Lake Tahoe to Lake Placid

MY FRIENDS LAUREN AND LAUREN CAME OVER

for a while last night and we figured out some things about this life. Namely that it's hard.

There you go. It's hard. There is sickness, suffering, death and loss woven into the fabric of a lifetime and there truly is no escaping this.

Life is hard. Which is why I'm convinced that we have to spend our time here doing two things: finding out what we're good at and doing it in a way so that it makes the world a better place.

My fifty-three years of time here have convinced me of this: we are here to improve the conditions of this world and to positively impact the lives of the people in it and life offers us infinite opportunities to do so. 

I don't believe that everything happens for a reason but I do believe that suffering serves a purpose. It heightens our awareness, sharpens our vision, reminds us that we are vulnerable and returns us to the core of our humanity. It calls us to action with the expectation that we respond.

If you can walk past a homeless or hungry person and not respond, you need to take Freshman Humanity again. If you can hear that someone is sick or has fallen into hard times and not ask How can I help? then I have a sneaky suspicion you are going to be doomed to live this thing all over again until you get better at it.

That's my hunch; I have no idea what happens when we die. Many people have asked me if I believe in hell and I think to myself...you've heard about Parkland, right? Vegas? Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook?  Afghanistan? Iraq? Syria? Katrina? Irene? Sandy? You know about Boko Haram and Bosnia and Darfur? Our rising seas and diminishing biodiversity? Yes, I tell them, I do believe in hell; we are living it right here, right now. This life is very hard. The good news is the other thing I have a hunch about: that a benevolent and loving life force has filled this place with lots and lots of good people who are kind-hearted, smart, strong of body and spirit and able to rise to the occasion. Also with flowers bloom that in the spring and snow that falls in the winter; this is a very, very beautiful place, in case you haven't noticed or have become indifferent to the magic all around you. 

Yes, this life is very hard. Lauren and Lauren and I came up empty in the Answers department. That's because there aren't any. We're not supposed to make the hard go away or even keep it at bay. We are supposed to know about it and experience it. We are supposed to act upon what we know; we're supposed to allow it to mold, shape and bend us, take the straw of us and spin it into gold. So be it.

 

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT

of unsolicited parenting advice, sort of, there's this:

People often ask me if I'm terrified when I see Sam launching himself off of something and flying through the air. He's a freestyle skier and he is very, very good at it. 

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No, I tell them, Sam was born to fly. He is a bird without wings. He has been throwing himself off trampolines and tree branches and cliffsides into lakes for as long as I have known him. No, it doesn't scare me at all. It makes me feel the way I feel when I watch the members of the New York City Ballet dance. It makes me feel the way I feel when I watch anyone do something magnificent with their body, something that seems improbable and poetic.

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Sam didn't come into my life so I could stop him from doing what he was born to do. Sam came into my life and his dad's life so we could release him to this world to do what he was born to do. As it turns out one of those things is to soar through the sky on a pair of skis. It's pure magic to me. Do I worry that he might hurt himself? I do. I also know that someone could walk into the library at Nate's school and shoot him, today. Or that Coco's plane could fall out of the sky, today or that .... I mean, you get the idea. Some things we do are, of course, more risky, but a life spent padded in bubble wrap and fear is not a life.

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I am in awe of my son, Sam. Amazed that my body created that being, and I can't wait to see him this weekend when he and his team travel from Lake Tahoe to Lake Placid to compete in the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association National Championships.

Samuel Lemaire, Lord of the Air, is what his Uncle Tommy dubbed him when he was just a little guy. Turns out he was so very right.

Amen.

About People

WHEN THEY WERE YOUNGER

we had different ways of saying good-bye in the morning; I had different things I would say when I was dropping them off at school. Sometimes it was, Make a lot of juicy mistakes today! I'm a huge fan of making mistakes. I mean, you've got to, you'll never get better at anything if you don't. 

Somehow, oddly, Don't kick any penguins! was my launch phrase for a while. For us it meant, be nice to everyone. Although, who would be mean to a penguin in the first place? It should probably have been, Don't squish any ants! But they got the point: be nice to everyone, no exceptions.

Now when Coco and I approach her school in the morning (Sadly, I don't have the honor of driving Nate to his classes in Bozeman or of dropping Sam off at his dining hall in Tahoe) we talk about modes of egress. We talk about windows and doors. We talk about the folly of hiding under a desk from a person with a semi-automatic rife. We speak the language of Get the hell out of there as fast as you can. And I will tell you that it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that there is a kernel of truth in our belief that she may need to use the advice I give her one day. That my 13-year-old daughter, ripening into teenagerhood before my very eyes, in that funny space between kid and not-kid, could one day go to the very institution designed for her health, well-being, safety, growth, exploration; the place where she is supposed to feel safe enough to fail, smart enough to succeed and content enough to thrive, is now a place where she might be murdered.

