relating to them in an unconditionally accepting and open way. We are taking them fully in, in the moment, however brief the exchange may be.

Your patient encounters all seem to transpire in brief moments. It’s not the duration of the exchange. <em>It’s about how present you are in those moments</em>, even though there are many moments and many of us patients who interact with you throughout the day.

It can, and should, become routine because of the limitations on time and the narrow focus of your work. But the magic ingredient in every one of your patient encounters is you.

The magic that is taking place is in your extending of yourself. Your non-verbal communication. Your tone. Your full presence in those moments, as short as they may be.

In each of these moments, you have been genuine and friendly. It’s when you are being kind and patient with the guy who feels woefully inadequate because he doesn’t think he’ll be able to retain the water he consumed in order to suspend his bladder up out of the way of the soon-to-be radiated prostate. It has been years since he was frantically waiving his hand in second grade to get the teacher’s permission to go to the rest room. The feelings are still the same.

In each of your patient encounter moments, you are being flexible and open for any question that might come your way. When you use your energy and focus beyond your job task to be responsive in these moments, <strong>you are being truly present in the moments</strong> in this transition period of your patients. You’re putting your personality and humanness into the mundane acts. That makes our experience here, with your team, transformative and healing.

The way you are responding in these moments makes us feel that we are not just in a drive-through medical center, ordering up a cancer cure to go.

Instead, we feel that we are fortunate to be a part of a greater team that is committed to our personal healing. It makes us feel more whole, even though the hand we were dealt is not optimal. You make us remember that however brief the moments we are with you, we are part of something that is much bigger and more embracing than the smaller concerns that are just contained in ourselves. You are making us feel, and reminding us always, that we are all intricately connected to and part of the wonderful human race. <strong>You are doing this with your presence</strong>.

That’s what I want to thank you for. For what you do, I am grateful. But for who you are and have been, in the 45 days of treatments, for your personal presence in this segment of this transition for me, <em>thank you</em>.

 

Cerish the abilities you possess and are using in this current career. They are embodied in in your DNA. And nobody, no transition, no circumstance, can ever take away from you the unique aspects of who you are.

Thank you for your presence. I’m sure that many others will feel the same gratitude from your presence in the years to come – wherever you choose to live and work. It is in being mindful of this sense of presence, that you possess, that you will find the meaning of your life. Cherish it.

How Much Space Do You Need To Be Happy?

It seems that we don’t think much about our space requirements unless we see the inside of a multi-million dollar mansion in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or we’re in a Zillow research for an apartment in New York City, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Or a nursing home where they aim to plant us in a tiny room with another disabled person so we don’t stray and cause more work than we already do for their staff.

Personal space. How much do we really need? And how does that need relate to our happiness?Initially, when we fantasize about winning a mega lottery, we’d go for one of those Beverly Hills mansions with three-story vaulted ceilings and every opulent room looking like it came out of a coffee table magazine. The long walks from any one of the several living rooms all the way back through a kitchen large enough to park several cars and eight walk-in refrigerator-freezers. The exercise in going from one end of the house back past the indoor pool, the six- bedroom suite for guests and the polo field beyond the outdoor tennis courts would get us half way to our Fitbit step goal for the day. “Now THAT would make me happy!” we tell ourselves.

But throughout life, we’ve already heard “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” (The Beatles) or “You can’t take it with you” (a comedic play in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; film with Jimmy Stewart; album by As Tall as Lions or “This World Is Not My Home I’m just a-passin’ through” (by Albert E. Brumley 1952).

Our mansion fantasy fades with our first real pay check. Our dram of having an extravagant and luxurious living space is left to live out its short existence on the rectangular television screen. And even though those video actresses and actors are raking in a million dollars an episode, have you ever noticed the apartments and hallways just outside of their studio set living spaces? Think “Friends.” Think “The Big Bang Theory.” Even these hallway studio props are plan, small, drab and a little dingy – nothing memorable. They’re just like what we end up with when we have to rent.

I have loved ones living in apartments in LA. Neither they, nor anyone they know, could ever affordto purchase housing there without direct and committed involvement with the criminal elements of society. If you move to the convenience and stimulation of urban living, downsizing is a way of life.
You know that you end up with less as change comes. You figure that what you lose in living space, perhaps, you’ll gain in career and social stimulation. Otherwise, why would we sell our mostly owned houses and move to a lifestyle we can’t afford with dramatically less space?

