Adrenaline

Adrenaline flooded my system just before my peripheral vision detected the leaping Dalmatian.  I saw him leap, silent and intent, over the wheel of my riding companion on that night ride.  My co-rider had no idea the dog was coming at me; no idea why the dog had chosen me as a target rather than him.  In the dark, the Dalmatian had completely surprised us.  The cast of our night lights extended in front of us but there was very little light to the sides, and none behind us.  The dog had approached from my companion’s right rear, about 5 o’clock, if the rider’s front wheel is high noon on a timepiece.  I had nowhere to go – no way to outrun a canine 4 feet from me in mid-leap.

The ‘water horses’ that Glorfindel formed from the river at the Fords of Bruinen in Tolkien flashed through my mind.  Those had risen quickly and relentlessly as a defense against the Black Riders.  This Dalmatian had leapt just as quickly and remorselessly on offense.  Complete surprise.  Battle over, then and there.  All the animal had to do is complete the attack.

My legs churned on.  What other option did I have?

3 seconds later, a LIFE time later, I realized this was merely pebbles from the gravel road being thrown into the light.   Somehow, my most primitive brain had created a predator where none existed.  The discomfort of a night bike ride had put my subconscious on full alert.

As the adrenaline drained, gratitude at safety took its place.  I said nothing.

We rode on.

Peeing In The Snow

I pee in the backyard every chance I get.  It grounds me, connects me, and re-aligns me.  I figure it is saving the planet.  Eventually, even in Kansas, there will be a water shortage.  Why waste 2 gallons of water to flush away a pint or two of urine?  That just does not seem responsible.  I walk out the back sliding door (after I open it) towards the fence where I have landscaped with railroad ties.  I balance on two ties and water the earth.  I could be Lewis and Clark spanning the Missouri River way up in Montana at the headwaters.  I could be on the Continental Divide, blessing both the Pacific and the Atlantic with my life water.  I could be in the desert, helping a dormant seed flower at the advent of a spring rain.

I light fires now and then, too, for the same reason. Smoke, as from a fire, signals to my inner caveman that I am safe.  Always in an appropriate fireplace – never in a hallway or living room.  Remember James Michener’s story about the tribesmen who built a fire in the aisle of an airplane while flying to Mecca? Also, I bought an incense burner last spring in New Mexico.  It is built like an oven, or horno (Spanish for oven, pronounced OR-no).  We used a similarly shaped oven in the Peace Corps for bread baking (out of the very helpful “Appropriate Technology” government publication).  This incense burner is only about 3 inches tall and I use small blocks of pressed sawdust as the incense.  Bode’s in Abiquiu (http://www.bodes.com/ ) sells the burner and the blocks as a set.  There is a tipi and a pueblo dwelling.  They sell mesquite-, sage-, and juniper-scented blocks.  They probably could ship one to you, but, as you may come to understand in reading, it will MEAN more if you go out there and get one.

There are many benefits to living in this modern age (there is even newer stuff than electricity and penicillin!) and in the comfort of the suburbs (almost guaranteed access to law enforcement and emergency services).  We can go get food anytime (does Walgreen’s ever close?).  We can go exercise almost any hour of the day (Anytime Fitness, after all, is for anytime).  Our jobs are secure for the most part, easy to get to, safe from injury, and last only 8 to maybe 12 hours (thank you, firemen, for pulling 24 hour shifts!).  New and used clothing is easily acquired inexpensively.  Heck, the other day in the grocery store I realized I had to KNOW what kind of turkey I wanted for sandwiches.  You can’t just go buy turkey; you have to get a particular seasoning.  Like a wine pairing.  That is a lot of pressure for just a sandwich.

Here’s the thing, though (One of my favorite people often leads with this phrase; I use it to pay homage to him).

