Stories are Everywhere

I’ve been sitting here, staring at that blinking cursor and blank white screen trying to figure out what to write about. Do I write a piece of prose, a bit of nonfiction or fiction, do I write a poem about a tree? There are millions of ideas that float across my mind and like a school of fish they slip past quickly before I’ve had any chance to grab even one. Stories are out there and stories are within, the trick is to start digging away and just write what you see and damn the consequences.

Stories come from our everyday experiences, those seemingly small moments that we don't think are very important but when we begin to unpack them we see something of ourselves. Yesterday I had one such experience, a connection made with a man named George. George has been hanging out in our church yard, using the picnic table to have his breakfast and coffee. George is one of those characters that seem to gravitate toward the church. They are lost, lost in the world, lost in society and lost within themselves. He’s not a dangerous person, he’s not unintelligent, he’s just lost. That is something many people just can't wrap their heads around, that here is a man, who is educated, seems smart and yet can’t seem to find his way. Yet, here he is, struggling. In his mind, in his lostness, he is wrestling with God in his own wilderness. The spiritual struggle some of us go through as we seek our place in this craziness called life.

George and I have now spoken several times and with each conversation another layer of his complex personality is exposed. That he was married, that he was a lawyer, that he had gotten involved with a fundamentalist religious group, and with their blessing went over to Europe to begin a ministry of house churches. Along the way he lost his purpose, he lost his wife and children to divorce and he may have even lost his connection to family and friends.

I sit here, a conduit to God’s grace, a conduit that is in itself flawed by my humanity. I sit and listen, I can offer no quick fix, no special prayers, or some magical incantation, I’m not a Shaman or a mystic, I’m just the person God created me to be. There are stories to be told, to be written down and shared. Stories of our common humanity, of our need for one another, not just when things are going great, but also when we are traveling along a darkened path. Life is a struggle and for some, like George, it is a greater struggle. That is why we need to share these stories because if I were to I be honest, if we were to be honest, there is a bit of George in all of us, that small, scared child who fears what is under the bed or the monsters lurking in the dark closet. Our lives are connected in that mystery we Christians call the Incarnation, the Divine Presence of the Word which called us into being out of the dust.

Maybe that’s why I’m writing this piece, because there are moments when it is easy to get oneself lost. I know there have been those moments, when the darkness of my own mind has overwhelmed me and I found myself struggling to find the path. I don’t believe there is not one human being alive who has not faced their own dark night of the soul, who have wondered about the choices they made and the consequences of those choices.

I read something yesterday stating that what anyone writes is not something original, but mainly a reworking of age old stories. Stories of love, of death, of growing up and coming of age. We all have those stories in the deep well of our memories and it is my task to dip into that well and draw upon those deep waters. Some of the water will be sweet and fresh, and some will be brackish, but it all comes from the same well.

I can say with complete confidence that I am no genius. I struggle with my grammar, I’m unsure of punctuation and word usage, but at least I’m willing to expose these thoughts to the world. Creating anything, whether it is a piece of art, a poem, a story, even a life, requires taking a risk. It’s all too easy to sit on social media posting someone else’s words, it’s something else to post your own. Maybe it is because in taking a moment to try and see the world through the eyes of another, I have been granted a gift and that gift is these words that I write.

God’s Gift of the Present

Time flies, once you are young, filled with ambition and desire, hopes and dreams then suddenly your staring in the mirror at an aged face, worn down by the years. What have I accomplished, what are my crowning achievements? We ask those kind of questions especially when mortality stares us in the face. Is there more? I know I certainly hope for more, more time with loved ones, more space to create and write, more to see and do. The world rushes headlong into its future, not paying attention to the road being taken and then wondering how did we ever get so blindsided. It’s simple, we are so focused on the future that we forget about the present and by the time we do, well, we are lying in great weakness left wondering.

Since passing the age of 65, I have been giving a lot of thought as to where my life will take me. I cannot last forever, there is no portrait of me hanging in some darkened Gothic basement where the image grows older while I stay young. No, when I look in the mirror, I see the age lines, the bags under my eyes, the loss of shine in the eyes. Although this happens, it does not mean that I just lay back and surrender to the inevitability of the aging process. In my occupation, I have seen way too many folks do just that, give up. When the road gets tough, when one is stuck in mud season with tires spinning yet going no where, it’s easy to just quit. The fires of passion are quenched by the realities of the choices we have made. The saying is so true, “we made our bed and now we need to lie in it,” what so many want is for another to come along and remake that bed.

Not one of us is perfect. Sure, we run into the occasional perfect person, with the perfect spouse, perfect kids, perfect job and the perfect, well manicured lawn in front of the perfect well maintained home. Yet, if one just scratches the surface we find that most of that perfection is an illusion, that underneath the finely made up personality lies someone struggling against the greater tide. The addictive lifestyle is not just about drugs, alcohol, or sex, the addictive lifestyle also includes our ego, the picture we present as we walk out into the world. Self confidence, the ability to out debate others, creating our own little island where we rule our emotions, feelings and humanity, is soon revealed to be nothing more than a sand bar quickly washed away when the hurricane arrives.