Observation #1

We will not achieve happiness by getting more space in which to live.Then there’s the life-long commitment to the idea that we want to stay in one place while we are aging. I’m not talking about wobbling geriatrics who live in constant fear of teetering down to the ground to break a hip or pelvis, followed by 6 months in a tiny rehabilitation room for five grand a week and no bandwidth.

I mean young and agile yoga-sculpted twenty-somethings who finally get their own apartment but quickly embrace the familiarity of the new surroundings, making it their new “home.” “Home” being defined by accumulating familiarity with the friendly coffee shop server; the drug store pharmacist who seems to know your name; the organic grocery market manager who smiles at you when answering your question; the clothing shop sales person who shared her story of her scare with breast cancer or our postal carrier who made small talk by jokingly apologizing about delivering only bills.The familiarity of all of these things and people seem to be the fabric which gives substance to our sense of “home” and happiness.

Observation #2

We interpret our happiness by the level of our familiarity with things and people.We are thinking that it isn’t the amount of space we have that brings us happiness. We may be thinking that familiarity is supposed to make us happy. That’s why, in every poll of the aging population, we all say that we want to “age in place.” To stay where we are. Avoid moving. Keep everything as it is, the way we know it is (and should be) simply because we are used to it being that way. But a parakeet in a cage lives that way!

But familiarity breeds contempt. “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful. For example, Ten years at the same job and now he hates it – familiarity breeds contempt. The idea is much older but the first recorded use of this expression was in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee (c. 1386).” (From the Free Dictionary.com)

But when we’ve been striving for something new and different, we are grasping, looking for something else. But then, “Nothing lasts forever!” Consider: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, …” (Matthew 6:19). From the wings of the stage come the Buddhists dancing in their red robed kick line chorus, singing: “Everything is temporary!”

‘Ok, we get that’ you say. ‘But you can’t live that way! Shouldn’t we try to live in happiness? What is this ‘circling the drain’ theme you have for a title of your blog? Are you some sort of manic depressive?

One of our problems with clinging to keeping everything the same as we’ve always had it is that everything changes, no matter what we or anyone else does. The changing world is totally independent of our preferences, our desires, our plans and our investments. Change is out of our control. We can only manage our response to it.

Yet we live as if we can control what happens in our lives. We are all a little schizophrenic in that way. We think or pretend that we can actually control most of the world around us. The folks who think they can (and should be able to control the world around them) are incapable of growing intellectually, socially and spiritually.

Put another way, people who frequently say, judgmentally, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!” are, sooner or later, abandoned by people around them.

People who continually treat those who are different from them as “The Other” are living examples of a “Wacky Plaks” post card I saw in the 1950’s: “People who are wrapped up in themselves make a pretty small package.”

The people who try to control spirituality and religious inquiry by imposing their dogma and creedal formulations on others – are, sadly, needy and boring control freaks who quickly drain all the joy, human compassion and creative beauty out of any moment in the atmosphere. They justify their social and intellectual death spiral judgmental behavior by claiming that they are earnestly trying to do “the right thing” while they lacerate to shreds the self-worth of the unfortunate others whom they lambast. Avoid watching FOX (so-called) ‘News!’

Observation #3

We don’t get our happiness through having more space or stuff. Neither do we attain happiness through familiarity or knowing, in a predictive and controlling way, how everything is going to turn out – as if we can know and control everything. Therefore, it must have to do with being content with what is and bestowing compassion.

This isn’t being complacent with what is. If that is all it amounts to, then we should just take our “Soma” pills, as in Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World dystopian work. “What about social justice? … Are you suggesting that we tacitly sit back and let bad and evil continue to oppress and ravage humanity?”

Contentment has to do with a complex presence of a number of things in our own head.For one, it is the understanding that everything changes.For another, it is the awareness that we don’t have the resources or the influence to change or even have an impact on most things or people.

The most power we have is over ourselves, our thinking, our feeling and our own behavior.But we can’t skip off singing: “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be; the future’s not ours to see; que sera, sera; what will be, will be” (Roy Evans, 1956). We are not isolated robots, sputtering off in our unique programmed behavior, doomed to run out of our battery power and cease viability at some random end point before our parts are relegated to the scrap yard.

