My Journey in Words

In the past few weeks my life has changed. First, I retired, second, I’ve moved. Now I’m trying to figure out what shape my life will take, so I offer this small piece of reflection. It’s not perfect, nor is it finished but it is where I am at the moment.

July 11, 2018

Thanks, once again to Parker Palmer I have another mystery to unravel in my attempt at the writers life. Here he quotes Henry David Thoreau:

My life has been the poem I would have writ

But I could not both live and utter it

Now what do I do with that? What is the poem I would have writ had I the time to writ what it is that needed to be writ? For me this is the struggle, to find something that grabs at me instead of these various, meteoric thoughts that fly by quickly only too burn up in the atmosphere of my thoughts. I write, to put it mildly, trash even as I long to make sense of where I am in this world. Being deeply troubled by what I read and see, how does my small voice fit in the the greater narrative? Palmer seems to have found his voice, a voice that has been honed and worked on and re-honed to what it is today. Richard Rohr, (another spiritual author I need to read) writing about Palmer and his new book writes that “Our entire culture is in need of true elders, and you can’t be one until you have arrived there — chronologically, spiritually, and intellectually. Here’s a man who has arrived, with another book that’s a generous gift to all of us.” I am far from being anywhere near from being a true elder. I might be there chronologically, but the other two criteria are woefully deficient and need a good boost, a shot of spiritual and intellectual energy. I’m not too old to not have the desire to continue in my quest and even as the days grow shorter, I don’t feel desperate or anxious to get to that mythical somewhere. Maybe, for me, the struggle is the vocation, the purpose of my writing. The honest struggle of not paying enough attention when I was younger and now finding myself in the slow lane trying to catch-up. Now I’m back to the question, what is the poem I would have writ? What are the paradoxes that surround my life and where do they fit in with what I am trying to be as a writer, as a priest, now retired from the dailyness of being out there, yet still craving that need for contact? Now that’s a paradox, a both/and that will keep any shrink in business if one ever dares to try an unravel my inner workings. Today was a day of thoughts, not really journal material, or is it? After all what is a journal other than a place to vomit the crap that is floating on the interior and exposing it all to the light of day. It ain’t pretty and sometimes it smells, but that is the only way to come to understand who I am at this time in my life. I think that the only person that really gets me is Jane, the poor girl has had to deal with my ups and downs for the past 45 years and now she’s stuck with me on a daily basis as we negotiate being retired together.

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Measure of My Life

What is the measure of one’s life?

In the still moments where alone I sit

writing out the words that play

along the horizon of my mind

darting to and fro

seemingly solid at once

then becoming ghosts the next

whispers that speak in the dark

that have no meaning

as I try to grasp what to do

my writing is weak

my poetry is nonsense

but the words taunt

they jump about,

just out of reach

the feelings are raw

how do I measure my life,

by what I do,

or what I don’t do?

Is it worth the effort

or the critique of a thousand voices

that all yell and scream.

Life is measured in the seconds and minutes

in the hours of the day

in the seasons as they change

in watching the summer fade

and falls colors drop away

as winter winds blow them around

down empty streets

where lovers clasp each other tightly

holding themselves against the cold

of their own feelings and doubts.

What is the measure of my own life?

What will I leave behind to be read

and thought about?

Seattle, 1971

I can get you to Canada,

she said,

as I waited for my plane.

Just take this card,

call the number,

and you will be free,

her blue eyes bright.

I looked at her wondering

if this could be true,

freedom from the pain

of all that I knew.

I held her gaze,

for just a moment

she smelled of fresh flowers

on a warm spring day

a memory I carry to this day.

I thought about her offer,

then said, No,

I’ve done my time

and now I’m headed home.

She turned away from me,

and walked to another gate.

Was she sad I wondered,

as she disappeared

melting into the crowd

Retirement Day One

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?

Who has strife? Who has complaining?

Who has wounds without cause?

Who has redness of eyes?

Those who linger late over wine,

those who keep trying mixed wines.

Do not look at wine when it is red,

when it sparkles in the cup

and goes down smoothly.

At the last it bites like a serpent,

and stings like an adder.

