I used to be a nearly impenetrable rock. A stoic, storm proof container with no visible emotions. It wasn’t an act. It was who I was and how I approached all of life. I never really got hurt. But I also didn’t feel those elevated emotions that launch the spirit and bring true joy. There were almost no tears. But there wasn’t a whole lot of bliss either. I see now that it was a safety mechanism. I haven’t figured out yet why I cultivated it or from what it was protecting me. Maybe someday that’ll come out in therapy. Or hypnosis. I’m not sure I care anymore.
When my wife died though, that stone was fractured. Permanently. In the hours before she died, my mother in law told me to go back to bed and get some rest, that she would sit with her. I could tell she wanted a little time alone with her daughter. I was almost afraid to walk out of the room, but Mary assured me she would let me know if anything changed.
I know now why mourners wail. When I laid down in those predawn hours, I curled up into a fetal position. The sobs felt like bubbles in the center of my body. I tried to hold it all in. I didn’t want to wake the kids. But I literally felt like I was being lifted from the bed with each expanding bubble and violently thrown back down as it burst forth from my chest. I wanted to wail. I wanted to let it go with all the force bottled up inside of me. But I had the kids to think about. And my mother in law. I think I would probably even have awakened the neighbors. So I held most of it in. But my shell was broken. Forever.
As I write these words, eight and half years later, little tears form at the corners of my eyes. The memory of that morning is still very powerful. But it’s no longer too much to bear. The relationships that have come after have filled some of the cracks. But like the Japanese kintsukuroi, the repairs are of a precious nature. Even though the women have moved on with their lives without me, they each left something of value to me.
The relationships I have with my children are different now too. For a while I didn’t quite know how to be their father. Single parenthood is a challenge under the best of conditions. Trying to do that job for three teens and a preteen, with a broken heart and very little outside support, still seems like a monumental undertaking. They don’t say anything about my failures but I know. I was only able to do it because they stepped up and became adults. Long before they should have had to. More priceless repairs to the cracks in my soul.
This is life. All the pain. All the tragedy. All the brokenness. But there’s so much more. People step in and fill the little cracks with joy and tenderness. Some give you the gift of love. Even if only temporarily. One of them gave me the gift of writing. Another gave me the gift of just quietly being there with a space for me to heal. My kids waited for me to come back to them. Because even the glue that one uses to repair oneself needs time to set if the pieces are to stay together.
We are all here on a sacred spiritual journey. We didn’t come here to get rich, or to command armies, or to die with the most toys. We came here for a reason. The beauty of the adventure is that we don’t get to know why we chose this life. Not while we’re still here anyway.
I had a dream last night that my late wife and I had a baby. A little boy. Scrawny and dark with a complexion and face that held none of the features of either myself or my wife. At three months old he was standing in his crib and telling me who I was. He spoke clear sentences. He was mischievous, funny and full of love. As I changed his diaper he looked in my eyes and joked with me. As we walked down the street he greeted everyone and ran around playing hide and seek with me in wanton joy. He brought bright smiles to all the faces in the crowd.
This short dream triggered a vague sense of deja vu. As if I were being given a little hint of those memories I’d left behind me. In my headlong pursuit of “what I was supposed to do” I seem to have misplaced what I actually came here to do. For what does a tiny child know of life in this world? They know love, they know kindness, they know vulnerability. They know fun, and how to live a life as if tomorrow wasn’t something to dread. They don’t think about tomorrow at all. Today is all that exists to them. And today is enough.
There are big things that need doing in this world. And more reasons than one can imagine for dreading tomorrow. But if we all lived life as if we were little children, would that be so bad? Love everyone, be kind, show your vulnerable side. Bring smiles to the faces of everyone you meet. Make them laugh and pass along some joy.
I think we could heal the world. One lost soul at a time.
A personal take on sustainability and western civilization
I am different. I accept this. In a world of excess, I mostly just want to get rid of everything I own and live like a Buddhist monk. And I’ve pretty much always been like this. But I knew early on that it wasn’t the same for most of the people around me. Most of them see the world as a competitive place where they are either a winner or a loser. In their eyes, I’ve always been a loser. Or, at the very least, someone they can just step right over on their way to the top.
My wife was of a very similar nature to myself. She pursued a career in mental health. Helping others is where she found her place. She had no need to prove herself against any sort of competition. And she lived a life, both at work and at home, that was true to her inner being. Deep down, I think she left this plane so early because she had no work left to do here. But that’s my spiritual nature speaking and it’s a subject for another time.
I, on the other hand, took a job with a huge multinational company. The competitive culture was fierce. I never felt comfortable. I eventually came to work in information technology and I did quite well in that role. There are still people all over North America working in that organization that know my name for some of the unique systems I put together. But I really didn’t fit in. The company made a product I never believed in. And the idea of extracting resources from nature to manufacture an unnecessary product never sat well with me. But everyone needs to make a living, right? So that’s what I did.
After my wife died, the dissonance between who I am and the culture of the place I worked became progressively more difficult for me to ignore. I struggled more and more with my place in the world. I met and had relationships with a couple of different women. Both of them had strong competitive streaks and eventually that dichotomy (obviously, in addition to other incompatibilities) doomed both of the relationships. Deep down though, I think that it was least partly because, to competitive people, I look just plain lazy. And maybe I am. But to the competitive person, laziness is a weakness of character. When someone looks at you with that sort of disdain, the relationship isn’t going to last.