  Needless to say, I do not want her to get killed at school.

Needless to say, I do not want her to get killed at school.

I hope that all of the hearts that are breaking in our land because of this truth band together and rise up against the criminal mentality that has allowed this to become our new reality. In other words, I hope that we Americans do what we do best: get in some faces, make a lot of noise, be relentless and obnoxious and angry. I hope the heartbreak and anger are sustained long enough so that things change and we can get back to Don't kick any penguins very soon.

 

SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED

that I am now the news editor of the Charlotte News, back with the paper I wrote and photographed and edited for ten years ago. The cycles of life? Who knows. I will tell you this: when the opportunity came up I was delighted and then I was unsure, so I shared my thoughts with the board about the position of editor. And then we did this great thing, we had an on-going conversation about what works for everyone, keeping the best interest of the paper and those working on it in mind. We loosened our grip on how it had been done and imagined how it could be done and came to a place that we think will work for everyone. How great is that? To acknowledge the need for change and then to act upon it? For a 60-year-old institution, that's no easy ballgame. 

What does this mean for me? I get to write! And I get to get other writers to write! I get to encourage kids and grown-up to write and to take pictures. 

I get to play a role in the strengthening of the bonds of community in a little place called Charlotte, Vermont by care-taking the non-profit newspaper that has been read by its denizens since 1958. Lucky, lucky, lucky, I am the luckiest gal I know.

And yes, I am still a pastor and a hospice chaplain. I feel the sands of time speeding up, I feel I have no choice. There is so much work to be done. 

 

SHE WAS KNITTING

while she told me about her sheep and her felting and growing up in the very same town in Alaska where my sister lives now. At first it was a little jarring, how she could look at me and talk and knit at the same time and then it became soothing, mesmerizing. She talked about her mother and her dad and their life in Alaska. She talked about her cancer and the way life is as she cares for her mother in the last stage of her life.

And I found myself sitting there thinking, as I so often do, I cannot believe that 15 minutes ago these people were strangers and now I am sitting in a rocking chair in their living room hearing the stories of their lives. 

Her husband made me tea. The caretaker brought her mother out to join us. I sat with her while she ate lunch. She can't converse, so we just held hands and looked into each other's eyes. 

I could tell you, again, that I am the luckiest girl I know, but then you might think that I'm arrogant. But I want you to know something, beloved reader: it is in our stories where we will find our humanity. And you and I both know that our humanity is seeping from us, bit by bit. The more we give ourselves over to the madness of this world and the nothingness of social media, the less we are human. The story I bring directly to you, from my heart, my experience, through my lips, my hands, my eyes, that is the story you want to know. And you want the same from everyone else, too.

Authentic human experience. Whether it comes from the stories in a hometown newspaper, an afternoon spent talking about dying with someone who is caring for someone who is dying, or in a house of worship on a Sunday morning, I will spend all of my days seeking this, an explorer in an increasingly strange and foreign land. I hope that they say this about me when I am dead: she was a good storyteller; she cared about people.

I hope for this very same thing for you, too. Amen.

 

Why

I want to tell you something about the picture of me on the page called About, a few pages back from where you are now.

It was taken on the day I signed final papers for my divorce from Richard, outside the courthouse in Burlington, Vermont. I remember feeling that it was very strange, to sit in a lawyer's office and end a marriage that had contained love and children, travel, good food and wine, dogs, a pool, a lake, friends, a dirt road, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, holidays, fireside chats, a colorful home ... to sit in an office with a great view of a nice city and sign papers saying it was all done. It was very weird; it was seven years ago.

When I came out of the building there was a tow truck taking my car away. I had neglected to pay a parking ticket earlier in time and now the City of Burlington was taking my car.

I thought I was done with weird for that day.

I thought I could sweet talk the traffic cop out of taking my car with the I just signed divorce papers! plea, but he was very official and stuck to his guns, a good worker bee. They didn't have to take it to the lot, though, he said, if I paid the fine in cash on the spot, they would take it down off the truck.

Which I did. I ran to an ATM machine and got the money and gave it to the guy. I don't remember what we were laughing about when my friend took the picture, but clearly we were enjoying ourselves.

Life is very funny this way, the way that sorrow and joy can be all crumpled together into one thing, one moment.

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It happened yesterday when someone I love told me she has cancer. She is one of the funniest people I know, so we found the funny in the cancer. But we cried, too, because cancer sucks. It just does and no amount of funny can take that away.

But it can temper it a bit. Divorce papers and car-towing aren't funny at all, but you can find humor in there somewhere, if you are willing.

