Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas

Dear friends, today I post a homily I heard about 15 years ago when visiting my parents for the holidays and attending Christmas Eve Mass.  Though I have strayed far from my Catholicism, this homily affected me deeply then and does so even more today.

Christmas

Tonight we hear the story, the same one this year as last.  It is the story of a birth in a dark cold night among strangers.  The promise of the story has been kept again this year: it has pulled us out of the darkness and into the warmth of a new light.


Whatever the past year has brought us - pain and doubt and fear, rejoicing and dying and birthing, good fortune or bad - it has not broken the power and the promise of this story to bring us together again.  The story gives us just enough courage and hope on this night to pray for peace, to stand close to those who love us, and to confess that there is more to our living than we understand.


What we do not understand tempts us to say that this story of a man and woman - of two people finding each other and making a home for more than their love - is an accident.  But hope rising in us on the darkest of nights, in the coldest of circumstances, even among strangers, leads us to believe that this story, like our own stories, is not an accident but a promise kept.


Here and there, in all our lives, things do go as they were meant, people love as they intend, suffering and evil do not win.  The power of this story is the promise kept, that even in a dark place on a cold night among strangers, a new birth is possible.  For Mary and Josephus then, for us now, and again.


Fr. Ambrose Bryce

Father Bryce moved on to another parish shortly after delivering this homily, I believe in 1995, and has since retired.  I ask his forgiveness for taking the liberty to post his beautiful words.  I cried then and each time I read it.  After hearing his homily I asked the church secretary for a copy and take it out each year at Christmas along with the ornaments, wreaths, and stockings.  Each year I forget I have it then remember it when we unpack the decorations.  I cried the moment I saw it this year.

And I hope, whatever you personal beliefs of Christmas, as we pass through the long night and the stillness of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, we can all share the hope that new birth always will triumph over death.

Amen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Motes

The morning column sunlight, from a low flying autumn sun, slowly scanned across the gathered congregants from the one uncovered, east facing, pane.  Like a spotlight from the back of the theater it scanned from stage left to right. Eventually the beam found me, where I sit most Sundays, like I did that Sunday, which is where Amy and I sat most Sundays.  It warmed me.  Then, through squinting eyes, countless dust motes appeared, dancing this way and that in the motionless air.  Undetectable convection currents and gentle inhales and exhales of the community created just the right currents for the many points of light to swirl, some slowly and some less slowly.  Some passed steadily through the illumination un-hindered off to attend to some important matter elsewhere. Others lazily swirled and twisted and paused then swirled again towards the shadows and out of sight without any urgency whatsoever.  For a few moments I stared towards the light and wondered the nature of these strange little creatures.  Then my moment in the sunlight ended.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Some Days and Other Days

There are some days I know I can do this.  I get up before the alarm, get shit done, and feel good about who I am.
Then there are other days.
There are some days when I am strong, can run fast and nothing hurts me.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I feel normal. Not happy nor sad.  Just myself.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I am happy.  I breathe deeply and embrace life.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I take care of myself, eat right, and don't abuse my body.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I am a kind and loving father; I am a friend, a teacher, and coach.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I look in the mirror, see my reflection, and know I am up to the challenge.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I don't think about what I've lost and look towards the future with no hesitations.
Then there are other days.
There are some days I float in peace, trusting the river knows the way forward.
There there are other days.
There are some days I don't question the order of the universe, or curse God, and it all almost makes sense.
Then there are other days.

There are some days I know there are some days and other days.
Then there are other days.

There are some days and there are other days.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lost Caravan

And as dawn broke we tentatively lifted the tarpaulin we had hastily fashioned to protect us from the storm.  We saw in each other’s faces the cuts and burns from the multi-day storm.  Howling winds and blinding sand had rendered exposed flesh raw.  Sand was imbedded in every skin fold, crusted our noses and mouths and eyes.   Everything was covered in sand.  Occasionally one of us would cough up bloody, sandy, mucus.  It scoured our throats and left a grit in our mouths.  We assessed our precarious situation.  We had become separated from the rest of the caravan.  There was no trace of them.  With no camels, we’d have to lighten our load. Once treasured possessions, now a burden, we left behind.  We were several days away, maybe more.  If we couldn’t eat it, drink it, or wear it, we unceremoniously discarded it in the sand. No one spoke.

There was no wind now. Only calm. Somehow the stark beauty and perfect stillness of the barren landscape filled us with awe and amazement.  A vast indigo sky, with the last twinkle of stars, began to yield to a pink and orange glow promised the return of the sun.  Only now visible in the first light, a single, lonely desert rose peaked warily above the fresh blown sand.  And much further behind, on the far horizon, the mountain range that marked our prior direction emerged in the soft morning light.  It is over the ridge and out of sight that rests the river valley that is our actual destination.  It now seemed so distant in sight and in mind.  We had wandered desperately off course, though the lush forests and cool waters beckoned.   No one spoke.  There was no debate.  We had one option.  With our meager provisions, we tightened our packs, and began the march to the mountains, angling towards a saddle point we hoped was a low point to the valley beyond.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Heaven Dancing

I close my eyes and see you smiling and spinning. Veils of purple and lavender and pink trailing behind.  If there is a heaven, you dance there tonight.

I close my eyes and hear the songs and rhythms which play for you. Sometimes mournful, sometimes ecstatic, but always accompanied by the low drone from the universe's vibration.

I close my eyes and feel a tickle as a tear rolls down my cheek and around my chin.
 
I close my eyes, spread my arms wide and breathe in.

Keep dancing best beloved.  We are half way around our first orbit of Sun since you were taken away from this plane.  Time continues to ebb and flow, but it at last moves again.   And the planets somehow remain intent on their spinning.

In circular motions we are on our way back to the beginning.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Autumn Rising

I awoke from my cocoon and arose with anticipation. A new sun lingered behind the nearest ridge and high, wispy clouds splashed with purples, oranges, and pinks a slow rising curtain for this new day.  Perhaps Sun was too comfortable in her warm sleeping bag to be up at this hour.  I chuckled at the thought.  Through my nose chilled air stretched my lungs to that very fullest point where they can expand no more.  The first, delicate frost highlighted the edges of grass and leaves while threads of mist twirled up from the lake like Suffis endlessly spinning.