Robert Farrar Capon wrote "Our greatest temptation is to think that it is by further, better, and more aggressive living that we can have life.” I have witnessed those who have sought out a better life by doing just that, trying to live more aggressively, stepping over any and all that get in the way, is somehow that magical highway to heaven. My own attempts at trying to be a bit more aggressive, a bit more out there have usually ended up looking more like a train wreck than a success. What I keep returning to, over and over, is my own faith. In prayers where I seek, not riches or fame, but where I pray that my eyes will be opened, my heart will be filled and my soul will find peace. Sure, I get jealous. Jealous of those who write better, who are better poets, who are better preachers and priests, than I could ever be or attain to. At times I wonder why God never gave me those gifts, why was I left off of the list, then again, as I look back there have been plenty of times where I have squandered my opportunities. That, unfortunately is true for so many of us. If we sat down in a quiet place, turned off the computers, the cell phones, got away from Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and took our own moral inventory, we would all see moments when we were not at our best. Moments when we made a decision that looked good at the time only to regret it much later, then turn around and blaming someone else for our misfortune.

Time certainly does fly by, sometimes at supersonic speed, but that does not mean we need be trapped in its wake. Moments of grace abound, the colors of the world are just as bright and love, that mystery of mysteries, carries us along. The Psalmist writes; “If I climb to heaven, you are there * if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.” God’s ever present love and grace, in our life and death, always.

City Life

Yes, it’s noisy and infested
filled with dark, dingy abodes
streets littered with cast-offs
both inert and organic.

A place of despair for some
of light and delight for others
this is the city
crowded, unkempt, dangerous
a kaleidoscope of sound and color
overwhelming the innocent
enticing the adventurous
boring the dwellers within.

The city, bears it all
under the strains of the masses
that hurtle down its streets
walking through its alleys
with heads down
pushing against
tides of indifference.

The city takes,
the city gives
we are its children
and its future
we carry its fortunes
in our valises
sharing our dreams
waiting for the sun to rise
and for hearts to sing.

A Brief, Personel, Reflection

 I ride a bicycle. There, I said it, I’m a cyclist and have been for years. I enjoy the freedom of being out on the road, the wind in my face, the sound of the tires on the pavement, and being able to see things that I would miss had I been going by in a car. I’ve ridden in the heat and humidity of a New England summer as well as in the cold and snowy days of winter. Getting out as much as possible, doing anywhere between 35-50 miles on a daily basis, was and still is my goal and my future plans are to once again cross the country by bicycle.

 Cycling is a challenge, physically as well as mentally. Getting through a head wind, going up mountain roads, getting caught in a thunderstorm and negotiating streets and roads under construction, all have their own way of being a challenge. Yet, in spite of these barriers, in spite of the traffic and occasional difficulty, I still find cycling to be exhilarating and fun. 

 It is said that it’s not a question of “if you will have an accident” but “when will you have an accident”. Many cyclists can tell you about a crash, either self-induced or caused while racing or training for a race. Many can show you the scars caused by road rash on their legs and arms, especially the elbows and knees. Most crashes, result in no more than the discomfort of having the outer layer of your skin scrapped away by the pavement and then having to clean out the bits of gravel lodged into the wound. There’s nothing more fun than jumping into a shower after a crash and having to wash out the scrapes and scratches you came home with. Then again, there are more serious crashes. Cyclists have been maimed, some even killed, by distracted drivers and the cyclists own inattentiveness to their surroundings.

 A couple of years ago, on June 5, 2015, I had my accident. Sure, I had others, experienced the road rash wounds and the times when my cleats got stuck and I fell over, but this accident was a life changing experience. I was struck by someone opening their car door, without first looking to see if anyone was passing by them. It was the crash that got me writing more, mainly because I realized that life, my life, is tenuous.

 I know I’m not the only person ever to experience life changing events, however, this is my life changing event and it is one which I am still processing. In my writing, in my prose and poetry all of which is disjointed and in need of a good editor, I seek to delve into the deeper mystery that is self. Time and again, through what I write I’m seeking my true self, that person untarnished by the layers of life that have accumulated over the years. Yet, knowing that I will never recover what has been lost, I will never find that pure, true self lying embedded in the core of my soul. I dig into the tell of who I am, scrapping away the layers of dust and debris, of the loves lost and the loves gained, the heartbreak of living, which we all take part in and in which we all share. 

 Maybe I’m waxing a bit too philosophically, I’m not much of a philosopher, but I believe that inside each one of us is that unique story. Stories that need to be told, to be shared and talked about, to help us to heal from the fractures in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. 

 My accident resulted in a broken hip, that was surgically repaired with titanium nails by one of the best surgeons. Weeks in my bed at home, learning how to get up, walk up and down stairs, and months of physical therapy were all part of the process. 