Because of the professions that have chosen me, on any given day I can spend hours with people who are dying then come home and get a phone call from someone whose husband recently had a heart attack, a message from a friend whose brother is in a coma and whose family needs help coming to terms with their new reality, and a phone call from a friend whose mother just died. Then I might wake up the next day and get a cancer text.

True story, my life. All of this a day after my favorite hospice patient died. You can't kid yourself as a hospice chaplain, you really fall in love with some of them. This one was captivating in every way and I loved him. He didn't want to die and I didn't want him to die either. There was so much more for us to talk about. I was hoping we'd have some time together under the springtime sun.

If I were to let it, this grief, the suffering, would kill me, too. But I won't. I love being alive. I wake up in the morning eager to start my day. I meet inspirational people and see so many beautiful places in my travels. And I find life to be infinitely funny even though a river of sorrow flows through my days.

I'm not really sure why I wanted to pause and tell you all of this this morning. I have to re-read my sermon and wash my hair; church starts in two hours. I think I just wanted you to remember the funny, the lightness, and how it's in there, in almost everything. Keep your heart open, don't let sorrow win the race. On Friday I sat with a lovely, so sweet woman in her 90s who wondered why she's still alive. Her hands and feet are betraying her with swelling; she can't do the things she used to do. Why are you here? I countered, so I could meet you and hear your stories. You matter, I told her, while you are alive, until you take your very last breath, you are meant to be here.

She looked right at me while I told her this; she listened very carefully and she smiled.

Amen. 

I Have No Idea What to Call This One

and there is no photograph for it, either.

It goes like this:

WE WERE DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD

We were going to the airport. There was no time for anything, we were so late because the weather was bad. Sam was leaving and I was sad about that. I looked at my phone and read some things when we were pulling into the airport. I read that my friend Karen had died and then I looked out the window at the darkness and the snow and I started to cry. Sam thought I was crying because he was leaving, which was partly true, but I was mostly crying because Karen had died. 

The last time I saw Karen we were sitting at her mom's kitchen table. Her mom was very sick at the time, but that day we laughed a lot. Her mom was forgetting a lot of things, words and history. She was trying to come up with the name for the thing when you're tired all the time, chronic fatigue, but instead she called it constant weariness

We thought that was so funny, and then that became a joke for Karen and me ... constant weariness. 

Her mom died not too long after we sat at the table that day.

It felt at times, these past many months, that the whole world was in a state of constant weariness. So much sickness, dying, so much sorrow.

I loved so much the sound of Karen's voice. I still have three voicemail messages from her on my phone and I listen to them like they're contraband, like someone could steal them from me. Often when I'm driving, sometimes at night before I go to sleep. 

I think when someone dies, the word more springs to life. I could have loved you more. I should have spent more time with you. I could have been more tolerant, more available, more forgiving.

Death does this thing, you know. When death comes calling, you don't want more money, more glory, more fame, more "friends," more cashmere sweaters or shoes, more chocolate cake. You want more time. You want more of the smell of their hair, more of the sound of them saying hello, more chances to see them drive up to your house, get out of the car and hug you. 

I was mad at Karen when I found out that she had colon cancer and that she had never had a colonoscopy but I was one to talk because I hadn't had one, either. I was really mad because when she found out about the cancer it was too late. The worst part, worse than the cancer, worse than the too late, was that she was a nurse; she knew better. 

I was too busy taking care of everyone else, was what she said. Which I get. I totally get. 

So what I did was I made an appointment for a colonoscopy because I'm 52 and I hadn't gotten one, either. I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to take the time, didn't want to go through the procedure, but Karen was dying, so I made the appointment. 

By the time the thing came around Karen had already died, that's how fast it all happened, her cancer. 

On the morning of my colonoscopy, I asked Karen to be there with me. I need you, I told her, please be my angel, come with me, hold my hand. I wondered if she would have time, being so new at being an angel and everything. 

The door to the room I was waiting in, laying in the bed waiting, opened and the nurse walked in and I almost burst into tears right then and there. She was the absolute spitting image, though I have no idea why you call it that, spitting image, of Karen. She looked just like her and she sounded just like her and she was kind and funny, just like Karen.

From the bed I stared up at her face, watching her form words and I remembered Karen. I tried so hard to not cry. I looked over at the wall and tried to hold it in, but I couldn't. I started crying and the nurse asked me if I was nervous about the procedure and I said no and then I told her the story of my Karen.

It turned out that the nurse was named Angela.

Colonoscopy, cancer, Karen, nurse, Karen's twin, death, angel, Angela. You don't need complete sentences here to understand what I'm saying. To form something beautiful inside your head that reminds you of the magic and mystery that surrounds us.

If you teach your children anything in this life, teach them to notice things like that. Teach them to really smell the peach before they take a bite and to let the rain fall on their cheeks, to not be afraid to get wet. And also to hold someone's hand. Tell them that crying is really a good thing and show them what that looks like. Help them learn how to live wholly and truthfully and holy so that when someone they love dies maybe they won't have to think so much about more.