Our brains and bodies were built to overcome adversity and to gain safety.  We are made to conquer and tame and subdue and THEN live in harmony with others.  (I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either.  But that is how we are)

I do not believe it is always a healthy thing for us [for men, anyway (for ME, anyway)] to be able to solve our adversity with simply a checking account.  There must be a need to strive against nature.  My belief is that, at some point, we must set down our technology, remove ourselves from our cultural insulation, and face ourselves.  We must face ourselves in such a way that we then know what we are made of.  We do not have to be happy with what we see, but we have to KNOW.  From that knowledge, we then proceed with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Witness Jack London’s character Humphrey Van Weyden.  Humphrey is a pampered writer from San Francisco who falls overboard from a ferry in the course of his writer’s existence.  Wolf Larsen, modeled after a real sea-captain that London knew about, and borne out of Nietzsche’s ‘super-man’ theory (which Hitler then twisted into his mania), plucks Hump out of the sea and forces him to stay on the schooner hunting seal.  Weak and pale Hump is eventually transformed into a warrior who protects his woman, defeats the captain, and triumphs over shipwreck at sea.  My apologies for giving away the plot of “The Sea Wolf” (honestly, though, you should have read this by now).

I do not presume to suggest to you that you go find yourself or go on a ‘vision quest’.  I only tell you that when I, forced by circumstances, went on that same journey I came back stronger, re-aligned, re-focused, and clear of purpose.  I travelled to Ghost Ranch (http://www.ghostranch.org/ ), in northern New Mexico, for a writing workshop which literally changed the course of my life.  The pairing (juxtaposition) of the serene wild of the Ranch and the intellectual demands made by the workshop helped me strip away dead wood that had been inhibiting my spirit (Luke – ‘if this is what happens when the wood is green, what will happen when the wood is dry?’).

Think of a tree trunk – a mighty tree with firm roots but many branches that no longer serve the health of the tree.  A tree itself cannot remove its dead or dying limbs.  A tree must rely on external forces to renew itself – wind, fire, rain.  Witness the Sequoia’s whose pinecones only turn to fertile seed after a forest fire heats them past a certain temperature.  Only then are conditions right for new growth – more sun will reach the ground, fresh nutrients will be available from the ash of the burnt trees.  If we continue in our comfortable, nestled, suburban, first-world, life we may not be exposed to forces that temper us into a keener weapon.  Someone once said, ‘a ship is safe in a harbor, but a ship is not built for the harbor – it is built for the sea’.

I noticed, a few days ago, that when I went out to pee, it had snowed.  Peeing in snow makes a visible mark.  “But people will SEE that I have peed here”, fussed my inner Hump.  I then added to my hypothesis – I must be willing to let the world see my transformation.  No transformation can be totally healthy if it is totally hidden from view.  I must claim my changes.  Humphrey had to remove Wolf Larsen from captaincy and take command of the ship.  I must be willing to stand for what I have changed into.

Stand.  Survey.  Know.

Spiritually Comfortable

I do not know why I do or do not feel spiritually comfortable at different times in my day.   I noticed, though, in church the other day, after not going for a while, that I was uncomfortable.

I am turning 50 years old; I should have all this figured out.  I know I am not trying hard enough.  I know I do not crack open my Bible (hardly ever) to seek comfort from God’s word.  I should have a routine that protects me from the tough things life will throw at me.  Our marriage should be insulated.  Our children should be protected from harm.  I should tithe 10 percent.  I should have extra money left over to give as my heart leads.  I should rail against the moral erosion of this country.  I should decry the politicization of caring for the poor, homeless, downtrodden, hungry, pregnant, ostracized population of our fine country.  I know, when I sing, that my heart is not truly abandoned; I have not accepted that Jesus paid it all, and all I owe to Him.  I do not embrace the chorus with true peace and acceptance.  I should be glad (and not judgmental) that all those other sinners are in church with me, even though I know what their particular brand of sin is.  (Am I not just a little better than them, if compared side to side?).  I feel like a hypocrite inside the walls of the church.

