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When Lightning Fails to Strike

January 26, 2012 3 comments

A few times a week I spend about a half hour with a friend from my neighborhood.

Our relationship has been forged by a circumstance relating to her eyesight that requires me to help her out by giving her a ride to take her daughter to school. My friend’s field of vision is narrowing, sort of the reverse of macular degeneration, so her peripheral vision is slowly closing in and will eventually leave her blind. Fortunately, the rate of loss has been slower than initially expected but still leaves her unable to drive.

During these quick jaunts that make my aging car feel useful we manage to have some pretty deep philosophical discussions. She and I are about the same age, are living in similar circumstances, and have many of the same fears and worries.

What we’ve come to discover is that we are both waiting for lightning to strike, for that jolt that lights up our understanding of what we are supposed to do with our lives.

But life doesn’t work that way, does it?

From what I’ve experienced (and often choose to ignore) is that life is a constant flow of tiny sparks rather than grand flashes. In our every action is a barely discernible pinprick that gooses us a little, like sitting down on one of those electrified mats that keep pets off your couch. They’re not strong enough to cause pain, but they are definitely uncomfortable, forcing us to change our position out of avoidance.

Maybe that’s our problem. We’re only uncomfortable enough to seek to make ourselves less uncomfortable. We’re slightly frustrated by our lack of initiative but not outright pissed off. We turn up the car radio louder so we don’t hear that clunking sound in the engine that warns us that our world may soon be screeching to a halt.

But we keep on rolling, ignoring the signs. We rely on what we know about ourselves to keep us going. We are educated, aware, and know what we are capable of. My friend has an MSW degree and once worked with cancer patients, possibly one of the most difficult jobs a social worker can do. She is extremely capable but under-confident, having begun her career when she was too young to be fueled by wisdom. And then her vision began to close in.

When she started a family, her life as a stay-at-home mom accommodated her vision loss. I chose work that is satisfying but leaves me fairly isolated. We have both spent many years away from the outer stimulation that reminds us of where we fit in a world that seems to grow ever larger and more complex. The spark plug wires that used to connect our inspiration to our deeds are corroded and we’ve come to crave the force of lightning because we’ve lost connection to the steady current that used to keep us moving. Everybody else seems to have a newfangled computer-controlled engine now. Heck, my car still has a cassette-tape player.

So maybe ignition of our inspiration is not the problem at all. More likely, we’re afraid that we’ve been sitting in one place to long and don’t believe the fuel in our old tanks is any good or trust that the old car is up for the trip so we don’t dare leave the driveways of our minds lest we break down in the middle of our journey.

The smart thing to do would be to hook up a trickle charger and slowly let our batteries revive, change the oil and put in a new fuel filter, some fresh gas, and trust that the frame of the old car is still sturdy enough to carry us where we need to go. We could try jump-starting the system with huge shocks all we want, but with faulty wiring and sludgy internal combustion, no amount of lightning force can do anything but fry the battery. At our age, we need a gentler approach.

Ironically, maybe it’s the humility of age, wisdom, a little rust, and a narrowing field of vision that are exactly what we need to fix the problem and focus on the rest of the journey.

But a new car couldn’t hurt either….;)

Grace and the Art of Not Setting Goals

January 6, 2012 1 comment

I used to think there was something wrong with me.

I was, and still am, constitutionally incapable of setting a goal. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

So I felt bad about myself.

A lot.

All the time.

I would get so anxious knowing that even if I did set a goal, I would not achieve it, yet the world kept pushing me to “make a plan!”

As I look around me these days, I’m learning that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. The “plans” that people made for themselves seem to be falling apart. They thought that if they saved enough, invested enough, played by the rules enough, they could earn the grace they prayed for.

But grace doesn’t work that way.

OK, so I don’t know exactly HOW grace works, but I don’t think it’s something you are worthy of or not. It just IS.

Maybe it is grace that kept me healthy when I didn’t have insurance, or sustained me when I needed a job, or allows me to spend a peaceful half hour in the morning therapeutically massaging my aging dog, watching the sun rise on another day in our life together, not knowing if it will be our last but allowing us the peace to just enjoy the moment either way.