We find contentment, and therefore meaning, as we approach each moment of our lives with what Andy Puddicombe (of Headspace.com) explains as “beginner’s mind.” It is that space or openness within our consciousness that approaches everything with wonder and acceptance. It is that mindfulness and awareness that no matter what physical spaciousness or material opulence that may or may not be around us, we can find delight, contentment and breath-taking creativity in any moment as we approach whatever it is that is our next thing.

Some think of this as spontaneity. Some call it intellectual curiosity. Some see it in looking for outlets of compassion for anyone we meet. It’s all the opposite of living a life where you’re trying to control, compete, judge, frantically escape or hoard in order to vainly try to find happiness.

That’s the “Space” in which we will find happiness or contentment. It is the space that possesses an unlimited amount of compassion. That compassion, by the way, is what will change the world and transform people and things that have gone awry. That is the space we need to ‘be happy’ but each of us already have that space within us. We just need to be present in it, from moment to moment.

Coming of Age

On a day not long after the knights of the Round Table flourished, there was an aging wizard and his young apprentice walking through a meadow on the edge of a village. It was Spring and the hood of the cloak of the tall wizard was thrown back, revealing his long gray hair and even longer white beard. At a glance, his beard could have been mistaken for a sash for it flowed down his chest, and comically around his left hip, across the small of his back and its end was tucked into the front right pocket of his cloak. His face was bronze and with his bushy white eyebrows, he looked as if he had walked through many ages.

His apprentice was a young woman of twenty with long hair, black as a raven, which flowed gracefully over and down her shoulders. Her cloak matched that of the old wizard’s, gray with silver and reddish lines woven through it.

“Tell me Galadriel,” said the wizard, his name was Ondag, “have you been able to achieve the disappearance spell lately?”

“No but I think I’m as close to it as I’ve ever been” she said looking at him with a smile and a sparkle in her eyes.

Ondag paused in the meadow and looked into Galadriel’s young and beaming face. His own face was a weathered sea of wrinkles and gaiety. Looking intently into her eyes, as a gentle wind began to toss her hair, he continued: “Yes, I think you are close to having that one” and with that, he swept his arm ahead, slightly bowing, saying: “perhaps this field?”

Galadriel turned her head slightly at an angle, as if pausing in a conversation to reflect, looking at the field of heather and gorse, and exhaled evenly, quietly repeating the spell: “lamma ta farleo uhmdello rah.” But immediately the meadow turned completely red and the nearby houses red as well. Everything became surreal.

The wizard chuckled and uttered: “lamma la farleo uhmdello fah” and the field vanished and the two appeared to be standing in thin air, near the houses of the village.

Galadriel slowly tapped her fingers into her head in self disappointment but Ondag put his arm around her shoulder and gently said in his cheerful way: “Those who try to do something and fail are infinitely better than those who try to do nothing and succeed. Try it backwards.” So she perked up and as she swept her outstretched hand back toward her chest, she said, “sheendo triumph” and the field was instantly as before. They both laughed and walked on, approaching the village of thatched roofed homes and other buildings.

Nearing the first house, they saw a woman carrying a sack going into her home. From within the home came a young voice. “Mother, where is my dinner?” To which the woman responded as she began to open the door, “Why don’t you get it yourself.”

Next, without going in, the woman quietly closed the door and sat down on a nearby bench against the house with her bag. She just stared vaguely in the direction of the village.

Ondag and Galadriel, as if they had the same thoughts, stopped in their tracks in hearing the words. Fortunately they both were not in the line of the woman’s vision and when her tall young son came out the door, he did not notice their presence either.

The young man said, “I can’t understand why you’re so irritable, mother. All I asked for was my dinner.”

Ondag turned Galadriel and himself aside when he saw her coming forth with a comment. Further away, Galadriel said, “With insensitivity like that, it would be a wonder the boy ever found happiness.”

“I agree,” said the old wizard, “but which one do you judge as insensitive?”

“Well of course the woman cares nothing for her son or she would not have snapped at him so. She may have had a difficult day but the fellow did deserve a better answer, . . . didn’t he?” Galadriel asked in earnest.