It's not a terrible thing to aspire to big things, important things, but don't let them do that so much that they overlook all the beautiful small things, the moments, the kindness, the colors, the angels. 

OK? Amen.

One Time

Sometimes I am lucky enough to be in a car full of teenage girls when they are telling stories. Almost always they start their story with ... One time ...

It makes me think that it would be fun to start a blog or even write a book called One Time. Because these stories of ours are our coin, they are our treasure. And the telling of them is what keeps us in the human being game. Everyone has lots of One Times and in the sharing of them we find our commonness, our humanity.

When teenage girls tell stories they are often funny or amazing. They tend to recall things that made them laugh or were out of the ordinary. 

I have also been fortunate to sit around with college boys and listen to them tell stories. They don't so much One Time as just launch into the tale, in the same way these ones, the ones I know through one of my sons, launch themselves through the air: off of cliffs and into water and off of snow hills and into thin air. 

Everyone is different in their methodology, but everyone is the same in their impulse to tell the story of the things that happened. We seem to harbor compelling forces deep within to share our stories.

Thank God!

I say this at every funeral and memorial service: keep telling the stories of the person who died! Just like that, with an exclamation point for emphasis, so that the people know I really mean it. Don't ever stop telling stories about them! It's what keeps the dead alive and the past with us here in the now.

I would love it, in fact, if we all made a pact to start telling our stories more frequently and with increasing volume so that maybe eventually we begin to drown out the stories we find in the news, the stories that are saturating our lives with, well, for lack of a better word, ickiness. I'm not saying that we should ignore what's happening in our world, just that we should perhaps not give it so much of our attention. You know, like when the toddler is having a tantrum and you leave the room and eventually the toddler simmers down? So much of what goes on in the media is about our willingness to pay attention.

So maybe we ease off some on that in the new year. Turn our eyes and ears and hearts and minds to each other instead. What a wonderful thing to do and what a great way to build back up the bonds of humanity that seem to be fraying ... tell me who you are ... tell me your story while I sit here and listen.

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I'll start the ball rolling here today ...

One time, when Nate was little, he was in the woods doing something, with his dad, I think. And when he came out of the woods, I asked him what he found there. What was in the woods, Nate? What did you see out there? I asked him.

Big rocks! And Nate! was what he told me. 

Big rocks and Nate! has become a staple in the story-telling repertoire in our family. Seventeen or so years later and it still makes us howl. 

One time I was riding a bike in my old hometown. I hadn't been there in many years. My parents had moved away, most of my friends had left and so I rarely went back. But on this day I was there, riding my bike through the streets I had walked and driven and ridden my bike, many, many times. I rode through the streets of my youth, past the houses where we had had slumber parties when we were girls, the places we had gone to parties and gotten in trouble (I did, anyway). Past the houses of my teachers, past the rec park where I had spent a chunk of my youth playing tennis, swinging on the swings and looking at boys playing football. I rode past my old church and down the street where we had lived, past our old house. I was surprised by how sad it made me and, at the same time, how good it felt to be there again. I was surprised by how it felt so deeply imbedded in me. The tears surprised me; I hadn't much missed my old hometown, or so I thought. It felt good to know that there was a place in this world that felt that way for me.

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One time I was sitting with a woman in a nursing home. She was eating her lunch with as much dignity as she could muster. It was fried fish and french fries and on the menu they made it sound like something special, like all the nursing home denizens were going someplace awesome and exotic that day to have Fish & Chips!

It was hard for her to cut the food, so I cut it for her. She looked so beautiful that day, her grey hair pulled back with an artsy barrette. She was wearing a soft grey sweater wrapped around a lovely white blouse. She was one of those nursing home people who still dressed like she was headed out for the day. She was very elegant and she had newspapers and books with her in the pouch of her walker. She had big, beautiful eyes and funky glasses. She really had it going on.

She ate slowly. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we were quiet. At one point she looked out the window, she kind of gazed out that way for a while and then she said Did you see those two owls? And the train? ... there goes the train.

The view out the window was to a parking lot. I didn't see owls or a train, but it made me happy that she did. And I thought to myself ... hm, maybe she is going someplace awesome and exotic today.

Your turn. Amen.

 

A Good Place

JULIET WAS ONLY PARTIALLY CORRECT

I drive around a lot, visiting people in their homes when they are dying. I get to see a lot of the state this way. It's not like having a commuter trek to the office every day, wearing a path in the same roads, to the same Dunkin' Donuts drive-up and then home again through the same stop-lights and past the same liquor stores. Nope. I drive through new places and see new things. I've lived in Vermont now for ... let's see ... Sam is 22 ... so, for about 24 years. I've lived in Vermont for 24 years and it's a small state, so you would think that there aren't that many new roads for me to find.