Your eyes will see strange things,

and your mind utter perverse things.

You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast.

(Proverbs 23)

Day one of retirement, day one and looking ahead and behind while trying to remain present in the here and now. Feeling like there’s something I need to do, something not quite finished, like the final touches on a painting or that last piece of a gigantic puzzle. Retirement comes with no prepared packaging. You enter at your own peril and you make of it what you will but it can also become one’s master. Finding solace, time to write, time to read and do what I like will require some discipline. New habits need to be formed and made a part of the daily routine without turning the daily routine into a rut. Reading Morning Prayer the passage from Proverbs warns against imbiding too much on wine. We could say that imbiding on anything for too long is not good and one of the dangers of being retired and without the daily habit of work, is to get lazy, bored and possibly depressed. Unfortunately, I have been down the depression road, I have been stuck in the ruts and have needed help to claw my way out. Depression is not something we easily talk about, especially men. We tend to travel down the dark path with our chin up denying that we are indeed down in the dumps. The truth is we can’t do that and survive, not to deal more openly leads us into even darker waters, abusing booze, inappropriate sexual liaisons will only create a deeper rut. Our eyes will see strange things our minds will wander and our hearts will break but that needn’t be the only path. I’m just now testing these new waters, dipping my toe in carefully to see whether or not I’ll take the plunge. That plunge is actually trying to see if any of my babblings are worthy to be published and read by others. I have the time, I just need to get over my own fears of being ridiculed and rejected. In a way it’s not about me personally but then again it is if I take rejection personally. I guess that the idea is never to quit trying, to write, send out a query letter, explore the genres and continue to try. Anne Lamott talks about writing as taking it word by word, writing that shitty first draft then purging it later of the adjectives, adverbs and useless words, writers tend to use. Then get down to really honing the craft. So here I go, day one of retirement, my shitty first draft in need of revision, but at least I wrote and didn’t drink that wine

So it Begins

As I approach another change in my life’s story, I begun to reflect on how I have arrived to the place I am now. It’s one of life’s great mysteries, how the choices we make, the challenges we face and the decisions that got us to where we are, have impacted our lives and the lives of those whom we have come to know. It’s a mystery because in the moment we don’t fully understand that a simple yes or no can have that kind of impact. In fact, in the moment, we seldom truly think about what might happen but only think of the initial gratification we get in making the decision we have made. When we were young, just beginning our conscious life, everything we did or did not do was filled with drama. Coming to the realization that we are, as Shakespeare once said, all actors on the great stage, had the twofold effect of us trying to improvise our lines or surrendering ourselves to the script that has already been written for us. I would tend to be cautious about our script already being written for us and that we are merely players on the grand stage, it’s a bit too Calvinistic, a bit too cut and dried. It makes us puppets and that our actions are not our fault (a built in excuse for making bad decisions), but merely our following what has been predestined for us to say and do. On the other hand, I believe that we are the captains of our own ships, that we set the course, and head blindly into the consequences of our own thought process. We hope beyond hope, that what we decide and what we do will turn out for the best and when it does or doesn’t we only have ourselves to look to for either admonishment or astonishment.

Each step, each word is indelibly carved into the memories and like many others, I carry those memories with me like a Red Cap at the airport, taking them from the curb to the terminal and back again. Some of these memories are heavily weighted with regret and grief, memories of words not said, of love not given, of turning one’s back when, at that moment, they needed your front. It’s funny, at least for myself, that it’s the failures that seem to take front stage. There they are, like a really bad comic, bombing their lines in front of an unforgiving audience who throw rotten tomatoes at you. In many cases I have come to find out that I am both the bad comic and the audience member with an oozing piece of rotten fruit ready to toss. I am both one and the same, I am both in every moment of life the player and the played and yet, I carry on. Why? Why do we carry on, why not blame someone else, after all that seems to be the favorite thing to do today, point a finger and yell loudly. I for one have come to realize that many of my decisions, many of my deeds, I have done willingly and with a huge dose of naïveté. Not an excuse, it just is what it is, all part of being human and living today.