In the cacophony of our modern world when everyone wants to tell everyone else how to achieve their wildest dreams, I realize that my wildest dream is the one I wake up to every morning when I open my eyes and catch the jet stream that carries me up and away, like a starling in a murmuration….

No goals, no worries…. just flying….

Becoming…. The Chaos of Taking Flight

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

November 16, 2011 3 comments

If we let sleeping dogs lie, should we expect them to tell the truth when they wake up?

I’m feeling grammatically cheeky this morning, but this idea actually encapsulates what I’ve been thinking about lately. I am neither a historian nor a social scientist so I won’t even attempt to inject anything but my own observations into this, but it seems like a pattern is emerging.

Three things caught my eye on Facebook this morning. One read:

Everybody!!!!!!!, let’s do this. We should flood Facebook with this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under GOD, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”. RE-POST IF YOU THINK GOD, OUR COUNTRY, OUR FLAG, AND OUR MILITARY DESERVE RESPECT!!!!. Let’s just see how many people will!!!!..

Another said:

It is interesting to me that when you do something with a giving spirit, there are often those who need to search for an ulterior motive.  (Renee F.)

And the third:

On our way home …. a deer leaped out and landed on the car. What that did to the car and everything that involves is secondary to how we feel about the Deer. I’m still processing…and, finding that I’m afraid to get back on these country roads. (Michele S.)

What tied these three ideas together for me was their common theme of TRUST.

As we are wrestling to find a way out of the mess our economy has become and people stand in public squares all across the country to voice their disillusionment about it, the dog that is our collective conscience is waking up …. and it’s hungry.

A college community is feeling shaken to its core by the shattering of trust that has been accomplished by the revelation at Penn State of a scandal involving the sexual abuse of several young boys by a former coach of the football team. Though this is not the first time such an incident has happened in our country, it points to a much deeper issue involving our collective morality. A revered community leader has engaged in a most base violation of those in his care and yet he can’t bring himself to admit that his actions were wrong. Those surrounding him who were aware of the problem had a similar dilemma. It makes me wonder how this pathology of deception and abuse of the powerless has become so prevalent in our country.

Since 1954 when Congress changed the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words “under God”, our country has been in spiritual turmoil. A decade earlier, we had righted one of the most egregious wrongs in recent history with WWII but our victory had created a taste for rooting out evil. We began to see it everywhere and in everyone.  Fear of our country being overtaken by Communism resulted in this knee-jerk decision to amend the original Pledge of Allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy in 1892, in an effort to fend off Godlessness, like a necklace of garlic warding off a vampire, as though a profession of allegiance to God in the public square could force people to abide by the rules of the United States and by extension, the Bible. All it did was incite rebellion.

This rebellious pioneerism has come to define most Americans. We want to be free to choose our actions with a minimum of interference. When we feel our ideals are being compromised, we are allowed to stand up and protest. Too often, though, we have left the dog to slumber too long while our rights were being impinged, relying on the stink of injustice to reach its sensitive nose and bring it back to consciousness.

Now, the sleeping dog has shaken itself awake to the smell of what’s going on and it is snapping, growling, and barking at what has been happening to the freedoms in our country, a Constitutional Republic that had been formed in reaction to this very oppression by government that had demanded control over how people worked, worshiped, and contributed. It has become increasing clear that we have allowed the misplaced perception of evil to once again invade our trust and shake our confidence.

In the early part of the 20th century as America became more prosperous, we seemed to forget why we existed in the first place. We had declared that every man had the right to determine his own destiny, with the idea that if we all pitched in and lifted ourselves up by helping to fulfill each other’s needs, we could create something that had never existed before — an open society of opportunity, free of the constraints of an oppressive government that would demand to determine our course.