Wrong. 

I look at the world when I'm driving on these new roads. It's interesting, this world. I love seeing how other people live in other places. You can kind of get the tenor of a town by what it has in its downtown, whether the shop spaces are occupied or empty, how many cars are parked at the general store, what kind of shape the churches are in. 

I started noticing this a long time ago, long before I became a housecalling chaplain: the names of hair salons. I have no idea why they get my attention, except perhaps that, as businesses go, the owners of hair salons seem to take great liberties with naming. I wish I had been keeping a list all of these years, I really do. I wish I had started writing them down a long time ago, when I was a kid cruising all over the country in my little truck. 

I saw one yesterday that led me to think ... do they not have a marketing class in cosmetology school? Because if they don't, if they don't ever sit in a classroom and talk about things like naming, with a Power Point presentation entitled Good Ideas/Bad Ideas, they need to start. 

Curl Up & Dye, I'll Cut You and Hair Force One are actual names of actual hair salons. I have seen them. I'm sure the people who work there are talented and I'm sure they have loyal customers who leave with hair that makes them happy, but Juliet was really only partially right.

Sure, a rose named anything else would still smell pretty good, but if it was called Curl Up & Dye, chances are I'd never bring my nose close enough to find out.

 

A RECKONING OF MOMENTS FROM THE PAST FEW WEEKS WHEN THEY WERE ALL HERE

 - Sam got here in a snow storm, a good one, and was headed to his dad's house to sleep. I walked him and his dad over to the mini van and then watched as Sam skitched on the bumper, sneakers on his feet, cars behind them, through the snow that was covering the whole world with white. 

  Some of them, 2007, maybe.

Some of them, 2007, maybe.

 - We went sledding in the moonlight on New Year's Eve. I sat at the top of the hill, eating snow. I love to eat snow. And I watched the kids, teenagers now, having that kind of great playing in the snow fun. I was glad that they know how to have fun, even at their advanced ages.

 - Everyone kept saying that my sister sounds just like me, everywhere we went ... she sounds just like you! She looks like me, too, but apparently the sound of our voices is what hits people and links us to each other. For me, it was the moment when we were talking about cats and she said, no hesitation, I hate cats. Soul sister, I thought, that's my girl.

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 - We were all sitting around the table on Dad's birthday. We had this great cake that Marley made, she's a cake artist. It was like a little snowy ski hill. We were celebrating a bunch of birthdays: Kristin and Quinn and Coco and Dad, but for a moment I said that we had to pay respects to Dad, for starting the whole thing rolling, with Mom. And when I was talking and giving a kind of cake toast, Mom moved her chair over closer to Dad and took his hand in hers. And then Dad, who is a quiet person, talked about his family, his grandkids in particular, how great they are. He was shining, talking about them.

 - We left way too late. It was snowing like crazy; it had been all day. We were trying to get to the Albany Airport in time for Sam's 5:17 flight. We had his dad's truck, with four-wheel drive and good snow tires, but the problem was all of the plow trucks going 20 mph and all of the accidents that were stopping traffic. It was harrowing, the drive, Sam's energy. He's a good driver, though. We kept checking to see if his flight was delayed. The one freaking day we needed, wanted a flight delay, but no, that plane was taking off in the snow and wind and freezing rain. We got there with about 10 minutes to spare and Sam grabbed his bags. I hugged him and kissed him and told him I love him and handed him my hat. I loved that hat. I bought in when I was in Lake Tahoe with him in October, one morning when we were just kind of wandering around after breakfast. He helped me pick it out, that was part of the reason why I loved it, the memory from that morning. Sam told me that he wanted that hat, one night when we were just hanging around. He said he needed a new hat because he was growing his hair and it was getting thick and long and none of his hats fit him. I had never heard of this idea, of a person outgrowing a knit cap, but still, I told him he couldn't have it, that it was my favorite hat. But then I handed it to him when he was leaving. You're giving me this? he asked. Yes, you can have it. I love you, Sam, is what I said. 

And he got on the plane. He checked his bag and made it through security in less than ten minutes and he got on the plane. He's back in Tahoe now, wearing our hat, I hope.

That's a good place to end. Amen.

 

 

 

And God Bless

FAITH

I just read this lovely thing that Alan Watts said, Faith is a state of openness or trust. 

Faith as a state of being and not as something to have or not have. 

I think that some people have trouble believing in any kind of God because they can't see God. Like there is this idea that God is a man wearing a white robe. That God has a long beard and a walking stick. God is probably barefoot and maybe floating a little above the ground.

So, unless you're on hallucinogens, yes, there probably is little chance you're going to run into that God on your daily trek.

