New Year Meditation

How the Light Comes
“May we bend our bodies

to follow the arc it makes.

May we open

and open more

and open still
to the blessed light

that comes.”
—Jan Richardson

from “Circle of Grace”
 I come to the end of another year. To say the least, I’m grateful that 2015 is slowly receding into the rear view mirror of my mind and up ahead lies 2016 full of possibilities. Each New Year brings the out the laundry list of things folks want to improve, from being healthier, those gym memberships are on sale right now, to changing careers, to finally finding that one true, passionate love. Resolutions are made, talismans are held at the stroke of midnight invoking the gods of the great universe to smile down upon our lives and to show us the way or guide us into choosing the right combination of numbers for that power ball ticket. Much of what we seek is self indulgence, all about our very human need of thinking first of oneself above and beyond the other.

 I was struck by this verse from a poem by Jan Richardson, How the Light Comes. When I look back on my accident, the time spent working on my physical healing, I realize that I have also been working through the emotional and spiritual pain as well. Life, my life, and how I look at the world around me has changed, and from my perspective it has changed by arcing in a more creative way. “May we bend our bodies to follow the arc it makes”, the poet writes, not only bending our bodies but also bending our souls to follow that arc. She uses the word “bend”, which implies a gentle way of stretching those inner muscles of our hearts. God seeks to bend us, yet unlike a grand master of Yoga who seeks to bend the body, turning our focus inward, God seeks to bend our unruly wills and passions, turning them toward the light and pointing us outward.

 If I’m to have any resolution for the new year then it is to continue bending, stretching out my creative self, to test the boundaries of my interior and present that to the world. Immersing my deepest self in the prose and poetry that is all around us, the song of the heavens that opens our hearts to see everything with different eyes. Like the healing of my hip, this creative bending will come with some frustration as well as some pain, then again that which pushes us into new territories of life and faith eventually leads to wholeness. 

Day 200

 Yesterday morning as I was out walking our Jack Russell, Auggie, I was gifted with the sight of one of those beautiful sunrises. The sky was on fire, red and orange, shining through the darkened clouds. Walking by the homes that lined the street the sunrise light was reflected making them shine brightly in the early morning. A light more wondrous than any of the artificial Christmas lights that hang limply along the eaves of the houses as I pass them by. It is on these early walks that I can take time to reflect on the wonders that are all around, I hear the calls of the early morning birds as they chatter away in the woods and fields, the scurrying around of squirrels looking for acorns that have dropped to the ground. Off in the deeper woods, the cry of a coyote and the screech of an owl, reminders that we humans have yet to fully contain the energy of the natural world.  Today, I looked at the calendar and realized that I am now at the 200th day since I was hit by that car door. Yesterday was not the best day, the hip, which I had hoped would be much improved, has seemed to hit a plateau. Then, out of the blue, I just about blacked out. There I was brushing my teeth, when I bent down to get the mouthwash when suddenly all went dark and I began to experience that nightmarish, slow descent onto the floor. Now, I’ve had the vertigo, that wonderful moment when you’ve got the bed spins and your whole world feels like a merry-go-round out if a Stephen King novel. This was different, I just went out, like switching off a light, no spinning, no warning, just darkness. Once I was firmly sitting on the bathroom floor and beginning to realize what had happened, I began to think that maybe I was a bit dehydrated and so after a bottle of Maine’s best, water that is, I began to feel a bit better then I spent the day drinking copious amounts of water. To say the least, I haven’t felt that sensation again and I’m hoping I don’t anytime soon.

 This incident and the continued hip soreness has kind of gotten me down. Combined with the usual end of year stuff that is the church, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Pledging, budgets, lack of resources, getting the Christmas pageant going, looking for folks to help, well you can guess the rest. Christmas, that time of joy, little cherubs singing quaint Victorian Christmas Carols and the usual chaotic, frenzied people all out there trying to get that perfect gift or prepare that perfect dinner, has just seemed to lay a bit heavier on me than usual. My heart is not in it, not as much as I would like it to be, but then again, for many Christmas is a difficult time of year. 

 It’s in these moments that someone or something speaks to me in a new way. Yesterday, when I seemed to need that something it came wrapped in a song by Richard Shindell, Northbound 35. It was actually the words of the refrain that caught my ear:

“Mustang horses, champagne glasses

Anything frail anything wild 

It’s the price of living motion

What’s beautiful is broken

And grace is just the measure of a fall.”