Spinning, spinning.

Autumn signals endings and anticipates new growth some day way around on the other side of the sun.  Today I am content with crisp air and browning leaves.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Goodbye Dancer

"Daddy! Play the 'we're not gonna take it' song!"

And so began our last dance. Our last dance as a family. My last dance with my dance partner.

I queued up Twisted Sister. Loud. And the boys started dancing in our living room. I love how kids dance and play air guitar. Totally uninhibited. Whether the movements of the gangly arms, and legs and torsos actually move in time with the music is of secondary consideration.

Then some B-52s: Love Shack and Rock Lobster. The boys love the B-52s. My god, my boys dance to songs I danced to 20 and 30 years ago. Then Madonna, and "Who Let the Dogs Out" and so on. That's about when Amy joined in. The boys bounding up and down, playing air guitar, falling on the ground, vibrating. Amy moving in perfect synchronization with the music mixing her belly dance and standard dance club moves.

Amy danced with passion and enthusiasm. She had taken lessons on and off for nearly two-decades. She combined grace and a sensuous energy. I loved watching her dance. I loved dancing with her.

We met at a dance club. A B minus bar with a dance floor. I may exaggerate if I say I fell in love with her that night while dancing, but I was smitten. Like in the movies I remember it as just the two of us on that dance floor, the rest of the crowd blurred out of focus, in the background, in the dark. Just Amy and me, moving and spinning together.

She looked at me sitting on the couch with my music system remote, selecting more songs. Tilting her head, she said, "is something wrong - why aren't you dancing?"

Nothing was wrong - I was just sitting. But it was a good question. So I queued some more songs then joined the family dance. Four of us on a Sunday night, a school night, jumping up and down spinning and falling and laughing. It was the four-year-old who started it. Sweat beading on his forehead, he took off his shirt. Dancing only as a four-year-old can, smacking his sweaty, naked belly with his hands mostly in rhythm with the beat. Then the seven-year-old, swinging his shirt around and around, over his head, swaying his skinny hips like some rock star teasing an adoring crowd. His shirt landed in the middle of the room. Fun! Then I took off my shirt, swung it around my head and tossed it at Amy. We all laughed and danced some more. Then Amy, not to be outdone by her three shirtless boys, with a tank top underneath, took off her blouse and tossed it at me.

Our dance continued. The boys wiggled; Amy and I showed-off a few club swing moves we remembered. We danced some more. How long? Maybe an hour? Maybe less - I don't remember, but the hour grew late, we slowly tired, wound down, and our family dance ended.

Four days later Amy was dead. The boys and I haven't danced since. I imagine, someday maybe, the three of us will dance again.

Meanwhile I'm glad we had that last dance.

Friday, October 1, 2010

On Time

"Daddy?"
"Yeah?"
"Are we in the future now?"

My five-year-old posed this a couple weeks ago. He, my eight-year-old, and I talked about this some, how we were in the present, forever so, and now even his question of the future was relegated to the past. But our conclusions felt lacking.

I've written of Time before, a near obsession sometimes, and now its indifferent passage. It's convenient to consider Time as linear and that we live, conventionally, along a line from left to right. Marked on that line are our births and deaths and all the moments in between. We each have one of these lines, I suppose. And when plotted in space, our lines converge and diverge, cross and intersect, run parallel for a while, then end. Amy's line first intersected mine in January, 1999. They twisted around each other, and ran forward along the same path for just over 11 years before the point Time marked her death. Inexplicably Time drags me forward.

I imagine the act of marking the line with death creates a great cosmic event distorting and curving other nearby lines, bending them into new trajectories, akin to a powerful pulse of gravity. Like being sucked into a black hole, Time halted the moment I learned of Amy's death.

Time moves again, though requiring constant checking, calibration, and re-calibration. After shocks continue to distort our space and confuse Time. And because of this, as prompted by my younger son's question, how do we distinguish past, present, and future?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Arresting Jesus

"Someone's following us! Can we come in?"

The other afternoon while visiting a neighbor, one of her friends hurriedly comes to the door with children in tow. She describes an encounter with a man at the nearby park. He approached her, said he was Jesus, that she was Mary and that the child in her arms was theirs. Apparently he was vague as to whether he thought she was Mary, his virgin-mother or Mary Magdalene, his not-so-virgin lover. We conclude the later.

A moment later, he is at the door and we stop joking.

"Can I come in?" he asks.

"No!" says my neighbor. I come to the door. He is walking away. He stops. He turns and comes back.

I step in front of my neighbor. "Hi," I say. "What's your name?"
"I am Christ."

Oh. Okay. I quickly run the "what to do next" analysis in my head. Most likely he is mentally ill, needs help, and could be a threat, especially to the moms and kids here and at the park. But what if he really is the Christ? Would this be how he presents himself? What form of ID would I accept as proof? The Jesus of the gospel spoke often in parables, some confusing. Maybe the reference to "Mary's" child as being his was not some creepy, sick, come-on. Maybe it was the truth. After all, aren't we all God's children? What if I really were approached by Him, he introduces Himself, and I send him off as so many in the Gospels did?

"I think you better leave. Now," I say.

He turns, walks away and sits down right in the middle of the street.

Hmm. Messiah or not, he clearly needs help of some sort. He at least needs to get off the street.

I go up to him as ask if he needs help?
No.
Can I call someone?
No.
Is there someplace he can go?
No.

Okay, then.

So the three of us - my neighbor, "Mary," and I - caucus briefly. I need to leave, but not with Christ sitting in the street.

"I'm calling the police," I say. No, that would be a hassle, they never come, he's just a poor crazy guy, I'm told.