I think I had that vision of God when I was a kid. Because of the whole Catholic thing and how it played out in my head and in my heart. It was all quite worrisome, the big, dark churches, all the standing, sitting, kneeling. The confessional. Yeeks! Imagine being a kid and having to go into a dark booth with the priest sitting on the other side. The two of you are separated by a metal screen and curtains. You have to go in there as a little kid and kneel down and tell the priest the bad things you did. I said a curse word, I was mean to my brother, I stole some candy. I mean, what a racket, given the things we found out later that the priests were doing.

It was a punitive God that we seemed to have worshipped back then. An angry God who, not unlike Santa Claus, was keeping track of who was naughty and who was nice, with a full accounting to be brought forth at the hour of our death when we were hoping to gain entrance to a magical puffy-cloud place called Heaven.

Indeed, it all was pretty weird. The things Religion will do in the name of self-preservation!

I feel I get the last laugh, though, as a person of the cloth, if you will. I don't actually have any cloth, unless you count the outfits I wear when I stand at the pulpit each week. Sometimes it's a vintage dress with Converse sneakers. Sometimes it's a classic shift and black pumps. But I don't have the robes or the scepter or the things you hang around your neck. I don't have the collar or the pointy hat. 

Here is what I do have: openness and trust, thank you very much, Alan Watts, for articulating that for me.

I trust that, in spite of lots of evidence to the contrary, this world is a good place and that most people like being here. I trust that, even in the face of people doing horrible things to other people, most people seek to use their life in a good way. I trust that, in the end, everything will be OK. I trust that our hearts do, indeed, motivate us toward a greater good.

And I am open to the great mystery of it all. I choose to keep my heart open and my life open, to be ready for the pass, even the Hail Mary, if it ever comes. I am not afraid of having to pull up my tent and move on. It's a pain in the ass, for sure, but I'm open to the possibility that my life might be of use somewhere else. I like what Herman Hesse said: And let no sentiments of home detain us. The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us, but lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces. 

That sneaky Cosmic Spirit, always nudging us along, trying to get us to grow up.

Also, I am willing to stand before a congregation of people of faith and tell them that I don't have any answers, that I, too, am a seeker, and that I am grateful to have them as companions on our journey through this wilderness.

Faith is not a fortress. You don't walk inside and pull up the gangplank. There is no certainty. Run like hell when you meet someone who thinks he or she has The Answer. It doesn't exist. Faith is a conversation; you are an explorer, a research scientist a listener and an artist when you are seeking God. You have to have at it with the heart of a child, full of wonder and possibility, unafraid to push buttons to see what happens, undaunted by the size of the stack of pancakes, unfazed by the color of anyone else's skin. A state of openness.

 

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GOD

I want to tell you where I found God yesterday.

I drove down a long dirt road in a town in Vermont where I had never been. There were very tall pine trees covered with snow. It was all new to me, very beautiful and it filled my heart with awe. The house where I went was small and when I got there there were several people and a cat and a dog taking up almost all of the space in the kitchen.

There was a lot of frantic energy, probably because one of the people had recently been admitted into hospice care and everyone was responding differently to that. 

The hospice person was unable to talk, this was a new development, so he communicated by writing in a notebook. When we started our visit I spoke and he wrote, and it was frustrating for both of us, so then I started writing, too. Pretty soon there was no speaking, just writing back and forth with a pencil. Are you worried? What did you love doing when you were young? What do you love about this place? Have you ever been to Alaska? 

Like that, we wrote to each other while the other people skittered about all around us. The two of us created a little pocket of love, me tired from everything and sad from saying good-bye to my sister and nephews, him uncomfortable and frustrated and sad, too. We found a way to reach each other and it made both of us laugh: I wrote my good-bye first and he responded I outwrote you! I howled, he made gestures of joy and then we hugged.

I had only just met him and he wouldn't let me leave without a hug. He was one of those Vermonters, you know, proud of his home and his life, the work he had done, his family. Everything all twisted around now with his sickness. The two of us, strangers, sat in his sunny kitchen on a cold day in near-silence, telling our stories to each other with pencil and paper. 

That would be God. God was in a kitchen in a little house way back on a dirt road in a small town in Vermont yesterday.
Amen and God bless.

 

You

FIRE

I get up in the morning and I put some wood in the wood stove, add a log or two or three to the coals left from last night's pile-up. Depending on the day I might put a fire in the fireplace, too. It's an efficient firebox, so it does throw heat into the room, plus I love sitting here at the table, looking at the flames while I'm doing my work.

I can tell you it's true because I was one, a lot of people become fire fighters because they love a good fire.

 

AIR

It's hard to breathe right now, it's very cold, as has been reported. And yet, the low temperatures bring their own version of beauty: the blue sky is crystal-clear, the snow is quite bright, the world seems to be a little more in-focus when it's below zero. A good reminder that you can hate something or you can love it, depending on how you look at it.