Little by little, as our country grew beyond our wildest expectations, we panicked and lost our ability to trust that ideal. Companies bought other companies in order to squeeze out competition and maximize profits. In reaction to unfair business practices due to the size and power of these organizations, we thought that if we created laws to dictate fairness and prosperity for all then everything would be made equal. We thought that if we told people how to behave toward one another, we could create an atmosphere of mutual respect, but we can see now that the corporations ultimately won out. The concentration of economic power we had so eschewed in our early years, then in the form of government, had become the kind of bully we thought we’d escaped by rising up against it. The accomplice was looking the other way as the abuser took advantage again and again of the little guy who had no say in the matter.

I don’t know what inspired the coach at Penn State to initiate the violations he is accused of, or who was the first banker to make the decision to sell and profit from a bad investment, but history reveals that if we get away with something once, we’re likely to try it again. If no one disturbs the dog, we have carte blanche to do whatever we want, right?

We can declare our allegiance to God, the flag, and apple pie in public all we want, but does that absolve us of what we do when we think no one is looking or does it simply cover up the misdeeds of some very unrighteous people, like the bankers and politicians in our country, buoyed by a lack of regulation that allowed them to flagrantly cheat their way to unprecedented personal profits at the expense of those who trusted them to be the backbone of our economy? Were the jobs of the other coaches at Penn State more valuable than the spiritual and emotional health of a young boy whose life would be irrevocably altered by their indifference? Did they forget to pledge their allegiance to a higher moral call or were they the ones shouting it the loudest?

We, the people, are feeling the visceral ache of a trust violated. In the wake of a violent raping on 9/11, we were encouraged to take a ride in search of prosperity on our bucolic country roads in an attempt to build a brighter future for ourselves and our families, but then a huge deer suddenly ran out in front of us and there was no way to avoid it. The peaceful grandeur that had been our country was suddenly laid across the hood of our common vehicle and we were faced with the decision to put it out of its misery or try to save it. Meanwhile, the vehicle is wrecked and we’re going to have to figure out how to get to work as we ponder whether the deer was being chased or if we had simply built the road in its way.

Our society, once based on mutual nourishment, not a commune but a community, has lost its sense of responsibility to the health of the whole and our appetite for hunting down evil has grown stronger again. When a neighbor comes to welcome us with a fresh batch of cookies, we immediately wonder what they want from us. When a friend is experiencing need, we think they must have done something to deserve that lack. We don’t want to get involved but we’ll throw money at a charity so we don’t have to look into the eyes of the homeless person that used to be our neighbor or get our hands dirty by touching theirs; we might catch their bad luck. And we definitely don’t trust the government to decide how to fix the problem. Everybody knows that dog is vicious and unpredictable….

So, if, as we pledge, we do trust in God, then we will do the right thing even when God and the dog seem to be napping. We’ll stop poking God awake and whining, “God, tell those guys to cut it out! They don’t love you as much as we do so they don’t deserve anything!” It seems to me, as in any good relationship, that God needs to be able to trust in us just as much, yet we’re too often proving ourselves unworthy partners. Are we honoring our own pledge?

In these struggling relationships that are eating away at our collective trust, will the Penn State victims be able to forgive their abuser and his accomplices? Will our politicians and bankers stop encouraging us to blame each other for our troubles when they were the ones speeding down the road in the car that hit the deer that got us into this mess? And will we be able to give of ourselves to those whose spirits are so diminished that they feel they have nothing to lose, with no questions asked and  no expectation of return? Are we willing to offer them a ride until the car gets fixed no matter how long it takes?

Oh hey, since the dog’s awake, I guess I’d better go feed it something nourishing. Wouldn’t want it to go in search of evil just to satisfy its appetite. Nice talking to y’all.

And A Little Kid Shall Lead Them….

September 26, 2011 10 comments

A friend lost her father suddenly last week and she has been sharing her experience of grief with us in a way that reminds me of the profound days and weeks after my own father passed away nearly 20 years ago.

When I was 28, my father had been unwell most of my life. After suffering a near fatal heart attack at age 50, he was forced to retire from a busy job as the senior minister at a large Congregational church in New York and start over again somewhere less stressful. We moved to a farm my parents had bought a few years earlier in southern New Hampshire.

For years prior, we had traveled from NY to a summer retreat near there with a large group of families from the church, and one of our favorite destinations to visit was The Friendly Farm in Dublin. We’d all show up and spend the day feeding the vast array of farm animals with the food provided. It was an exciting experience for a bunch of kids from the suburbs.