I hear ALL of that.  All those voices clamor in my head to chase me away from a place where I can meet God spiritually.  The easy answer is that Satan has established a foothold in my mind.  This is surely true – and I do not have the right ‘god’ on the throne I worship.  C.S. Lewis said in “The Screwtape Letters” that all the devil has to do is to get us thinking about how the other worshippers sound when they sing, or what they are wearing, or what they smell like (I paraphrase, of course, but that is the gist).  The easy answer is that when I “pray about it”, it will go away and I can have peace with my savior.  The easy answer is that as soon as I “turn my life over to God”, all things will be made clear, my path will be made straight, the rough places planed.

I know all the pat, rote, memorized answers.  They worked for me for many years.

God and I are still a team.  Jesus and I are still together.  We lately just need a different venue to meet effectively.

By contrast, when I step onto the ancient, timeless, accepting earth of Ghost Ranch, I feel peace.  When I walk the trails, even the easy ones (especially the easy ones) that Ghost Ranch has to offer, I feel healing and hope and promise.  Those voices that drown my Zen (probably an oxymoron; at the very least a contradiction in terms) in church are not speaking to me out there.  I started my latest re-invention of self out there last spring.  It was quite possibly the only place where I could have found that much truth about myself and what I needed to face my future.  I awoke on my 49th birthday to a cold, clear desert air that filled my lungs with a purity I have rarely known.  I faced myself to realize what impact I HAVE had and what impact I have NOT had (Zuzu’s petals!) on my sphere of influence.

My realization to share with you is that God never changes how much he loves me.  He never changes.  He always loves me.

Never.

Always.

Safe words to use about God.

My discomfort in a church building is because I hear voices (old tapes) that are not God talking and are not what God is trying to get me to hear.  My comfort in the wildness of Ghost Ranch is not because God is more present but rather that there are fewer distractions to muddy the audio.

I do not presume to tell you how to find spiritual comfort.  I can only (barely) tell you where I find a quantum of solace.  Ironic that Daniel Craig’s Bond found a quantum of solace only after he killed the bad guy, as revenge for the good people killed.  I use the phrase not as a killer, but as a seeker.  A seeker on a pilgrimage.

Like a sign post.  Cartographers of old said, “Here there be Dragons”.

Here (where is that for you?)… There be Peace.

Finding Home Run Pizza

Our son recently asked Grandma and Grandpa if we could go to Home Run Pizza.  This restaurant was a staple of our early visits to Bartlesville, OK.  They had a buffet, and basic salad bar, and would make pizza to the specifics of the customer asking.  It was not a huge place, it was not a chain, and the pizza was just what Jacob loved.  We had not gone there in years, so it was fun and nostalgic that he asked if we could go there.  Jacob, being the middle child, does not ask for much, and when he does ask, it is not very loud.

It turns out that Home Run pizza had closed some time ago.  The question really being asked was, ‘can we go somewhere to eat pizza, laugh, enjoy each other’s company, and relive old times’?  Although no one said that exact phrase out loud, the sentiment that pulls us together through history is an unseen, yet urgent, current in the river of our lives. Can we recapture the sepia of our youth?

Friends who shared a weekend at the lake – they never forget what happened, who did what, how much fun it was, the campfires and stories into the night.  Camping trips up into the mountains – do you still remember what you gave up to get what you gained?  We traded comfort for challenge and accomplishment.  The policy at Philmont Scout Ranch is to ‘human sump’ the dinner dishes – basically swirl water in our cooking pot after cooking and then drink that water. The thought of that gross water ruining the taste of dinner will never go away.  Did it get cold at night? A few of us camped by the Great Sand Dunes one January to commemorate Pike’s journey through that area200 years earlier.  We slept with our water bottles so we would have water, and not ice, in the morning.  Did a tent pole break?  My lover had to repair a tent pole with Band-Aids once so we could put the tent up in New Mexico.  A grin unchains my face at the memory of those times.