I call the police. This is not an emergency, I say, but Jesus Christ is sitting in the road. It's near a dead end so he isn't a threat to himself nor is he blocking traffic, yet. But he did scare a mom with kids, etc. No, I don't think anyone was assaulted sexually or otherwise. I give a physical description, they thank me and say they'll send someone over.

Judas. I am Judas. But how could I know? I am a Doubting Thomas of sorts. Would I actually start believe Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, etc., if I saw him? If he introduced Himself to me? I sense how weak is my atheistically-leaning-agnosticism.

I shake my head and talk myself back. This is a safety issue. He probably has mental health issues and getting him off the streets can help. And worse case, he can minister to the others in prison. Jesus is good at that, after all.

Then off he goes. Jesus heads back into the nearby park and up the trail. Just like that. And isn't that just so like Him to wander off like that? Then the police arrive. I wave them down.

Yes, I placed the call. No, no one is hurt but a mom and kids are shaken up. I described what happened and that he had just wandered off. Thanks, the police say, they'll check it out.

So my neighbor, "Mary," and I kibitz briefly, and conclude it's safe. A neighbor asks what's going on. I give the whole run down then leave.

And as I'm driving off the thought returns. What Would Jesus Do? What would Jesus do if someone came to him saying he was Christ? Minister to him? Invite him in and feed him? Cast out his demons? Call the cops? I need to review my scripture to see if Jesus ever called the cops. My recollection is that it was mostly the other way around.

This is just silliness. He is a sick man, he made unsettling comments to a mom with kids, and acted erratically. There was only the one option. That's when the text arrived on my phone:

John, police came back to tell us he was wanted in next county for 2nd degree assault and fighting police. They are arresting him!

I exhale a sigh of relief.

Then reconsider.

Of course. This is how it went down the last time! With trumped-up charges against The Messiah. First it was the Romans, now Montgomery County. Typical.

I'll just have to wash my hands of this.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Street Ball

Nine years and one week ago, I learned that I would become a father. Nine years ago, people flew planes into buildings and a field in Pennsylvania. Like many of us, I learned something terrible was happening while at work. With reports and rumors of more planes coming towards DC, a strange new type of worry settled in. My wife worked in an office not far from the Capitol building. Not my wife, my pregnant wife.

Schools sent students home. We closed our office, then I headed home. It was a stunningly beautiful day. One of those cool, crisp, pre-autumn days with clear blue skies. Just like today. If you live in the mid-Atlantic, there are a few weeks in the Spring and a few weeks in the Autumn that are without compare. The beauty of that day a stark contrast to the unfolding calamity.

I drove into our little inner-suburban neighborhood of circa 1940 brick capes and colonials. We play a lot in our street. Soccer, hockey, wiffle ball. We walk our dogs and jog. On that day, that incongruently gorgeous day, children threw a football to each other in the street. Passing by them I thought, no matter what else, all will be okay. It will be okay because kids play ball on my street. My wife arrived home soon after. She layed in bed listening to NPR while I fixated on the images from CNN.

It's been nine years almost to the hour when that image of playing football in the street forever etched itself into my memory. Since then I've been blessed with a son and then another son. I've been so fortunate in so many ways: family, friends, career. I've also lost my wife. And without commenting on the state of affairs within our nation and the toll taken by the loss of so many brave lives to war, I wonder how I can hold fast to that memory? All has not been okay. Not even close.

As I contemplate the nature of god, life, and chaos, re-incorporating playing ball in the street now becomes very important. I've never prayed for kids to play ball in the street before. Today I will.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Looking Back; Peering Forward

Dear friends,
Last night Amy was posthumously awarded the American Association of Birth Center's (AABC) annual award for Community Service. I received the award on Amy's behalf at the AABC's Annual Meeting. There were about 160 in attendance. Midwives, directors and owners of birthing centers, students, vendors, and friends. I was warmly welcomed. Amy received a standing ovation. It was a special, night. I had prepared remarks, but didn't use them at all. The introduction to the award and biography read by the AABC president Christine Haas was comprehensive and I would only repeat much of what she said. So I kept my thanks simple, but did share how I felt Amy died in childbirth, of sorts. She had brought the vision to an infancy, and now it was our charge to nurture this newborn to adulthood.

As I sit here at John Wayne International Airport (free wireless!), awaiting our boarding for the flight back to Maryland, via Houston, I feel encouraged. Amy embodied of life and energy. Her desire for the advancement of women in general and for a midwife-run and staffed birth center specifically is a legacy that I and others will push forward. For the first time, really, since her death, I feel a sense of calmness. Last night's event, while reflecting back on Amy's works and deeds, had a strong sense of the future. And can their be anything more fittingly symbolic of the future than a newborn?

For the record, I'm including below my remarks that were never read.

Peace and Love,
John

AABC Annual Meeting
Newport Beach, CA
September 2, 2010

Thank you. Thank you all. I’m not even sure who all to thank on behalf of Amy. But there are two others I will thank. I’ll get to them shortly.

This is bittersweet for me. I’d rather be in Takoma Park Maryland with my two boys while Amy accepts this award. But it didn’t work out that way. For me, this has to be another reminder of the great body of work Amy left from her brief time with us. And it is through our collective memories of Amy, and the works and deeds she accomplished, that she lives on.

Amy’s dream of creating a birth center in our home town came about because of her passionate frustration and anger with the state of affairs that led to the closing of nearly every birth center in our state. In the past few years she brought us to a point where a new birth center in our town is a very real possibility. Though work remains, what she set in motion will allow us to realize that dream on her behalf. I’ve mentioned this to a few, that in some ways, it is as if Amy died in childbirth. She labored and bore the Seasons of Life Birth Center, then was taken from us. And now it’s up to us to raise this infant as she would want.

For me, I hope I can live as Amy did, and instill in my boys the same ethic – not to sit idly by when something is troubling, but to take real action and confront the trouble. That was who she was. It is an important lesson for us all, I believe.

And now I'll get back to those whom I'll thank. Two special women: The two midwives who attended at the births of our two boys, Adam and Bryan. The shared experience Amy and I had, and the frustration that came knowing others couldn’t have that experience, is what moved Amy to action. And that is why I am here.