 

WATER

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In the summer we swim in it, now we skate on it. Houses, it seems, have trouble with their water situations when it's very cold. Pipes freeze and the things we usually like to have leave our bodies and bathrooms swiftly and without a trace linger a bit longer. "It's a biohazard" is how my sister described the situation in the upstairs bathroom of our parents' house the other day when she called and asked for the plunger.

 

AETHER

And also, blood, bones and chicken soup. Skin, curly hair and hot chocolate with Fluff. A friend I haven't spoken to in ten years sends me a photo of her gorgeous teenage daughter. My kids all sleeping under the same roof. The food at Bob's Diner and the hands that serve it. The dad searching dusty genealogy records to find out who we are. The dream about death in which I had a cast on one foot and a hockey skate on the other.

The concept of aether was used in several theories to explain several natural phenomena, such as the traveling of light and gravity.

We are here. I have no idea why we are here. My hunch is love. We are here to love. To dream, to make soup, to forgive, to die. We are into another year now. I hope you fill every nook and cranny of your being with your truth this year. With your full understanding of why you have been given the gift of this life and what you believe, with all of your heart, you are supposed to do with it. May that, and the angels, guide your every step, so that on Monday, December 31, 2018, you can look back with absolute certainty that you helped make this world a better place. Amen.

An Abomination to the Spirit

We're funny, us humans. We cling to the past with a nostalgic death grip, mourning endlessly the old ways and wishing things would stop changing and yet most of us can't wait for the fresh start of a new year that this season brings.

But that's OK. Somewhere in there, embedded in the the worry and chaos of what's new and the sorrow and yearning for what is lost, is evolution. And like it or not, that really is why we're here.

Through a fairly-arbitrarily-placed doorway we will all walk tomorrow at the stroke of midnight and magically find ourselves in a new year. It's a human construct, of course, but all of the plans and hopes and ideas we have for ourselves, the dreams we carry in our heart from the end of one thing into the beginning of another, are not; they're real, and they serve an important purpose.

Three hundred and sixty five is a goodly number of days. Some were hard, I'm sure; some might have been sublime and most were probably just plain old days when you went to work, went to the grocery store, drove somewhere, read something, talked to someone and went to bed. We have a lot of just plain old days. I don't think we're trying to distance ourselves from those when a new year arrives. It's the hard ones we want to leave in the past as we move into a new year. Hard times come again no more, right?

Nice try, Stephen Foster, but the hard times have no intention of ending their occupancy just outside the cabin door.

The hard times of past days, for sure they were no fun, but they, like the dreams we hold for the coming days, have an important role in the grander scheme of the thing called A Life.

The hard times: death, sickness, loss, disappointment, disruption, abandonment. The job you didn't get, the job they took away, the love that didn't gel, the love that died, the trip you couldn't afford, the bills that piled up, the things you said that made someone suffer. The things you didn't say that made someone suffer. The risk you didn't take, the risk you did take that turned out not to be worth the price you paid. The dog that died, the dad that died, the diagnosis. All of these things are life's way of nudging you toward evolution. Every dark hour of this past year was an opportunity for you to grow into your better self. 

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And if you don't believe that that is why you're here, I invite you to sit quietly with that idea and look into the rear view mirror of your life. Notice how the very same kinds of things keep presenting, over and over, how you are faced with the same challenges, the same questions, the same hardships. 

Because I am a God person I would say that this is the sneaky and magnificent hand of God at work, but you might not be and so maybe you could just say that ... life, all of life, wants for you to grow. To grow up. To keep growing up. It doesn't end when we turn 18 or 21. It doesn't end until we die. And I have a suspicion it doesn't end there, either, but I can't offer evidence yet. I do promise, though, that when I get there, if I can write about it, I will.

All of our dark days are an invitation to change, to welcome the alchemic fires of transformation, to be OK with the unknown, to release old ways and habits that no longer serve and to grow into new ways of being.

We hate this, and yet we don't. We like to cling to the old and we want new beginnings. We're schizophrenic people. We like change, we hate change. Or, perhaps, we like change that we can control. Which happens ... never.

We have no control over the descent of the darkness into our lives. We do have control over our response, however. 

It begins with .... this sucks, I hate this, why is this happening again, that's standard-issue. What happens next is the difference between a salchow and a triple flip, a 180 and a CAB 1440 mute, the blue square and the double black. Is it just another day pulling the same old tricks, or are you going to reach a little further, try a little harder, push yourself into a place you haven't been before?

In that crappy dark space when things fall apart, you can shut down, kick something, take a nap or you can ask, you can wonder ... what am I supposed to learn while I'm in this awful place? What did this come here to teach me?

Because that's the deal. It really is. Your worst days have a purpose; your worst days challenge you to become the best you.