We all remember once in a lifetime trips; those are understandable.  Paris in July with the sun setting through the Arc de Triomphe?  Amsterdam at the Anne Frank House with on a cool, sunny morning?  The high-speed train (224 km/h – seems fast) between Koln and Paris – we repeat to this day what I said THAT day, ‘wow, this baby HAULS’?  The indescribable power of the water over the Falls at Niagara?  ALL of those memories are indelible – a reference point to take one back in an instant.  Surely you have a stuffed accordion file of these same recollections.

Perhaps you have read or listened to someone describe the approach to filling your life with the “fill this jar with rocks, pebbles, sand, and water” allegory.  Only a few huge rocks fit (God, family, work), then some pebbles fit (friends, outreach, neighbors), sand (hobbies, diet, exercise), top off with water (breathing, storytelling, video games).  Your jar is not truly full until the water has risen to the top.  Listeners are amazed that they can fit so much into their lives when they decide what size rock each thing in their life should be.

A request for Home Run Pizza is a hearkening to the smaller stones of our lives – the ones you pour into the jar AFTER you put the biggest building blocks of your life in.   It calls us to think of the daily joys we share together.  It is not the grandiose, or the majestic, or the life-defining memory.  By its very normalcy, this indeed is the sinew that builds our family, our ties, and our love for each other.  Once we find a point of commonality, our tribe – be it blood relatives or friends – uses that memory as cement or bungee cord or twine or superglue to pull closer and grow stronger.

Our visit was full of enduring traditions; we like sitting in the TV room watching movies that we choose together, having dinner in the dining room, sharing a few gifts.  We did clear new ground for growth – we finally went to the Phillips 66 Museum where grandpa worked for many years.  There is a picture of him with his crew of aviation gas salesman and the planes they flew to reach their customer base.  It is good for the grandkids to see what their people have done.  He is from that generation that will never bring it up, let alone brag about it.

I cannot help but think that when we passed on the opportunity to find a NEW pizza place with the grandparents, we may have missed a chance at a new tradition.  If, per chance, a voice asks about that ‘old pizza place we used to go to’, perhaps we should listen.

It could fill the jar in a whole new way.

The Caged Finches of Perkins

Maya Angelou – “I know why the caged bird sings.”

“A small bird will drop frozen from the bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” – D.H. Lawrence.

The other day, we went to visit my grandma and my aunt in Perkins Pavilion rest home. In the lobby, they have a glass-enclosed cage that is full of finches. Birds provide a sense of comfort and a spot of nature for the residents, many of whom rarely go outside. These finches are of several species, and they always make me think of both Darwin and captivity. When Darwin visited the Galapagos, he was more interested in geology, and had tasked another with cataloging the many bird species on the islands. At the time, cataloging meant shooting them and taking them back to England. Once back in England, an ornithologist realized they had different beaks to open the shells of the nuts they found. Different nuts for different islands, apparently. This led to sub-species that were better suited to each micro-climate.
Once I begin thinking about adjusting to micro-climates, I wonder if it is difficult. Do we not, in fact, do that all the time? Don’t we have to “read the room”, “feel the mood”, or “know your audience”? Matter of fact, instead of developing a specialized “beak” for social interaction, we have developed an “all-purpose” interface so we can get along with the greatest number of people possible.
The Finches of Perkins seem happy. They do seem upbeat. They do appear to be content. But are these not human emotions? I have a sneaking suspicion that all they care about is that there is a steady supply of food. Their swift and nimble travels between the straw nests they have built and the seed boxes placed throughout the enclosure brings joy to a watcher. Though mostly dull-colored birds, they have an unmistakable vitality.
As I consider these sweet birds, I draw a parallel to the human residents of Perkins Pavilion, a full-care retirement facility. Grandma and Aunt Rosemary live there. My dad refers to them as “the sisters”. They eat every meal together, just like when they were kids. They are happy, although they both wish for better health. I wonder if they feel trapped. I wonder if they long for the wide open farmscape of their youth, or their fertile gardens so lovingly tended, or the open road at vacation. Do they remember the sweeping pastures of the flint hills? Do they remember the stink of the hen-house? Do the dream of the chilling winters, the searing summers, or the perfection of a spring evening before the mosquitoes have hatched?
I know Grandma has said she is ready to go on to heaven. It is not that she hates living, it is just that she does not feel well, misses Grandpa, and is not having a ton of fun during her days. She appreciates her family and loves keeping up with friends, grand kids, great-grand kids. She still looks at pictures, reads cards, listens to my dad read her letters and keep up with all the news from our extended family. She still prays for all of us. She turned 100 years old last November. We celebrated both her birthday and my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary with what amounted to a family reunion. The most that had gathered in several years, in fact. Grandma not only made it to the venue, she stayed for several hours. Her clear and evident joy at seeing her people together was worth any amount of miles driven, plane tickets bought, schedules re-arranged. Her prayer at Christmas Eve dinner this year had all our eyes stung with tears – words, just a few, of humility and grace. In part, she said “we need to forgive, to love, and to care for each other”. Forgiving each other for our hurts – how we wish we could master that.
Aunt Rosemary does not remember too many specifics about all of us, or where she is living, or where she used to live. She is really happy, though, and always has a smile on her face when we go to visit. She enjoys hearing about our few chickens and can tell a story about when she cared for chickens back on the Gfeller farm. Although Rosemary does not go out (except for medical appointments), she loved hearing about the gathering for Grandma’s birthday. Even when she is not feeling well, she still smiles when she says where it hurts. Smiling through pain – how we wish we could master that.