Thank you all.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meadow

After hiking mostly uphill all day, our legs were tired, backs sore with our pack straps pulling into our shoulders. If the topo was accurate we would soon reach flatter land where we could camp. But it's easy to imagine being farther along that you are, even with a map. The mind plays tricks - this bend HAS to be it - only to find one more switchback.

But the last bend in the trail does exist and this was it as we turned west and stepped out of the hardwood canopy into a high boggy meadow. Knee-high grasses and colonies of wild blueberries greeted us. Our chests expanded as we breathed in the cooling late afternoon air. Pausing, then exhaling with audible sighs in tired satisfaction.

Not only would this do, it was perfect.

We made camp, gathered nearby stream water, and gobbled down a dinner of rehydrated rice and beans, gorp, and cheese. As the sun slipped below the next ridge a chill settled in.

We drank hot chamomile tea spiked with spiced rum as day gave way to night. We stretched out on our backs, held hands, and gazed into the star-filled moonless night.

And there we were, floating on top of a spinning Earth while the stars gazed back.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bearing

Do you think we're lost?
No. I don't think we're lost. I know we're lost.

There was a time when getting lost was fun. Young and immortal, off we'd ride in the hills of south-west Virginia. We'd just drive off down Route 460, turn off on a side road, then another, maybe come to a fire road then race deeper into the national forest. Streams were fun to explore especially in summer. We'd wander about, sip the cool water, get high, sit with nature, and bullshit. Then dead reckon our way home.

Now older and very mortal, we are lost after unintentionally plunging deep into unfamiliar forest. Having been lost before, though not as severely, I fight my instinct to turn around. That strategy always leads to wandering in circles. The only way is forward. If I can just get us to a crest, above the trees, I can get our bearing. Then we can scan for a valley, and perhaps find a stream to guide our way out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Time-Life Machine

It started when I picked up my 8 year old and held him. I don't get to do that much anymore, he being 60+ pounds and stretchy tall. Then came stories of him as a baby and his mommy and I holding him and dancing slowly in the living room to stop his crying. Then more stories. Remember where the crib was? Remember when we moved the crib from your room to your little bother's before he was even born? Remember when mommy would fall asleep reading you stories? And so on we three boys telling stories of someone living in our memories.

Daddy," said my five-year-old, "we should make a machine to bring Mommy back to life."
"I'd love that," I said holding back tears.
"We could run it on her birthday next year."
"Yeah. I wish we could do that," I said no longer holding back tears. And for a moment, a merest fraction of a moment, I was ready to run to the hardware store and start buying parts for the machine. And then the merest fraction of a moment ended.

The five-year-old ran to his room and a few minutes later came back with his drawing of the machine to bring back mommy on her next birthday. It's taped to the wall in our hallway.

And I think of the fantastical machines Leonardo designed to fly in the sky like birds and swim under water like fish and am awed by the genius mind of a five-year-old.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Season Passing

Today marks three months - one season - since Amy was hit and killed by a truck as she crossed M Street in South East DC on her way to work. One quarter trip around Sun. Earth rotations continue. Ninety-two so far.

I'm obsessed with time. Or at least its passage. Got to get through this moment, this hour, day, month, season, year. Got to get through this birthday, anniversary, holiday.

My son attends summer camp at our nearby large university. Dropping him off yesterday, I started imagining 10 years in the future: Would he come to college here? That would be nice. But then I imagined graduation. Without his mother. That will be sad. I imagine the sadness will fade some from where it is today, but it will be there. Always there. Graduations are to be joyful and festive. And hopefully his will be. But not exclusively. With luck, there will be prom dates and weddings and births. And each will be joyful, I imagine, and sad. That sadness is part of us in this life.

Just got to get through this life.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Where are You, God?

Lost and confused, I walked a winding path.
"Show yourself!" I demanded in anger, "I need to know you are here!"
I turned the corner and saw a rainbow. A perfect double rainbow from horizon to horizon.

"Nice try, but that is too fuckin' cliche. Is that all you got? You're nothin' but a one trick pony."

"Fuck you!"

And I continued, lost and scared, along the path.

I prayed. To whom? I wasn't sure.
"Courage, strength, guidance," I started. That was what I needed. Courage, strength, guidance. Over and over I spoke those words. It became my prayer. It became my mantra.

And then he appeared and took me firmly by the hand.
"Don't worry. I'll be around," he gently said.
Then turned to walk away. I squeezed his hand harder.
"Wait! You can't leave!" I said.
"Don't worry," he repeated, "I'll be around."

I reluctantly let go his hand. He turned, walked away and disappeared. My pulse quickened. I continued down the path, but now with increasing confidence and determination. Somewhere I missed a turn and lost my way. I fell to the ground in despair and cried. I looked up, wiped my tears away, and saw in front of me a great rainbow as beautiful as the first. I cried again, this time in joy.

"Is that you lord?" I cried out. Though I heard no response, I got up and raced forward. I passed through the rainbow to a beautiful land of meadows with wildflowers, groves of tall, strong oak, and cool, mountain spring fed streams. I lay down on my back with my arms out as if to embrace the heavens. I fell asleep and dreamed beautiful dreams of floating above the land, looking down and surveying its wonder. But when I awoke the wildflowers and trees and streams had vanished. In their place was a barren wasteland from horizon to horizon.

"Oh, Lord! Why have you forsaken me!" I screamed to the heavens and for all to hear. "You tricked me, you sonnofabitch. How dare you!" I collapsed to the parched earth. The sun beat down on me. My eyes burned and lips cracked.

"Where are you God," I whispered. "Where did you go? Why did you leave me?"

First one drop, then another. Then another. Then a steady rain. Then a downpour. The heavens opened quenching the thirsty, cracked earth. The coolness of the water stung my eyes. I rolled over and gulped down muddy water from a newly formed puddle. I looked up and saw a rainbow. A perfect horizon to horizon double rainbow.