When he heard we were moving to the farm for good, the owner of The Friendly Farm presented my dad with a beautiful Jersey calf as a gift. We loaded the week-old calf, whom we named “Irene” (eirênê) after the goddess of peace, into the backseat of our VW bug and took her home.

Over the years, Irene was mother to several calves, many of them not her own. They were Holsteins, Herefords, Ayrshires …. she had no qualms about who nursed off of her as long as her udder was empty and comfortable when they were done feeding. She lived for many years as matriarch of the farm.

So it seemed right, many years later when it was time to make a transition in my life, to spend a summer working at The Friendly Farm as a way to clear my head with some hard physical work at a place that represented good memories.

As the warm, early April sun filtered through the tall pines to melt the remaining snow, I would arrive early each day to begin the Spring chores. A batch of tiny goats had arrived for the season and my first task was to feed them — all twenty or so. In a 5-gallon bucket I would combine warm water with a powdery formula mix and fill twenty 10 oz. Coke bottles, fitting each one with a rubber nipple. In order to not lose track of who had already eaten — goats are tricksters — I would lift two at a time over a wooden gate and when they were done they’d be replaced by two more. The ritual made my spirit laugh.

But even as my own heart was expanding, my father’s was shutting down. When I told him I was working at The Friendly Farm, instead of his usual feigned disappointment that I wasn’t studying to be a brain surgeon whenever I’d tell him about my latest occupation, he just said, “That’s great, El.” His fight was gone. On April 22, 1992 — Earth Day — he finally gave up for good.

I thought about him in the weeks that followed as the farm began to come alive with new babies from the cows, sheep, chickens, and goats. I remembered all the creatures that had been born on our own farm in the early dawn before school, finding a new baby calf or foal all slippery and slimy being licked clean by its mother, and the amazement at watching that hour-old baby stand up on its shaky legs and begin nursing. All around me, new life was springing up again even as I struggled to fully understand that another had come to an end.

I worked through those days feeling some sense of comfort in the routine of the farm but still wasn’t experiencing acute grief. I wondered why I couldn’t feel anything. I decided that I had grieved him so many times over the years that what I was feeling was relief that he finally wasn’t suffering anymore.

Then one day a goat gave birth to triplets. Twins are the norm so when a third is born chances are that the little one won’t survive. It was clear when I saw this tiny kid plop out after the other two that he would not live for long. He was half their size, his breathing labored, and he couldn’t stand up to nurse. His mother refused to help. I tried to get him to drink some formula but he wouldn’t take it.

I did the only thing I could think to do and brought him to a quiet place in the bottom of the barn where I made a soft bed out of sawdust and hay. I lay down beside him and stroked his tiny frightened head and assured him that he needn’t be afraid, that it was okay to let go.

And then I remembered that those were the very thoughts I had spoken in my mind as I watched my father’s life drain away in the week before he died. I picked up the baby goat and put him in my lap, cradling him against my body as he took his last heaving breaths and when at last he became still I threw my head back and let out a guttural sob…. and then spent what seemed like hours weeping and rocking that little kid as though he were my big bear of a father who had died all alone in a hospital room.

In my heart I knew that this sweet baby goat, this little kid only hours old, had been sent to help me let my father go and I watched with my mind’s eye as the two of them, healthy and strong, walked side by side into the early Spring sunlight….

15 Years and a Quarter Million Miles

September 13, 2011 2 comments

My dog and my car….

Vying for longevity records…

And me….

Wondering how long the three of us will last…..

We’ve been traveling together for a long time now, since I was in my early 30s and they were both brand new.

My car used to go faster and get speeding tickets from time to time. Now, she just toodles along, irritating all who find themselves in her remarkably clean exhaust wake. An occasional oil change and a few replaced obsolete parts assure me that she’ll start every time I turn the key. I try not to go looking for trouble under the hood. As long as she’s humming, so am I.