Memoir, is that written account of that kind of life. A life of ups and downs, of digging oneself into a hole and hopefully, climbing back out. Each moment we either leave a piece of ourselves or we gain another piece to carry along. We shed old skins, the skins of jealousy, of anger, of words unsaid and of the pain we to have suffered. It is not about perfection, or even having that unique story because no one is perfect and every story deserves a telling.

I will begin my story, I will tell my tale and I will do it to the best of my own flawed memory. Accuracy is not the point, at least not for me, but honesty is and that is done in telling the story truthfully, without embellishment or false heroics. I will write in private, I will share one day and I will learn anew of a life lived fully.

The Dash Between

Walk through a cemetery, slowly. Gaze at the various grave markers, take note of the person’s name, the date of birth the date of death, look around, see what offerings have been left by others. The gravesite tells much if we are really attentive, we get to know who this person is, those bits and pieces of offerings give us a glimpse into their life, when they once roamed this planet, when they were fully alive and present. Between the birth and death there is a space or a dash, that small part represents all that person was and did, how they lived, loved it represents their hopes and dreams, the pain and joy, all that life brings.

I have done plenty of funerals, have seen many gravestones and read about those who lie beneath the ground. Some heroes, winners of medals and adulation from a grateful nation, some mothers who sacrificed so much for children and grandchildren, some husbands who once stood as the providers for their families, all once living breathing human beings. The space, the dash is where their story lies, it is in that place where we find discover their true self, it is in that space where we discover ourselves.

Memoir is mining the dash, going beneath its surface and diving deep into those memories that have made us who we are, and will be the legacy we leave. I am coming now to the end of another period of life as retirement lies out there on the horizon. I have been a priest in the Episcopal Church for over 26 years, I have served my current parish for 17 of those years. I have made many mistakes, I have suffered depression and felt defeated, yet, I have also felt great joy and love. I have experienced the full spectrum of the human condition, witnessed birth and death, held the hand of one facing great struggles, watched as others have turned their backs and walked away. My heart, has been filled to the brim with joy and broken also by great heaviness, a sense of failing not just the people I serve but the God whom I have given my life over to.

Vocation is a calling. It is answering the call to follow and follow I have done. Not the most perfect of followers and definitely not one of those bright shining stars that populate the universe of clergy. I have been the person whom God created me to be, I have tried, failed and tried again and through the trials and tribulations I have grown to love these people whom I have lived with. Last Sunday was Easter and it will be my last Easter here in the place I am. As I looked out at the congregation, knowing many only come once or twice a year, I saw so many stories and each one has touched my heart. The teens who I held in my arms so many years ago, pouring water over their heads as I baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, bringing them into the community of faith. The families who I sat with as we watched a beloved member die, as we stood at the edge of the grave, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was hard, it will be hard, to say good-bye, to bid these people farewell, even now as I write this I feel the clutch in the throat, tears on the edge of my eyes, remembrances pouring out.

My own dash, the space between birth and death, is where I am now being called into, to write, however imperfectly, about this life. If anything, I write this for my grandchildren and those who will one day walk into some graveyard, stare down at a stone with my name engraved on it with a birthdate and death date, and that all important dash.

To My Grandchildren who start another School Year

To my Grandchildren who start another school year.

Each of you are embarking on a new path,

one you have never trod before.

You will learn, be challenged and grow.

There will be hard days,

there will be easy days,

but each day is an opportunity.

Be aware, look at your fellow classmates,

look at the ones who shrink away,

who are quiet and shy, they need you.

Listen to what they say,

not just listen but hear them.

Allow your own hearts to grow,

not just in compassion but also in love for those who struggle.

Your own road will be tough enough,

the storms you encounter will be real

you will need others to help pull you through.

I am an old man,

I have walked my own path and weathered my own storms,

I am not here to tell you what to do,

for that will not dissuade you,

but I am here to listen.

Each of you is a gift,

a unique,

one of a kind,

full of life and love,

filled with light and joy.

Let that light shine even in the darkest days,

let not those who have no joy pull you down,

but rather allow your light to guide them

lifting up their broken hearts.

The world needs you,

I need you,

you are my lights,

my dearest grandchildren,

whose gift of laughter and joy lifts up my heart.