 Grace is just the measure of a fall, hit like a dart to my soul. Grace, that seemingly ever elusive gift that doesn’t come with fancy bows or pretty wrapping paper, but comes when we are indeed broken. As I move forward I am discovering that this accident did more than just break my hip, it has caused a ripple effect throughout my being. My vulnerability, something many of us would rather not admit to, has been exposed and opened up, a deep chasm in which I look down into infinite darkness. Yet, Grace shines through that darkness and although I have many miles yet to travel and the chasm is deep somewhere within me is the resilience and faith to continue moving forward. In a strange way, the eyes of my heart have been opened to seeing that gift in even the most everyday things that surround us. The colorful burst of reds and oranges of sunrise as it glimmers on homes, to the sounds of birds chittering away in the branches and trees, to the love of family, the gift of grace, wrapped in the ordinary and yet fully extraordinary. 

Diesel and Smoke

 It was one of those blasts from the past as I read a Facebook posting on the 362nd group page. In the posting one of those who served during the Vietnam war remembered a Life magazine article from March 31, 1972 entitled, The Outpost is a Shambles. I immediately went down to where I had stored some of my memorabilia from my time in the Army, a year of which I spent in Vietnam and found that article, tucked away inside of a copy of a year book about Vung Chua mountain, that very outpost that was in shambles.  The article along with looking through this old, worn out book brought back so many memories of my time in that country. I was only 18 years old when I disembarked from a plane onto the tarmac in Cam Ranh, the first leg of my journey that would eventually take me to Qui Nhon and Vung Chua. Disembarking from that flight it was the heat and humidity that first greeted us feeling like a solid wall that took ones breath away. The sun shined down mercilessly as we were lined up and prepared to march to the transportation that would take us to the embarkation unit. By the time we finally reached our barracks, first I should qualify this, as barracks makes it sound like a relatively nice building, no, they were Army quonset huts, feebly cooled by an ancient a/c system chugging to keep up with the midday heat. Of course being the Army we couldn’t just relax and wait for orders, no, the old adage that idle hands are the devils workplace or something like that, we were given our various tasks for that afternoon. Papers needed to be checked, where we would be sent, what to do and not do, the restrictions and off limits areas, plus the continual need to be cleaning anything and everything. Scrubbing, polishing, washing and waxing all had to be done quickly and efficiently, well as efficient as newbies were able in this strange, alien setting. 

 What really haunts me was the smell. That smell of diesel that seemed to burn perpetually everywhere we went in that country. We would soon find out that diesel fuel was the favorite of many a “papa san” who was hired to burn human waste. It was a smell that never reminded me of victory, but the stench of death and waste, of humanity’s continued folly of believing that war will create peace. On one afternoons detail I clambered up to the roof of a building to help place sandbags, designed, not to protect from any attack but to insure that if we had a typhoon then the tin roof would hopefully stay in place. Well, at least that was the story we got that day when in fact it was just one of those Army things created to keep us busy and out of any trouble. From the top of that roof I could survey the area around our base, flat land as far as I could see dotted with buildings that looked like the one I stood on top of that day. Looking around I could see the airfield, planes flying in and out, some bringing in replacements, others carrying out the survivors who had done their time. The low horizon was smudged with black columns of smoke, from the various diesel induced fires, and in the far distance the sound of war, a sound that I can still hear in my dreams today. 

 Yes, that outpost standing sentinel over the city of Qui Nhon, was in a shambles even when I arrived there from Cam Ranh in August of 1970. Although we never talked about it, somehow there was the feeling that this war was on its last legs. We knew that peace talks were going on, we knew that somehow we had to eventually turn over control to the South Vietnamese, we definitely knew that none of us wanted to die. At night, watching out at the world from the guard post, I could see the lights in the city below, glowing like a millions stars. It could look so peaceful and yet, just beneath the aura lay a tension that could break out, the rapid sound of machine guns, the whoosh and thump of small rockets, the panicked, undisciplined counter fire in response. This was my Vietnam, on top of a mountain, looking out over the world while “papa san” continued to burn our shit, a truly fitting description.

Lomas’ Progress

 “And my last words shall be these-that it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us.” Sherston’s Progress, Siegfried Sassoon
 I sometimes wonder why my urge to write has come on so strong in the last few years. It’s not like I am a great or even good writer, my prose, if you can call it that, seems stiff and stilted. My descriptions are flat with no dimension or depth. Yet here I am, writing, trying my best to pour out onto this page my thoughts that run around in my head like a stampeding herd of gerbils all stuck on the same merry-go-round. 