My dog has eaten everything she could manage to get past her esophagus, including dirty diapers, animal bones, small electronics, various neighborhood trash concoctions — with only minor disturbances to her normal digestive process. She doesn’t seem to much care what it tastes like. The process of ingesting is the goal.

I’m kind of a hybrid of the two. I’ve been known to try things that others have the good sense not to go near and have so far managed to survive the disruptions to my spiritual health, and my physical body has yet to seriously balk at my actions. I try to keep both systems running at least reasonably well but I have my reckless moments — just to test the limits, for risk-taking’s sake.

Murphy riding shotgun in Big Red

I used to say that when either my car or my dog decided to call it quits, I would park them somewhere and cremate them together. But the closer that day gets, the more likely I am to want to join them.

I write this, not as a cry for help, but as an observation of our human decision to survive. My car doesn’t choose to keep running — it just does. My dog, well, she just seems to have more exploring to do in search of new things to ingest. She doesn’t seem to think much beyond that.

Me? Some days I don’t know. I don’t understand how or why I keep waking up in the morning…. I just do. I have no more sense of why I’m here than either my car or my dog. I just am. I envy their lack of need to know.

I wonder if lots of us don’t feel this way sometimes. We create externals that require us to get up and keep going, but what are we without those external drivers? If I didn’t put gas in the car and just let it sit there, it would probably continue to exist indefinitely. If I set my dog free to make it on her own, she would because she just does.

I will likely continue to be here when the other two have stopped running because something in me will always expect that there is more to experience. I will probably not decide to rev my car up as fast as it will go and slam head-on into a live oak tree in order to obliterate us all in a giant fireball as I have occasionally fantasized about doing.

257,000 miles and still going…

No, my car will eventually deteriorate enough to not be worth repairing and so will my dog. Heck, so will I. But since I am not quite there yet, their passing will precede me and I hope I’ll be able to see it not as an ending, but as a new beginning. A shiny new car, a healthy young dog and I will begin the process all over again even though I know I will have to endure the same re-evaluation someday … and I will again make the decision to survive … or not.

And so it goes for each of us. Parts of us die over and over again throughout our lives so that something shiny and healthy can emerge. Someday soon I will let these two witnesses to my disjointed mid-life go but I will still be here because they taught me what it means to just keep going until your parts wear out.

And I will smile gratefully, knowing that I survived…. again.

The Things I Don’t Know Could Fill a ……

November 15, 2010 2 comments

So, maybe Melatonin is not my friend.

I tried an OTC sleep aid last night in an effort to get through the night without waking up anxious. I stayed asleep all right, but lived out the anxiety in my dreams instead.

What wakes me up most nights is the realization that life is passing me by and there is so much I’ve neglected to learn. Panic sets in when I realize I have no idea what I should have learned by this point. All I know is there’s a lot I’ve refused to study because I couldn’t sit still and focus long enough on something that had no discernible point. When I was diagnosed at age 35 with adult ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and was eligible for special work accommodations according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), I decided to TKO (Technically Knock Out) my WTFI (Will To Fit In). You can give me the quietest workspace in the world but I’m still going to want to wander around and chat. There’s no fighting it.

More than 10 years later, what really worries me is that I am no more intellectually superior nor highly educated than a certain former Governor of Alaska who is proud of her unworldliness, and I have far less to show for it. Back in the day when she and I were in our formative years (we are the same age), we had little more than our own small pond to swim around in. There was barely a means to connect with our friends who were only 10 miles away, unlike today when we can communicate with someone in Australia in a matter of seconds. Regardless of the physical size of Alaska, it’s still a small pond in the scheme of things. Clear across the country, my pond was no bigger but I had found a way to take up a fair amount of volume, just as she had. The main difference? She’s hot. I’m not.

So here I am living in Florida, an intellectual small pond but with access to the whole world, where I am at least hotter than Mrs. Palin temperature-wise. Yesterday I learned that Tampa ranks in the bottom ten out of 55 large cities for high IQs and their requisite jobs. Our area also boasts a population of less than 25% with college degrees. So with my 150 or so college credits, none of which combine to create an actual degree, I am sort of a big fish again… one that picks up dog shit for a living because I make more money doing that part time than most of the jobs I could have gotten full-time with my college education. And the commute is a lot shorter. Bottom line: shit is shit, whether it stinks or not. Might as well get paid respectably for dealing with it.