I believe the finches daydream of wide open spaces and trees to roost in and nuts to crack and bugs to catch. I believe the sisters have a lifetime of memories to sustain them through the slower hours of their days.

I do hope the sisters – do the finches? – know what lessons we learn from them about contentment in life.

Do the sisters – and the finches – know how much joy they bring us still?

A Treehouse for Adults

We have decided, now that we are either 50 or almost 50, that we want a treehouse. I was lucky enough to have one as a kid; 3 old bedroom doors as walls, and steps cut out of old telephone poles to get up there. I don’t think Ang ever had a treehouse – she had to be happy with climbing trees all the time. It’s a collateral benefit that our daughter is still at home to enjoy it. Too bad the trees weren’t big enough to build this when the boys were still home.

We’ve made a list: “Want” and “Don’t Want” for our treehouse. So far, we DO want low walls and real wooden steps. We DO want twinkly lights, which means electricity, which means mini-fridge (and you know what THST means). We DON’T want a roof, high walls, or a rope ladder.

Isn’t it just as important to know what we don’t want is what we do want? How else will we be satisfied with the final project? And Isn’t it about time YOU built a treehouse?

I choose MORE

You may remember the concrete wall we sat on in Glenmere Park, many years ago, on which I asked you this question: “Will you be married to me?”  Even then, I used an active verb with a present tense – I think we both knew it would be forever.

I can’t help but think of all the lost opportunities I missed to make our marriage better.  I should have DAWDLED in that Belgian Chocolate Shop with you, instead of finding a European cell phone to call Ethan on.  I should have listened to the Nils Frahm music you were in love with for a while, instead of assuring you that “I’d get to it soon”.  Why did I not listen better when you said you are truly an introvert and parties with more than a few people were seriously exhausting?  I still am not sure how much art gallery time I have in me, or art museum capability I have, but I say to you now that I want to TRY IT with you.

On the other hand, I can think of many invaluable moments we HAVE SHARED that we didn’t pass up.  Remember when we opened those wall-sized windows in our canal house in Amsterdam, above the Noordemarket?  The smells of fresh bread and the sounds of that city will stay with me forever.  We were together that day; we walked the streets, watching people, watching our kids, SOAKING in that cachet.  Our time at the Eiffel Tower is well documented through all our pictures, but the sheer amazing steps into reality that we took together on that rain-splattered bridge is indelible to me.  We stood together under Niagara Falls – and grinned ear-to-ear at each other in wonder.