 Now here I sit, on a hot July day in the midst of a heat wave, writing. Doing what I started doing days after the accident, trying again to delve into the mists of time and space, to find that hidden treasure, the one St. Paul claims we have hidden in “jars of clay.” Maybe that’s my own lesson, that no matter what, I am just that a simple jar made from clay and subject to being broken, physically as well as mentally. If we as people could only learn that each of us are simply clay pots subject to our own forms of decay, “you are dust and to dust you shall return”, maybe, just maybe, we might not be so ready to dismiss and judge. A dream, perhaps, but one worth writing about anyway.

Wild and Free

Maybe it’s me

the way I think,

not in a straight line

and not in sequential steps.

As I look back 

on all those years

when I was told the path,

and I went the other way

not willing to be fitted

with bit and bridle of convention

but wanting to run free,

along the broken ridge lines

across the empty beaches

to feel the wind in my face

to stand in the rain

shaking my rebellious fist 

to the forces that try to chain.

Now I know the tale

of the Handmaid and her woes

being tied down by fear of others.

Lives are meant for living

pushing against the walls

trying to contain the hearts

of the artists and poets

whose words are dangerous

and not at all straight and narrow

but wild and free.

It’s in the Future, Why Worry?

 I sit here in my office at church surrounded by pictures and memorabilia that I have collected over the last twenty-five years. On the wall behind me hang my academic achievements and two ordination certificates, what a friend of mine called, the “ego” wall. Many years ago, as I was finishing up High School and getting ready to join the Army, it never occurred to me that I would one day have a wall dedicated to my academic achievements, considering I was not the best of students. Even now there is that doubt lingering in the dark alleyways of my mind, lying in wait to assail any notion I have of being successful. Recently, I have been doing a decent job of keeping those doubts at bay and making sure their voices are stilled, yet, they remain ever present, ever ready to burst from the tomb where I’ve placed them. No tomb or prison, no wall or gate is ever high enough or strong enough against those deeper thoughts and fears that reside within us all.

 It is difficult admitting to one’s doubts especially when you reach a certain age, for me that age seems to have arrived. I am now on the cusp of entering the retired zone, of changing my life once again not knowing what I’m going to do with myself and, of course, I am full of doubts and a few fears. I’m sure many feel this way as they look down the road, a road that has yet to be paved, trying to imagine life without work. Okay, sure while we are slaving away at some desk, or in some cubicle we fantasize about being retired, partaking in our favorite hobbies and having plenty of time to enjoy those activities, but then I think, is that all? Sure I can go out cycling without having to worry about being called by the funeral home, or a parishioner in crisis. I will be able to actually go somewhere and not be on call each and every day, but then what? How do I create my daily life? How do I find that which feeds my soul and makes me want to get out of bed? Regardless how one may think of their job, and trust me I’ve had a few doozies in my life, still there’s something to getting up, stepping out and being productive. Each day is filled with hope, that a dream will come true, that you will find that one thing that changes your life and those around you. 

 Maybe I’m overthinking all of this, but then that is my nature to do just that, overthink. Then this gets me into trouble because those little demons, so carefully caged within begin to swing their little tin cups against the bars creating a cacophony of discordant sounds as they seek to escape. Maybe, I’m being a bit too existentialist in trying to figure things out, then again, what does one mean by being existentialist? I get too caught up when I delve into the philosophical side of my being because I really have no idea where I stand at this point.

 So then, let’s get back to my point, before I drift further away from the shore of reality, my impending retirement. No matter when I finally pull the trigger and actually do the deed, I think it’s always a good thing to contemplate, before it’s too late, and I find myself in a real swamp. To be absolutely clear, I am a bit fearful, not just of leaving but also of what I will do with myself. I’m not that great at anything besides being a priest and if my writing is any indication, I don’t believe it will find financial success. Yes, it will keep me busy and yes, it will be interesting, at least in my mind it will be, but only as a vocational hobby rather than a workable lifestyle. You see those pesky little doubts, banging away on the bars of their cells are getting louder and more vocal, I think one of them has taken on Jimmie Cagney’s persona. 

 The question is, what do I need now, psychologically and spiritually to get me started on this long and winding road into the forest called retirement. I look around at the various icons and pictures seeing a life well lived and hopefully that will continue into the foreseeable future. I also see hope, in what I do write and what I do feel. Sure, something could happen to change all that, like getting hit by an opened car door, but focusing on some unknown disaster is only opening those cage doors and allowing the gremlins of doubt to come out and play. 

 So I think, write and live.

An Evening Walk

They walk

hand in hand

along the river

of a mid summer evening

escaping the heat

of the city streets

talking,

planning,

future,

family,

children,

a life 

of promise

filled with

youthful hope

they never heard

or even felt

what was called

a stray

not intended 

for them

yet finding 

a home

in the tender flesh

breaking bone

and severing arteries

as they bled out

on the summer eve

just another casualty

on the midnight news.