But when I get feeling arrogant about my intellect and the fact that I’m not using it for higher purposes, I remember a favorite quote from the movie, “Good Will Hunting”. With the exception that Will is a genius and I am not (quite), I can relate to him. I think Mrs. Palin probably can too.

“See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna staht doin some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late chahges at the public library.”

Then Will’s therapist brings home the reality of that particular theory:

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”

I learned yesterday that the story I wrote for the 3-minute Fiction contest on NPR didn’t win. I didn’t expect it to, and in fact it would be highly unfair if it had since I was being entirely cheeky about the subject. There are people who pour themselves into becoming good writers as was evidenced by some of the follow-up comments to the winning story. In my usual style of bouncing around and not committing my mind to anything for long, I don’t put much effort into the outcome of my output.

But I wrote about what I knew, about what affects me, and I will continue to do that for the rest of my life because it helps me organize my freakishly scattered thoughts. I could read all the books in the world but none of them would tell me what it’s like to be me.

Maybe someday I’ll publish a book about all the things I know…. but unlike Sarah Palin, I will be ever mindful that the book about all the things I don’t know can never be finished.

Where There is Dog, There is God…

July 21, 2010 3 comments

This morning I learned of a special dog named, Baxter, a chow-lab mix who lived to be 19 years old and served for the last 5 years of his life as a therapy dog at the San Diego Hospice in California. His experience is commemorated in a book called, “Moment’s With Baxter”.

Though he could no longer walk, his owner, Melissa Joseph, would pull him around the facility in a red wagon designed especially for him. If the patients desired, she would carefully lay his 37 pounds in the bed with them, and he would rest his head on their chests and lick their faces.

I’ve always known that dogs have healing powers but I hadn’t understood it for myself until one morning several years ago…

My mother had built a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Maine. She recycled windows from the shack next door and had them placed all along the front of the house to expose the breathtaking view.

When we’d visit, my black lab/golden retriever, Murphy, would stare out the upstairs bedroom window at the seagulls circling around everywhere. I would wake up in the morning to see her at the foot of the bed watching their silhouettes against the sunrise.

One early morning, the phone rang. It was a nurse in California who had been attending to my mother’s elderly parents. Just a short time earlier, Mom’s father had passed away.

My mom has never shared sadness easily. Even through all the years of my dad’s roller-coaster health problems, she always stood strong when the rest of us wanted to break down. That morning was no different.

She walked over to one of the rocking easy chairs and sat down, swiveling to look out the window. My sister and I just sat with her.

I heard quiet footsteps padding down the stairs and Murphy appeared. She looked at each of us and then walked over to Mom. Though Mom has never been much of a dog person despite the many chances we’ve given her to become one, she put her hand on Murph’s head and said, “Aw, Murphy….”

Without giving Mom a chance to protest, Murphy put one front paw on the chair and then the other, and then ever so gently pulled her whole body up onto my mother’s lap. Mom let out a yelp of surprise, but when Murphy laid her head on Mom’s shoulder, the tears began to flow.

They sat like that for several moments, sharing the grief and watching as the sun rose on a new day, even as it set on a life 3,000 miles away.

As quietly as she’d come, Murphy slid off Mom’s lap and went on her way.

Sweet Murphy will be 14 soon and I watch her for signs of failing. Still, she kicks up her heels for a bird flying by, barking more hoarsely than she did just a few years ago. She sleeps more and stays closer to home when she goes for her “walkabouts”. Her plunges into the pool are more like belly flops than swan dives.

But when the scent of tears reaches her nose, she is as sharp as ever and brings her furry self over to give distressed hands a distraction. The scruff of her neck holds the DNA of many a weeper….

Be they a Baxter or Murphy, all dogs hold within them the most powerful capacity for spiritual healing.

It just occurred to me that Baxter was Murphy’s current age when he started his Hospice career. Maybe it’s not too late for my girl after all…..

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