This is a beautiful time, this transition from an old year into a new. Like the sun on the winter solstice, it feels a little like time is standing still, for just a moment. Stand in that place and look at the dreams you are dreaming for the new year. They're telling you something important about who you are. And too, the hospice chaplain in me is required to remind you of this: you ain't got all day so you better get busy. The boom will be lowered, quite possibly without warning and eventually you will be below and not above the ground, so make it happen while you can.

Standing there looking ahead into the majestic landscape of a new year, turn around and take a look back, too. To see if you grew up at all in 2017. Because I know you had the chance, I know that life gave you those opportunities. Did you welcome them with the hospitality and curiosity of a person wishing to grow? Or are you still wearing the threadbare cloak of Old Habits? 

Here is where honesty and humility come in. They are your partners in the act of grace called your evolution.

Give it your best shot, my friends. Look forward with strength of conviction toward your dreams and look backward in honesty at your pile of garbage from last year. The new year gives you this liminal moment to assess the situation of your one and only life. You've got nothing to lose and everything, Everything to gain. Giddyap and amen.

Follow your desire as long as you live and do not perform more than is ordered; do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit ... Ptahhopet

Keeps Them Going

I HAD TO LISTEN IN ON THE PHONE CALL HE WAS MAKING

to talk with a woman whose husband had been newly-admitted to hospice. I needed to hear how he did that part of the process because, you know, there are protocols and questions that have to be asked, because of the funding. The only thing is that when someone has been married for 60 years to a person they've known for 70 years, they're not much interested in protocols. They want to tell you about how he was the man who held the fire extinguisher in church every Christmas Eve ... just in case ... just in case one of those candles that everyone is holding ignites something it shouldn't. How this year he couldn't do it and that was really hard. They want to tell you that they don't know how things will be when he's gone, when he dies ... but we'll get through ... somehow, we'll get through. They want to tell you how he took care of the town roads all those years. He gets people out on the road and keeps them going each way, she will say, making you laugh a few seconds after she made you cry by talking about meeting him when she was 15 and he was 17.

You imagine, sitting there in that office situation, what that was like, to love someone for 70 years. What that must be like to know that pretty soon they will be gone.

The funny thing was that I had been thinking about the road crews on my way to work that morning. Because the plows have been everywhere all the time for the past few days, clearing and sanding and clearing again. The roads and the parking lots. In the wee wee hours of the morning they do that, so that the roads will be ready for people like you and me when we have to go somewhere. And I was thinking about writing something about how grateful I am for those people. And then a little while later in my day she said that funny thing about him keeping people going each way.

I mean I guess that's what we do, right, we keep going. She was stoic and resolute. And also teary. She was a classic old time Vermonter, with a great accent and a voice that belied a lifetime of work and devotion to family and church and community. Her neighbors, she said, were taking good care of them; her family was close by.

I don't know. I really don't. This world is very confusing. For some reason Sam thought he needed the iPhone 8 plus and Coco needed a Chance the Rapper hat. I guess I was the same. I needed orange Levis corduroys when I was them. Desperately. These funny things we think we need.

Still, I can't stop thinking about her. And the way it must feel to watch someone you have loved for 70 years inch closer to death. The life they must have had in the small town where they live. It's not nostalgia, I don't think it is. It's reverence that I feel. Yes, I'm worried about all of it: the online crap that makes us all unhappy and fills our hours with nothing. The buying, the discarding, the sleight of hand this life plays, distracting us from what matters.

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I don't want to have to make my own butter or sew a dress from the curtains but I do think it's better, it's a better idea to give the best gift that we have, our time, our attention, to each other.

 

DAD TURNS 79 TODAY

Last night nine of us gathered back together after a long day moving in different directions, grocery shopping and cooking and baking and working and playing, and had some chili together. Then we watched a movie. That's a pretty great thing, a living room full of family watching a movie on a chilly winter night. Today they're going skiing and I'll head back to work and then we'll get back together again, for fish stew. Mom's going to make that. I'm going to pick up a cake, because my sister turns 50 tomorrow and then Quinn turns 19 and then Coco turns 13. More eating, more talking, maybe another movie.

I cannot love them enough while they're here, from Alaska and Oregon and Montana and Nevada. I can't believe who our kids have become. They can make the computers run faster and hook up the blue ray in ten seconds and make cornbread and haul firewood. It's the Wow stage of life. They're in school, on their way to becoming something in the eyes of the world, but in this moment, they're totally Wow to me.

Mom and Dad made four of us. The four of us made nine of them. They will make more, we will die. They will have babies and bury the ones who came before. It will happen, it's not a secret, it's nothing to be ashamed of, we die. But we have babies, too, that's the good news. And in-between ... fish stew, birthdays, candlelight, the road crew, each other. Amen.