Ondag looked over at the house with curiosity in his eyes.“Let me show you a spell I haven’t tried for years” he said. Next, he held both of his hands before him, as if holding an invisible object and uttered the words. “holio  metra summa quinnos.”

At first Galadriel saw the young man walk backward into the house. His speech was rippling and meaningless, also backward. The woman stood up from the bench, went to the door and after an indistinguishable utterance, closed it and walked backwards away from the house with her bag as she had come.

The sun swept over their heads like a shooting star. Nights and days flashed by speedily and all scenery before them became blurring, filled with random humming and whirring.

Finally Ondag uttered, “Stop!” and the scene stopped. The houses were different. They seemed to be in another part of town. With somewhat different clothing, unknown people were walking about in the village.

Suddenly a cart loaded with hay was coming toward them but Ondag did not move, even after Galadriel tried to tug him away. The cart went right through him. They were as ghosts, invisible.

“Where are we?” asked Galadriel after collecting herself. “Is this a vision spell or a dream spell?”

Ondag responded, “Neither. This is a time change spell, taking us back into the past and we don’t exist in it. At least you are not born yet and I’m living, in this time frame, in another country. I could go there if I looked over my shoulder but I will stay with you. This is thirty years ago.” Pausing to point to someone approaching them, he continued, “Do you see that woman in the blue shawl?”

Almost skipping down the street was a younger version of the woman who had, only moments before the spell, just returned to her home and son. “Yes, and she seems happy” Galadriel said. “Why is she so happy now, compared to how serious she is, I mean, how she seems to be in the future?”

“You shall see” said Ondag and they followed her down the street.

The young woman entered a home and there to greet her was a handsome young man, only a few years her senior. They embraced.

“This is her husband” Ondag said. But the couple could neither hear him nor see the two wizards.

Ondag and Galadriel listened to the couples’ talk. He spoke of his work at the local jousting fields. He told of the latest combat practice trials and the newest war ponies. The woman spoke of the village and would ask her husband for permission to buy this or that. And so the conversation went for some time.

“They seem happy enough” Galadriel said, looking at Ondag with a questioning look.

“Have you stopped to wonder why she has to ask permission so often?” Ondag replied. But without pausing for an answer, Ondag snapped his fingers and the scene began to change as it had before.

Just when everything, again, seemed to be in a blur and whir, he again said “stop!”

It was a different home this time. The couple had aged ten years and they were in the midst of entertaining a houseful of people. They were apparently workers and families from his jousting club. Some of those in attendance were eating, others were arm wrestling or filling beer steins – most all of them salubrious from the vintage.

In one bedroom were two sleeping children. A boy about four and a girl about six.

“Theirs?” Galadriel asked.

“Yes” Ondag replied. It was well into the evening and the woman stood at one corner of the table, picking up dirty dishes, ignored by her husband. Further down the table he was laughing at a story that wasn’t funny, told by one of his superiors from work sitting across the table.

Ondag snapped his fingers several times now, causing scenes of the woman’s life to appear with six to twelve months elapsing each time. There were glimpses of vacation travels of the family. They were seen in cathedrals, fairs, market places and the jousting arena. But Galadriel noticed a growing distance between the woman and her husband. She saw that talk came more freely between the woman and her children than with her husband.

As various scenes passed before them, the children grew older, as did their parents. Whether by chance or circumstance, the husband was more and more absent. The woman’s facial expressions were more often downcast and there were more occurrences of her being alone than with her husband.

Ondag snapped his fingers once more and waited for an indeterminable number of moments as things changed. During the change, Galadriel commented with concern, “She seems to have grown increasingly sad. Their marriage has been disappearing.”

Ondag, also moved, added, “Yes, she was a wife and mother but she lost some of herself in it all. Because while he thought she should be in charge of the house, he never seemed to understand that she should be able to be in charge of herself.”

Time stopped at Ondag’s command. They found themselves within the house they first saw earlier that day. It was modestly but pleasantly furnished, only in the middle of the main room was a pile of dusty bags and other items showing a return from a journey. Laying in the corner of the room was the young man Galadriel had first seen coming out of the door asking for dinner.

“Where’s the husband and the daughter?” Galadriel asked, looking around from room to room.