We’ve come to love time together, just sitting; sipping wine, spilling wine, poking at the coals in either the fireplace or the chimenea (depending on the season).  Now that our kids are taking off into the world with brave faces, we can see how precious all those days, years, moments with each child are.

Had someone told us, on that concrete wall so long ago, how much WORK this relationship would take and how much we’d have to trust and forgive and talk and listen, I don’t think we would have believed them.  As you said recently, we were just BABIES back then.  We had barely invented ourselves, let alone examined each other to see who we really were.  We loved – that was enough.

What I NOW love is that we have chosen to RE-INVENT ourselves WITH EACH OTHER as we start this phase of our lives.  This “third act”, as I guess it’s called.  This time of “get to, not have to”.  It isn’t like we’ve lived in a desert for the last 27 years, but, right now, it FEELS like we’ve just been DRENCHED in a spring rain over the desert because our growth and flowering and blossoming and RIPENING has been so completely deep and transforming.

I stand in exultant mountain pose, with my heart wide open.  You could slay me where I stand – instead you embrace me, hold me, buoy me, and cling to me.  We rescue each other, even though we’ve only come to be rescued.

On this occasion of our celebration of 27 YEARS OF MARRIAGE TO EACH OTHER…

I choose MORE.

A jeweler’s hammer

“One line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling.  Thornton Wilder cited this unnamed writer of sonnets: one line of a sonnet falls from the ceiling, and you tap in the others around it with a jeweller’s hammer.”

This from Annie Dillard, in her essay, “The Writing Life”.

I puzzle at how to start, or, more accurately, RE-start my writing life.  I realize, after listening to her speak to me in her essay, that MY inspiring phrases may indeed be like the poet that moved Thornton Wilder who in turn moved Annie Dillard.  Who am I to question the pedigree of this bounty?

Many years ago, in another phase of my life, I filled several pages of a journal with snapshots, vignettes, thoughts, glimpses of stories that I needed to flesh out with words.  I know that book is around here somewhere, but it’s surely dusty.  I’ll bet the spine will creak when I open it to find my store of treasures.

I’ll go take a look.

Back in College

Recently, I travelled with my wife to her weekend intensive college course.  She is doing the work to earn a Master’s in Library Science.  I, and our daughter, went along for the ride, partly because it was our 26th wedding anniversary, partly because there was a party for her classmates the next day, and partly because we wanted to check out the mighty metropolis of Emporia, Kansas.  Believe me, you need to be RESTED when you hit Emporia, because it is ‘full speed ahead’ and a ‘no off-button’ kind of place.

Not really.

But seriously, the town does have a lot of charm and innocence.  I’m sure there’s a gritty part of Emporia, but we didn’t see it.  Maybe we’d have to drive around some more to really dig into the darker layers of that little prairie town.

I KNOW that I don’t have the focus or attention span to spend 6 semesters working on a master’s degree.  I’m doubtful that I even am interested in anything enough to find an area of concentration.  Everything I can think of seems to involve a lot of MATH, which I have sworn off of permanently.  Ever since high school, where letters took on a huge role in algebra, geometry, and algebra 2 (why isn’t it ALL algebra???), I was hopelessly lost.  Matter of fact, in college, I tried to major in chemistry – because I DO love that periodic table – but couldn’t do the math involved in any of it.

My point:  citizens of this country (which includes my wife, Angie) who voluntarily return to student status to earn a higher level degree in ANY field are mentally tougher than I.  No amount of cajoling – financial, mental, or physical- could drive me back into the halls of learning to pursue greater knowledge.

There may come a day when I am ready to face the task of dedicated, focused learning about a topic that fascinates me – but that day is not today.

Bravo to all of you who challenge the dragon of college! May your fortunes increase and your resolve never waver.