 I finally finished Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy about the life and times of George Sherston, from prior to the Great War living a rather idyllic life in England’s countryside, to his time in the trenches of France, through his own questioning of the war itself then his return to the front line. The last line of his trilogy (above) has given me cause for some introspection. I’m a deeply introverted type and not at all given to putting myself out there, so to speak. I’m much more at ease in a group just sitting back, watching and listening, taking stock of what is being said then allowing those bits and pieces to lay in my mind where I turn them over blending them with my own thoughts. Of course, I would never allow those newly blended thoughts to spill out, thoughts can be dangerous, exposing us as the frauds we know ourselves to be thus entering into that black hole of doubt and despair. Yet, as Sassoon writes, it is from our inner most silences of our own hearts that we come to know the world around us. Many times it is a world that suffocates the imagination, the fruit of our dreams left to grow old and rotten on the vine. In writing I chose to burst out of that suffocating world and seek to breathe in the the freshness of newly sown ideas. Thoughts, that once exposed to the light grow beyond their limitations, refusing to be sentenced to the vast underworld of fear and doubt. 

 I believe that we all have our “Sherston’s Progress, our own unique story of failure and redemption. There are those people who have, for better or worse, touched our lives and taught us more about ourselves than we ever wished to know. Life, in all its possibilities, is meant to be lived fully and we in turn are meant to share our uniqueness as we journey through this space and time. The one thing about our journey is that we never know when the next twist or turn will come up. Each moment leaves it’s mark upon our souls and it is up to us in how we are able to use these moments to grow, in faith and love. 

My Focus

 Recently I decided to change the sub-title of my blog to say, “musings and reflections of an ordinary life.” Now before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, there is absolutely nothing wrong with ordinary. It is after all in the daily living, in the most ordinary of times that we can experience extraordinary growth. My thought on this change was to reflect, that much of what I have seen and done comes from my interaction with people from all walks and stations of life. When I read a review of someone’s memoirs or autobiography I notice that there’s always that great “Damascus road” kind of event that changed their life. Anything from having to deal with alcoholic or abusive parents, rising out of the sewer of abject poverty, or being an unsung hero in an impossible situation. Now I’m not saying these remembrances are not important, they are and all of us can learn something about overcoming adversity. What I am saying is that most of us live the best we can with what has been given to us. Of course there are those grand, global events way outside of our control that can and do affect us, but in many cases, if we are honest, we realize that we have been the agents of our own anxiety. For me, it has certainly been an interesting year. Being hit by a car door then going through surgery followed by months of rehabilitation. This time has brought into focus how important it is to be anchored by love and faith. These past months I have been more reflective, as witnessed in my weak attempts at writing. The fact is that most of my life Has been lived the interior, my imagination (called daydreaming when I was a kid) taking me on journeys that are both magical and scary. Now, I feel is the time for me to break out of this interior world and put it out there in this blog. For those who are expecting fine, articulate and deep writing, well you may not find it here. I’m no wonder blogger like some of the more popular ones out there whether they be secular or religious. I’m just throwing out my observations, my own somewhat distorted take on the world about me and seeing where it goes from here. 

 Author, Anne Lamott speaks about that “shitty” first draft, well that probably best describes some of what I write here, it’s my “shitty” first draft. Anything I write here is grist for the mill, something I can go back to, re-read and maybe expand on as each draft becomes clearer, at least in my own mind. Now I’m off again, looking around and listening, to see which direction my ordinary life will take me. 

An Ordinary Life

 I’m looking at an old photo taken of my kindergarten class back in 1956-57. There we sit or stand, the future of America, a group of white, middle class kids, growing up in Roslindale Massachusetts. It was the ’50’s, supposedly those happy days when everyone was kind, and everyone went to church, no anxiety in this group. There I am sitting in the front, I’m wearing my bow tie, suspenders and I have a big smile on my face. Around me are my classmates, none of whom I can remember but were all part of my early life. There is one girl sitting to my right who has a constipated look on her face next to her is a boy who looks to be a future insurance salesman. Most of them betray their Irish heritage that even a black and white photo cannot hide, freckled faces and that pale white skin that would instantly glow bright red once they were out in the sunshine. In those days there was no need for any SPF 50 sunblock, we were kids of the ’50’s, we romped and played on a gravel surfaced playground, went headlong down the hill at Fallon Field on our sleds in the winter and tumbled down on streets in makeshift plywood cars. No need for helmets, special safety equipment and no parents hovering in the background watching our every move. We were the free range generation, stumbling and bumping our way through life, learning by doing, with scrapped knees and a few broken bones we went out exploring our tiny world. I only get flashbacks of my kindergarten years, I barely remember my teacher, Miss Hayes but what I do remember is when she brought in a jar filled with heavy cream one day. She instructed us to shake the jar as hard as we could and pass it along, so there we were, shaking this jar filled with cream for all we were worth. Grabbing the jar I gave it my best, putting all of my four year old body into it, shaking and shaking until I passed it along to the kid next to me. As I think back to that day, we looked like a bad Richard Simmons exercise video, the only thing missing was a soundtrack to the oldies, then again the music of that day would one day be those very oldies. We continued to shake that jar, and passing it along, Miss Hayes encouraging us in her best Knute Rockne imitation. Then, slowly, gradually, the liquid in the jar started to change. There was less and less of a liquid and a more solid lump forming in the center of the jar, as it began to change our shaking became more frantic as we began to notice this magical transformation. We were getting giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to see the final results, the jar was now being passed with greater frequency, each of us anxious to be the one who would hold the final product. It be came a race to see who would be able to open it up and see this miracle poured out into the waiting bowl. 

 Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, well the eternity as defined in the four year old brain, we stopped shaking the jar. Miss Hayes took it, slowly unscrewed the top and then carefully poured out the contents, the result of our hard work. With huge eyes we looked upon what we had created, it sat there, a solid mass that shined and jiggled in the sunlight streaming through the windows. She then took out a box of Saltines then taking a butter knife she slowly dipped it into the mass and spread some on several of the crackers, then passed them out to each of us. We hesitantly took a small nip of the cracker with the daub of this stuff on it tasting what we had made. Butter! 

 It’s kind of funny the things we remember from our childhood. The simplest things that gave us the greatest joy and that day when we made butter was one of those moments of childhood bliss. It was an ordinary day, nothing historic, nothing that would make the headlines but for us this transforming cream into butter was the highlight of our school day. 

Day 180! Really.

 Today marks the 180th day since my accident. It’s hard to believe that this time has gone by so fast and yet here I sit, six months later, writing down my thoughts. To say the least, this has not been a great time, here we are only a few weeks until Christmas and I am still not feeling fully up to speed. Although I have done some cycling and also a few spinning classes, my hip muscles are not what you would call at 100%. The aches still are there, sometimes worse especially at night after a day of walking and standing. It’s that gentle reminder that things take time to heal not just the physical but also the emotional wounds.  The other day was one of our first really cold days and it also a day when my hip decided to act up, like a fussy toddler. Now, folks who have been through hip or knee replacements tell me that the change in weather does affect how they feel, but here I thought I would be immune to that issue. Of course not, the dampness, the cold all conspire to keep me from doing things I did just a few months ago with relative ease. Normally, I would have gone out for a ride, just put on my warm cycling gear, a couple of toe warmers and gloves, I’m all set. Now, I’ve had to fight that urge, take stock in how I’m feeling then decide if going out will do more harm than good. “Listen to your body,” the physical therapist told me before I was discharged from their care, “listen, it will tell you how far and how much to push yourself.” Although this is good advice it still bothers me that I just can’t get up and go like I did just 181 days ago. 

 I still get looks when I tell folks that I’m back out cycling, albeit, not anything like I did before but still getting out. What I consider a short mileage ride, they look at me and think I’m a bit “touched” without considering that my normal ride was twice what I’m doing now. What so many fail to understand is that I’m not just out there cranking off the miles, I’m actually able to shed off some of the excess mental stuff that gets all clogged up in my head. I am able to clear away those ice jams and open the flow. After a good long ride, I’m not only physical refreshed, I’m also emotionally refreshed. It feels like I’ve taken in a huge breath of cool fresh, clean air. Every part of my body and soul are cleansed from the toxic waste dumped on them during the day. This flushing out, is more effective than any kind of new age cleanse juice, this is a flushing out of those voices that seek so desperately to drown out the song in my heart. I can hear more clearly once I’m out on the road. As I get into a rhythm, my legs pumping up and down on the pedals, my tires racing over the pavement, that slight sound of the wind passing by my ears, suddenly I feel whole. My eyes are opened to the wonders all around me, a fox running across the street, the sound of birds in the trees, the laughter of children at play, the gentle gurgling of a small stream. Our connection with all that is around us, my own connection with God and nature that reminds me that there are are still deep mysteries I am being called to enter into. 

 So, I wait patiently and take my time to get back to where I was, but the mystery still beckons. In the silence of the night, as I lay awake in bed listening to my heart beating out its own song of life, I hear deep within the voice of the One who gently coaxes me to be unafraid to be creative.