Ondag said, “The woman lives with her daughter, who is cleaning homes to earn bread. Her husband left two years ago and has not been seen since. Perhaps I skipped over too much, too quickly, but alas, the woman must struggle to earn her living.

Her son, here, has just returned from a holiday. The woman has had difficulty making ends meet but still manages on her meager earnings.”

“Where does she work?” Galadriel asked the old wizard.

“I thought I saw her working for the town healer. She washes his bottles and does his bookkeeping” Ondag summarized.

“How lonely and tired she must feel” Galadriel said but with distraction she looked out the window and said,

“Look there. She is returning home with a sack on her shoulder.”

The woman was turning in from the street, obviously tired from the day’s work. But the young man, also seeing this, got up and went to the nearby window. He called out, “Mother, where is my dinner?”

“Well the nerve of him,” cried Galadriel. “He is of age” she continued. “He ought to…”

“That is where you are mistaken” interrupted Ondag, who stroked his beard as he kept his eyes on the scene.

The woman’s voice was heard at the door, “Why don’t you get it yourself” she said with the days fatigue in her voice. And as the young man went out to voice his complaint, Ondag spoke again.

“He is not of age nor is his sister. But you can now see the scene was not as you first judged.”

Galadriel, with an unsettled look, said, “Yes, but I suppose I should have guessed that. But when, Ondag, will her children come of age? Though she is a strong woman, she most certainly could benefit from more support and understanding by her children.”

Ondag responded, “The scenes of what is to come are unknown. I have neither the power nor the desire to know the future. There was only one Wizard, around Whom time is measured, Who knew the future. But from the past, I have found time to yield patterns to one’s coming of age.

At that moment the young man was beginning to walk away down the street, while the woman again sat wearily beside her home. Tears were in her eyes.

“The pattern is seen,” Ondag continued, “when a young one looks away from self and looks eye to eye with parents from a distance.”

“You do not mean that when one grows as tall as one’s parents and leaves the home, do you?” asked Galadriel.

Ondag, for the second time that day, put his arm on Galadriel’s shoulder and said, “Only when children cease to make their own needs central, can they look away from themselves. At the point when they can look at their parents as other equal adults (with needs of their own), that is when they have come of age. It is then that they can make any place in their sojourn their home.”

As Ondag finished, Galadriel’s face became jubilant and radiant – the likes of which Ondag had not before seen in her. He again looked deep into her eyes and saw that she had grasped his words.

Galadriel and Ondag were distracted by the return of the young man to the house. He was rushing past them and awkwardly brushed by, apologizing to them without his eyes meeting their faces. He turned to the side of the house, where his mother was still sitting and without saying a word, slowly took the sack from her hand and sat beside her. He put his arm around her and  pensively looked at the ground before them.

As minutes passed, they talked. Smiles appeared on their faces and they even began to laugh. In a few moments he stood to his feet and started toward the door carrying her sack. As the door opened he said, “What do you want me to make for dinner?” And with that, Ondag and Galadriel walked on their way.

At the far end of the town, the wizards choose different paths. From having been apprentice and mentor for five years, they now parted as friends, eye to eye, from a distance. For on that day two had come of age – a young woman and a young man and in doing so, the future held magic for them and for all who would be close to them.

 

Transitions in Community

When a “For Sale”sign ” goes up in the neighborhood, it’s a little startling. When the home belongs to folks you have come to know, it is a little more unsettling. But when the “Sold” sign goes up ten days later, now there’s a bit of a tremor in the force.

That’s because we seem to spend most of our lives holding on to the “normal” images, sounds, shapes, people and places we often experience. We cling to what we feel is “normal” – the usual people and things we’ve come accustomed to having in our lives. Tradition. The familiar.

C.S. Lewis, the great religious writer of pieces like The Narnia Series and other books also wrote The Four Loves. In it, he described 4 kinds of love, most of which we all experience throughout our lives.

The first kind of love is the love of familiarity. We love our pet dog and its friendly smiling and slobbering face and wagging tail. The innocent look of confusion or incessant desire to play. We love the big lug falling asleep in the recliner with his hands firmly controlling the television remote. We love the same old streets, stores and places that we are used to seeing for years at a time. We love and we cling to the familiarity of it all.
The “For Sale” and “Sold” signs emit tremors. Someone is moving out – someone we frequently see day in and day out. We don’t like change. We don’t like to think that someday we will have to make changes ourselves. We like all our “stuff” and it is ours and we’ve always had it and not only do we not want to move it, (and have to set it all up again somewhere else) – we don’t ever want to get rid of some of it – make that ANY of it. We want things just the way they are!