I wept.
DeSales University - iPhone photo and AutoStitch

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bardo

In Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying" he writes about the transitional states in life and death called "bardo."

The word "bardo" is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened. The bardos are particularly powerful opportunities for liberation because they are, the teachings show us, certain moments that are much more powerful than others and much more charged with potential, when whatever you do has a crucial and far-reaching effect. I think of a bardo as being like a moment when you step toward the edge of a precipice.

Intermediate states are not a place for comfort, generally. We tend to avoid them. Afraid of what may be revealed about life, our loves, and ourselves. That are painful. In physics, for matter, we talk of phase transitions. The phase transition of matter from one state to another. From solid to liquid or liquid to gas.

If I am liquid water and I am 150 degrees Fahrenheit and add one more degree, I am still water. If I am 211 degrees Fahrenheit and add one more degree, I change to gaseous water - steam. I imagine being liquid water. I like being liquid water. The thought of converting to steam unnerves.

What Rinpoche teaches us is these transitions are opportunities. What illuminations await remain unseen until we sit in the bardo and open up to the inevitable revelations, uncomfortable though they are.

A major life event places us at the precipice of a phase change, like being 211 degree Fahrenheit liquid water. Do you experience boiling and expanding into steam, or dial down the heat and stay familiar water?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Resonance

A low frequency resonates. Too low for our human ears, but if you allow your soul to listen, you will know it. When low to the earth you can feel its constant rumble. This base frequency, this drone, is set against the other frequencies we can hear, when we take the time to listen. Too often we deny the low frequency. To acknowledge it, we fear, gives it power over us. But it is only through intimacy with the low frequency that we can ever hope to incorporate it and render it, not powerful, but part of our melody. Which is the best we can do with the low frequency.

When we prevent the low frequency, the drone, from vibrating through us, it vibrates against us causing pain and sickness. I have felt that pain and been sick. As we distance ourselves from death we distance ourselves from life. To acknowledge death we give fullness to life. Why are we so scared to give fullness to life?

Listen for the full harmony, all the frequencies, especially that lowest tone, and let it vibrate through you. Feel the rhythm your soul sets; embrace it; dance.

Will you listen to the low frequency with me? Together we can remove it's power and experience the full harmony of our short lives.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In the Moment

I'm moving into existential evaluation mode from full out, balls to the wall, no holds barred grief mode. Grief is exhausting. Existential evaluation causes its own fatigue but I can get on with day-to-day activities, maybe even enjoy myself. Full out grief? Maybe later.

Here are some observations:

The age of the universe, as far as we know, is about 14 billion years and expected to continue on about as long; a total of about 28 billion years, give or take. We are therefore near the center of time. Amy lived for 42 years. If I stay healthy and avoid accidents I could make it to my late 80's. If I divide 42 by 28,000,000,000 it is 1.5E-09, or approximately zero . If I divide 89 by 28,000,000,000 it is 3.18E-09, or approximately zero. So by one measure 42 and 89 are about the same.

Of course if the universe keeps on expanding infinitely then the number is even more approximately zero.Either way, we are small numerators. Mostly it seems we spend most of our time not existing - at least in this present form.

I am made of atoms created in stars. The fusion reaction in stars and their destruction when they explode, create higher level elements above hydrogen and helium. Thus "I" am the specific collection of those particles, at least for the moment.

Since the atoms and atomic particles that are me (and you) are together for a fleeting time before being cast back to the stars, it seems a shame not to make the most of them while assembled as me (and you).

With the time I have, being approximately zero, waiting for the "right" time for anything seems absurd.

The construction of atoms we call a human, seems to create an amazing capacity for great emotions. Is this unique in the universe?

We fear loss, and fear it so greatly, that we deny love to govern, or avoid, a perceived, future pain.

But without love, we still feel pain. We at least feel the absence of love. At least I have in the past felt that absence.

Have you?

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Story of My Life

One Sunday each year our church devotes a service to poetry. Friends and members, as they are so moved, may read poems of their own or from others. This year I read a piece by Rumi which hits pretty close to the mark.

The Story of My Life
i was ready to tell
the story of my life
but the ripple of tears
and the agony of my heart
wouldn't let me
i began to stutter
saying a word here and there
and all along i felt
as tender as a crystal
ready to be shattered
in this stormy sea
we call life
all the big ships
come apart
board by board
how can i survive
riding a lonely
little boat
with no oars
and no arms
my boat did finally break
by the waves
and i broke free
as i tied myself
to a single board
though the panic is gone
i am now offended
why should i be so helpless
rising with one wave
and falling with the next
i don't know
if i am
nonexistence
while i exist
but i know for sure
when i am
i am not
but
when i am not
then i am
now how can i be
a skeptic
about the
resurrection and
coming to life again
since in this world
i have many times
like my own imagination
died and
been born again
that is why
after a long agonizing life
as a hunter
i finally let go and got
hunted down and became free

Ghazal 1419 Translated by Nader Khalili

Rumi was a 14th century Persian and Sufi mystic. No stranger to grief, as exampled by The Story of My Life, Rumi also writes about love. A lot. Not just love, but undying and unconditional love. It is the juxtaposition of ultimate love and ultimate grief that is a recurrent theme of his and to which I am most drawn.

I wonder how many of our frailties and ills, our longings and sufferings, result from avoiding grief and thus abandoning love?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Eulogy

Dear friends,
Thank you for being here with me, with my family today. I suspect if I said “thank you” to each of you, personally, you’d probably respond with something like “well of course I’m here – where else would I be?” I know this, because this is what I have been saying to you and what you have been replying with over the past 7 weeks. But I say this now, here, because I really want each of you to know, as deeply as you can, how changed I am because of you. No doubt Amy’s death has profoundly changed me and will continue to change me, but you, this community of dear friends, brothers and sisters, have shown me something about what community means, what friendship means, what love and compassion means. My boys and I are forever in debt to you all. And I must say, part of me hopes, prays, I never need to pay you back. But if that time does come, I hope I can show the same compassion, courage and loving kindness you have shown me.

I also what to acknowledge Amy’s professional colleagues. I can’t begin to count the number of times Amy expressed her joy with her work/life balance. She felt she had an ideal situation being able to work part-time yet stay connected to her profession and also have time to be a wife, a mother and active in our community. It meant a lot to her as a woman, as a professional with a career, and a mother with children. And it meant a lot to me.

The paradox of it all is that in this time of great loss for me and Adam and Bryan, have we been given so much. We have received so much. Knowing that you all stand by us, are near us, to hold us up and catch us, has steadied us and helped us begin to find our way. So it feels strange to stand here and tell you how lucky, how truly blessed we are. But I cannot deny it. Thank you – I love you all.

I believe it is no small measure of the impact Amy had, and the love and energy she put into everything she did, that the boys and I now receive that love and energy back through you. It is her love, I believe, we continue to receive, in large part, through each of you. It is that love that the boys and I take, that we all take, to continue her work in this church, at work, the creation of her birth center, and that I draw strength from to be a father to Adam and Bryan.

Some of you know the story of how Amy and I met back in January of 1999. I won’t entertain you all now with the details, but just to say that while I don’t believe in love at first sight, I was certainly smitten. Yes, we met at a bar – I prefer to say a nightclub – and we talked nearly the whole night. And yes, dancing was involved. And if you ever saw Amy dance, you can imagine how I was smitten. After one dance I told her I wanted her phone number so I could call her and ask her out. She obliged, I called her the next day and we went out. We would call it the “best first date ever.” And it was. We just clicked on so many levels. And on our second date, we discovered, to our amazement and delight, our mutual desires for family, children and future. As we discovered each other that first year, I found in Amy a partner who could challenge me intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, yet let me be who I am. I never felt I had to be someone for her other than myself. And honestly, that was a new experience for me. To be myself, in true partnership, with someone. We were a great team.

And we created a good and special life together. We felt lucky. We used to talk about how lucky we felt. Amy used to say she felt she won the lottery – I used to tell her I felt I had been dealt a very strong hand. We traveled around the world, integrated ourselves into our community and committed to each other to create a relationship of deep commitment and mutual growth. On one trip we took to Spain - Amy had a conference in Madrid and we tacked on a few extra days for ourselves - we were in Arcos de la Frontera a small town in AndalucĂ­a. Arcos sits on a high bluff overlooking the plain and we stayed in a converted castle, a parador. During dinner there we distilled this concept of our relationship. We had been discussing it on and off for some time, but it was there that we came up with the words: Creating a nurturing environment so our family can experience the divine in all things. 23 November 2003.

We had our moments, of course, like everyone. Crises of confidence and disagreements subtle and not so subtle. And while we had expectations of each other, I never felt like there were conditions on our love. I never felt Amy hold back her love and I hope I was her equal in that regard. And it was through this that Amy gave me the most precious gift of all. Besides the gift of time she shared with me, how so ever brief, was a gift of profound love. And through that profound love she showed me how to be loved. Through her words and deeds, I knew fully she loved me, without conditions. The most precious gift imaginable. I can only hope she felt the same of my love for her.

It was 7 weeks ago yesterday that Amy was ripped from me, from us. And regardless of your belief, it is undeniable how completely un-ambiguous, in this plane of existence, is the certainty and finality of death. And paradoxically how ambiguous and uncertain all else now feels. An old and dear friend was over at our house last night and we were discussing this and how we seem to spend so much of the short time we have alive on what now feels trivial. We talked about how it takes something tragic to create “perspective.” But why is it only after some tragedy, the death of someone close, a wife or mother, that we gain “perspective?” I’ve been reading the writings and poetry of the Persian mystic, Rumi, of late. There is a quote of his: “grief is the garden of the heart.” I’ve been turning that quote over in my head since I read it about a week ago. Grief is the garden? Why doesn’t he say “love is the garden?” Why can’t it be through love that we grow our hearts? Why only in grief? But is it not, for us humans, that to experience ultimate love means we must risk ultimate sorrow? So while Rumi doesn’t say it, explicitly, it is there - ultimate love must be a pre-requisite for ultimate grief. It can be no other way. They are the mirror to each other. So if there is anything to take from this tragedy, it is to love fully, openly, and risk that ultimate sorrow. I stand here before you and tell you now that I would do it a thousand times again and accept that risk. I am a changed man because of Amy’s all too short life, and now because of her death. I really have no choice but to honor her life and death, our love, and tend to the grief garden and let it grow. There really is no other choice.

So to you dear friends, bothers and sisters, we, the boys and I, have just begun to sort out our now very different lives, begin to explain the inexplicable, and tend to our gardens of grief. And I imagine that will take the rest of our lives – at least that is what others, some of you who are here today who have experienced similar loss, tell me. So as the boys and I step out from today into tomorrow I will continue to need your support in thoughts and words and deeds. Many have asked “what can we do to help?” Mostly, for us, it is just knowing you are nearby. Sometimes it is your shoulder to cry on that I’ll need. And as the days turn into weeks, and months, then years, don’t be surprised when I ask for a shoulder.

And to you dear Amy, I so miss you. Your beautiful eyes and sparkling smile I now carry in my memory. To me they are your passion and fire. A passion and fire which burns strong among us who stood witness to your life and received your many gifts.

I feel you around me, Amy, your passion and fire. There are no words to describe its profound nature. That I love you fully and with all my heart and all my soul I hope you know. I believe you do. And I also know, and I believe you know, how much your two beautiful boys love you – And please know they also feel your love. A love they carry inside them for eternity. Amy, I will look for the courage, strength and guidance I will need to be an able father to them and to honor and represent your motherhood for them. This is my vow to you. Amy, I will always love you and may you know eternal peace.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Adapted from Ecclesiastes

For us, now, it is this time of death rather than the time of birth which deepens us and gives meaning. And it is this time in the house of mourning, rather than the house of feasting, where we come together in sorrow. For death is the end of all of us, and we the living should take it to heart. And for this time and place sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser and the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning

One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it presses on to the place where it rises again. Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north, the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds. All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they go, the rivers keep on going. What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.