The fact that some “older people” have gotten rid of their home and moved into some kind of subsidized, small, geriatric ghetto with other well-aged people: “that just will never happen to me!” we quickly tell ourselves (without saying it out loud.) “I’m going to stay in my house forever, not change ANYTHING, and if I die, either my kids will just take care of it or the town will come along and handle it.” We all seem to be change resistant and living with a hardened denial about transitions surely coming ahead of us.

Sometimes we have become familiar with folks on our block and neighborhood and it feels comfortable to see these same people walking by on their daily stroll. The familiar friendly greetings and exchanges through the years bring friendliness to the neighborhood.

The second kind of love Lewis discusses is that of friendship. It’s the sort of relationship where we have become close to another. This is where we find that we are accepted, forgiven and we find enjoyment in common values, activities and commitments.

Friendships we make in the neighborhood are forged from shared acts of concern. The natural and gentle laughter that flows from shared experiences. The casual times and the genuinely wonderful help we receive when we have a need when a neighboring friend has reached out to us.
There certainly have been times when we were overcome with sadness, the death of a friend or relative, the loss of a career, the frightening health diagnosis.

All these things add up, through the years, to yield the simple friendships that bind us together and give our lives stability and joy. We are indeed fortunate when we have found friendships in our neighborhood.

A more rare and meaningful form of love Lewis mentions is “Agapae.” It is the sort of love that one gives to another that is unconditional. No strings attached. Sometimes, a loving of the unlovable.

Perhaps it is the simple act of opening your home to welcome new or departing neighbors. It could extend to responding to a need (and sometimes to a very needy person) who is decidedly unlike you. Perhaps the kind of person whom you would never be like. But you give of yourself to them unconditionally. You are kind. You sacrifice to somehow quietly make their life better in some way. And you do it not expecting thanks or recognition. You just tough it out and do it because it is part of your DNA and you know that no matter what this person has done or where they have been, they are your neighbor. A fellow human being. A kindred spirit.

“If you do this to the least of these, you’re doing it unto Me.”
In our neighborhood, there have been quiet acts of unconditional love and they haven’t made the 6 o’clock news. They happened without fanfare. Yet they quietly soothed the heart of someone on your street.

The fourth kind of love Lewis mentions is the erotic. This is the wonderful stuff that Bruce Springsteen sings about being “the best time in my life.” Each of us know that some of us have been blessed to have some “best times in our lives” and yet others have not been so lucky. Yet we have come to trust our neighbors and most everyone seems have a genuine respect for the intimate, modest and cherished relationships that are part of the fabric of our lives.

So the “For Sale” and the “Sold” signs are a reminder that everything WILL change. No matter how much we live in denial of it, everything changes. The houses around us change. The people in the houses will change. The people in the rest of our lives change. We will change. Without noticing it, we are changing.

But the first three loves that CS Lewis talks about are the very things that enable us to weather these constantly changing lives of ours. While it always feels good to get back to the familiar, it’s the deepening friendships that carry us through the heartbreak and celebrate the joys of the small successes. It’s the unconditional love and acceptance and the random acts of kindness that give us a centering, right when we’ve felt we have hit bottom and there seems no way back.
These kinds of love are the very things that create a sense of community. They are the brick and mortar of our feelings that we are all connected. I think these diverse acts of love are subtle reminders of the presence of God. The genuine, compassionate, friendly presence that we have experienced in our neighborhood which have enriched the lives of each member of our family.

As our household makes a transition from our neighborhood here, we carry with us what we have learned from you. As we leave this neighborhood, we will seek to be a similarly compassionate and caring presence ourselves in the lives of others in our new community.

But we will have to work at it. There is a lot of joy and sorrow in life. Because of your presence in our lives in this neighborhood, we will try to be the same healing presence for others in our new community.

Thank you for all the kinds of love you have bestowed on us when we lived in your presence in NY. You have and are making life better for all of us.