And when the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls, there shall it lie. Just as we know not how the breath of life fashions the infant in the mother's womb, so we know not the mystery of death.

For there is an appointed time for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

And those who have died would want this; even expect this of us – that there be a time when we dance again. And one day it will be well for us to eat and drink and dance and enjoy all the fruits and gifts of the finite days we are granted, and dwell not on the shortness of our lives, but rejoice in the abundance that is life which brings joy to our hearts.

So go now and someday will we eat bread with joy and drink wine with a merry, though wiser heart, because it is this time that that we are given. And in this time we are given let our garments be white, and spare not the perfume for our heads. Enjoy life with your beloved, each day of the fleeting lives granted to us under the sun.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Waiting for Forever

Daddy?
Yes?
Does everything die?
Well, yes, eventually everything dies.
Even cars?
I suppose in there own way cars die too.
I wish that nothing ever died.
Yeah, me too.



Daddy?
Yeah?
How long is forever?



The first one came with no warning. It grew rapidly inside me accompanied by intense, violent pain with waves of nausea, dizziness and disorientation, shortness of breath. Reflexively I wrenched and disgorged a large, tar-black, waxy mass covered in blood. I caught my breath briefly as another one grew. I felt feverish and dizzy to the point of hallucination. As I stood and walked, the room moved independently of me as if some infection had taken over my inner ear. My knees buckled. Everything was askew. The floor slid back and forth under me and the walls no longer stood plumb to the floor but rather at slight angles like some horrible fun-house. I became aware of a low rumble through everything, barely audible, but resonating in my bones. Then came another tar-black, waxy mass covered in blood. This one larger than the first. My chest and throat ached as it passed. This continued through the night and into the morning. And again, and again, came the tar-black, waxy masses. The low dissonant rumble had taken over my body as if it were somehow vibrating loose the growths and giving them harmonic energy to grow.

In vain I searched for medicine but none exists. Then holy men and women, healers from all around the village, came and laid hands on me. These shamans guided the tumorous growths out so as to not let their toxins build inside. Some shamans, I saw, became infected as the same dissonant rumble entered them. In anguish they began discouraging similar tar-black waxy masses covered in blood. Some large, some small. This continued, day and night.

And over time the the growths have slowed in frequency and size. The dizziness and nausea have abated. There are occasional flare ups and I hear from others who have been infected to expect that. And some of the toxin lingers and probably will forever.

But the low dissonant rumble continues. And I now suspect it was always there and will continue forever. Which is the longest time there is.

Monday, June 7, 2010

For Immediate Release: Amy Polk Memorial Service Update

The service for Amy Polk will be Friday June 18 at 2 pm. The service will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring MD 20903. Directions and a map to the church are available online at this address: www.uucss.org/contact/map.html

There will be parking available at the church and about 1.5 blocks away, but a large attendance is anticipated so you are strongly urged to carpool and/or arrive early. If you need handicapped access parking please come very early to assure your access to on-site parking.

In accordance with Unitarian Universalist tradition, there will be a time for sharing stories or memories during the service but because that time will be limited, we ask that people from an area of Amy’s life (college, work, advocacy/birth groups) choose one speaker who can speak for a minute or two about their experience of Amy.

For those who can’t attend or are unable to speak at the service but wish to provide words in honor of Amy, please send your remembrances to this address: mylevesque4@yahoo.com so they may be included in the memory book being assembled for Amy’s family.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Seasons of Life Birth Center http://www.seasonsoflifebirthcenter.org/Donate.html

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Unwanted Voyage

I came across this intriguing quote:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust.

New eyes. I hadn't considered new eyes. In fact, a voyage of discovery I did not seek. Content was I with my familiar landscape. But now, set adrift and led by a swift current, my two boys and I do well to keep our eyes, old or new, open. And even though old eyes seemed fine, maybe even pretty good, undeniably I am on an unwanted voyage while all my senses recalibrate.

Disclaimer: While sitting on the screened porch of neighbors enjoying a Memorial Day cook-out, my eyes "discovered" the intriguing quote on a bottle of Hennepin. Those Belgian Monks sure know a thing or two about the wisdom of the ages. And a good ale.



Death is a strange thing, friends. I never experienced someone close to me, really close, dying. Regardless of your beliefs, the finality of death, in this plane of existence, is profoundly disorienting. I see death, and it's brief companion, life, differently now. While life on this planet is abundant and pervasive, a single life is capricious and fleeting, followed by eternal death. The counterpoint of fleeting life and eternal death now is very alive in me.

What once seemed big, now seems small. The political dealings in Washington seem small and trivial. What are we arguing about? Why does everyone seem mad all the time? Why not spend our fleeting time with the friends and neighbors we love? Perhaps it is a deeper problem. Perhaps we need to invest more of our fleeting time learning to love, and be loved by, our friends and neighbors. To do otherwise is madness.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dr. Jeffrey Huskamp

Thursday, four weeks to the day after Amy was killed, a good man, my boss, Dr. Jeffrey Huskamp, Vice President and CIO of the University of Maryland, died. He heroically battled cancer before finally succumbing. I last saw just three days earlier at our senior staff meeting. He seemed better than he had prior. He had color in his face, was walking, engaging with us. Perhaps ending the chemo gave him a last wind.

I would liked to have known Jeff better. I only started my job at Maryland this past October. And Jeff was in and out of the office after the new year as his health declined, so our time together was limited. Jeff was a man of strong integrity and honesty, and committed to treating everyone fairly. Those times we did interact, through one-on-one meetings and otherwise, he was always engaging. Always very supportive, he gave me good advice and strong encouragement during my first weeks and months at the University. Jeff had a vision for moving our office forward and while that job is ongoing, through his leadership we have a strong foundation from which to realize his vision.

Jeff never got to meet my Amy. Neither was with us long enough. In my last one-on-one meeting with Jeff, just a week before his death, I remarked that I wish he had gotten the chance to meet Amy. He said the same. He had heard much of her work recently and expressed his admiration for her many deeds he had read and heard of. He did say that he expected to meet her in the future in some way. He wasn't specific, but his message was clear.

In grieving my wife, it's hard to get much sadder. But my heart goes out to his wife and family. I have not had the privilege of meeting them, yet I feel a kinship through our shared grief. Though we all grieve in our own ways and spaces, we grieve in the same time.

Jeff, you gave me opportunity to come to the University of Maryland, a truly special place with special people. I am forever indebted to you for that. May peace be with you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ripping Time

"Daddy, are you coming to my school today?"
"What's at school today?"
"It's my birthday."

shit.

Amy attended nearly every school function. Book day, skit day, parent lunch day, field trip chaperon day, and so on. Her part-time work arrangement allowed for flexibility and a level of work-life balance I just didn't have. For each boy's birthday she'd bring in cupcakes for the class for whatever celebration occurred.

So now we mark the passing of our first birthday without a wife; without a mother.



Last week I overheard a turn of phrase that I thought was curious. As I heard it a thought started rising in me. "Amy will find that curious. I can't wait to share it." That thought, still forming, was consumed by another thought: "Sorry. Can't do that. Amy's dead."

With each passing day, lingering remnants of a "past future" are snatched away. In vain, time applies that past future to an unwilling present. Each thread from the past future fabric stretches and tears, slowly rending from an emerging present.

Now I see my boys, of course, rending their time-fabric too.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flowers

Flowers began arriving the next day and for several days after. Each a gift of grief and sorrow and disbelief. Pinks and purples and lavenders were Amy's favorites and she would have liked those especially. They sit on the porch, near the fireplace and in the dining room. Now three weeks old, a good life for cut flowers, they show their age. As color fades and fragrance decays some have dried completely, some wilted, while a few hang on.

A friend suggested pressing a bloom from each as a keepsake. That seems right. The others need a new place to rest.

Once added to our compost pile, to rich earth shall they slowly return. Inside, the flowers remain by the fireplace and in the dining room. Outside, the flowers have moved from the porch to the walk, one step closer to the compost out back. One baby step.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Remains

Picking up my wife's ashes from the funeral home was not on my life "to do" list, at least not for a long time. Yet there I was. Arm-in-arm with her mom, we stepped heavily into the lobby and were escorted to the library. After a few moments Neil, the funeral director assigned to us, walked in with a linen box and papers to sign. Amy's mom and I hugged and cried. We signed the papers, took the box and cried some more. Yet a peculiar peace entered me. An unfamiliar calmness.

I brought Amy home and put her on my dresser. Where she finally rests, we will someday determine, but for now, it will do. The place at least provides a focal point for me to direct my conversations with her.

It's strange the comfort of hugging a box of ashes. I was not expecting that. Yet when I explained to my two boys that we had brought mommy's ashes home, they immediately asked to see them, and when they did, the oldest wanted to hug the box too. We three boys hugged Amy and hugged each other and cried. Cried many, many tears.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Future Tense

Where did the trees go? No shade do I have.
Be patient, my son, though the trees are no more, their seed is sown.
Where did the birds go? No songs do I hear.
Be patient, my son, though the birds have flown, they will return some day.
Where did the water go? My lips are dry.
Be patient, my son, though the river has dried, rain shall come.
Where did the fire go? It is dark and I cannot see.
Be patient, my son, though your torch has burned out, its embers glow.
Where do I go? I seemed to have lost my way.
Be patient, my son. Be patient.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Off the Air

We walk out of my parent's house and there, idling in the driveway, waits a huge stretch limo. I mean huge. Cool, I think, I wasn't expecting this. We hop in the back seat. There are two other rows of seats between us and the driver. A couple other people join us in the seats ahead, and off we go! I press the button to raise the smoked glass partition between us and those in front. Alone at last.

I reach over and take her hand. The color fades to a grainy gray like an old television set after the late night news and the National Anthem. Static.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Singles

Son went 2 for 2 in his first little league game with 2 clean singles. He also later scored 2 runs. I often over-use sports metaphors but the slow, steady grind of the baseball season requires good, consistent hitting. While home runs are fun and exciting, nothing beats a high on base percentage. I remember a coach advising to just put the ball in play. Don't worry about how hard you hit it, make the other team get you out.

Put the ball in play - still good advice for baseball and other things.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Adrift

Thirsty, I wandered the desert in search of cool waters. I came to a small rivulet and drank from it, but the water was sour and made me sick. I then came to a shallow pool with reeds and drank from it, but the water was salty and made me sick. I continued onward and came to small oasis with a pool. I stopped and drank from it, but its source had dried and the pool became stagnant. I continued onward, digging here and there in the earth divining for water, or occasionally catching the morning dew for a small sip to wet my dry lips. I continued on. I arrived at a sandy cliff. As I edged forward to look below it gave way and I fell. The weightless fall both terrified and exhilarated. I plunged head long into a deep rolling river fed by mountain streams. I gasped for breath. Finding my balance I gulped in the cool, sweet waters. The water washed over and cleansed. I was alive. The current swept forward and carried me into the most beautiful valley any man has ever seen. I breathed in the fragrance of the loamy soil and perfume of the surrounding forest wood. The dappled sun passing through the embracing tree canopy warmed me. Sounds of the water dancing around large stones upon the bedrock and lapping the sandy banks weaved into beautiful hymns.

This was sacred land. I rested upon the shore and built a fire. So abundant was this sacred land that new life sprang forth and we all drank of the cool sweet waters, played in the forest and danced by the fire on the sturdy bank of the water. For eternity, we dreamed, would we drink and play and dance.

Then suddenly the land shifted and shook. The trees groaned with anguish and were uprooted. The bedrock moaned in despair and our sturdy bank gave way plunging us back into the river. And now three of us hold on dearly and gasp for air and wonder to what unknown place the current takes us.