Here’s the thing though, lazy people aren’t out there destroying rain forests to create empires. We take what we need from the earth and leave the rest. The hyperactive, go-getter personality without a productive, necessary, world enhancing pursuit becomes a destructive competitor. The kind of competition that extracts resources from the world to create unnecessary products. And we have literally millions of unnecessary products. Our homes, storage units and landfills are bursting at the seams with them. Maybe we need a little more laziness in this world.
Western culture has demonized contentment as a negative. Growth begins at the end of your comfort zone. Bigger, better, faster, etc. And it’s all true. But, not all growth is good growth. Cancer is uncontrolled growth and it can kill you. The world is now in a place where all growth needs to be examined for both its positive and its negative aspects. Personal growth is no different. It’s why CEOs of huge companies step down citing stress and their work-life imbalance as reasons for leaving. They should be fixing the culture of their organizations, not leaving. Or maybe, they should be rethinking the value of the existence of their organization at all. That’s the kind of leadership we’re going to need in the future.
Minimalism may well be the evolution of consciousness we need right now. In a time of global climate change, everything needs to be rethought. If the current status quo continues we will leave a scorched earth behind. Nothing will be left. And, deep down, we all know this.
On the other hand, there’s no going back. Yes, most indigenous cultures practiced a type of minimalism out of necessity, but not many of us would be willing to live life on those terms again. Western civilization has brought us fantastic wonders that make our lives easier, better and longer. To pretend that life was better “way back when” is a lie we shouldn’t be listening to. We all benefit from a world made better by civilization. But it’s long past time to examine the balance a little closer. We need nature a whole lot more than nature needs us.
I woke up from a dream a while back. It left me kinda lonely and sad.
We were sitting in a shareholders meeting. Apparently, I was a major player in this organization and we were contemplating an offer to sell the company. I was examining financial disclosures and discussing them with the two other principles of the organization. I kept bringing up that this was just financial stuff. It didn’t even come close to representing all that we had built. All the people we employed. The lives and families we’d touched.
The response I got back was essentially that the financial stuff is the only important part. People don’t buy companies based on their benefit to society, the employees or the community at large. None of that mattered. I woke up kinda dejected and uncomfortable. It brought to mind the following:
Some people are so poor all they have is money.
Now, I’m not a powerful or wealthy person. In any organization. Like a lot of people in this country, nearly all of my net worth is in a retirement fund. I’ve never attended a shareholders meeting, nor do I have any inclination to do so. But I think my reaction to that dream is spot on.
We have the responsibility to build something with our lives that is way more valuable than what can be expressed on a balance sheet. If all you have to leave the world at the end of your life is money, you are indeed destitute. An empty soul.
There is music in the very air we breathe. Love makes the leaves on the trees tremble. Real Life has no connection to money whatsoever. Except how much of ours we will sacrifice in it’s pursuit. I’m fifty six old. Six months ago I bought a brand new van. As a project. To build myself a custom camper. Which I intend to take on the road after this pandemic runs its course. And I plan to live in this van for the next couple of years. Why? Because, like writing, I’ve always had this desire to see what’s over the hill or around the next bend. But it never called to me loudly enough to set aside other “more important” pursuits. And now, at this ripe old age I’m coming to understand that the most important things are those that give you joy or fulfill some long unrealized aspiration. Everything else should take a backseat.
Don’t let yourself become a poor rich person. Take those Tango lessons. Book that whitewater rafting trip. Learn to ride a motorcycle. Stop and talk to the old guy fishing on the pier, he’s probably got a fascinating story to tell. Become a person rich in experience, knowledge, skill, craft and insight. If you make tons of money that’s fine but it’s not a worthy pursuit in and of itself.
Two thousand miles is a damn long motorcycle ride! Thirty years ago it was an adventure in overcoming physical limits, both for me and for a motorcycle built to race on a dirt track, not fly down the super slab with the throttle pinned to the stops. The bike and I both made it. And the memories are etched in my DNA. Sadly, that bike went to flat track heaven almost twenty years ago. I’m not easy on equipment. Horse people would derisively say that I ride ’em hard and put ’em away wet. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Bikes are tools, not living beings. I use stuff, and love people. People who get that backwards make me uncomfortable and not a little sad. Unfortunately, like almost everyone, I’ve known way too many.
Anyway, to celebrate my fifty-fourth birthday (and my impending retirement) I made a similar trip. The route was different. The timetable was different. Most of the people I set out to visit this time around weren’t even even born the last time I rolled through. The limits I had to face were more mental than physical. The bike, although also a dirt tracker (I guess I have a “type” when it comes to bikes too, who knew?), is much bigger, much faster and benefits by virtue of thirty years of technological advancement. Unlike that old Honda, which wore out both a chain and a rear tire on that first trip, I’m still riding this Harley every day as if last summer’s trip was a quick run to the grocery store.
One of my favorite activities is riding motorcycles. But, I think, the most significant insight I gained from this trip had nothing to do with bikes. It didn’t have anything to do with travel either. It came to me on the second day of the trip, when my eldest daughter took me and my granddaughter out for my birthday dinner. There was a saxophone player in the restaurant bar and we could hear him clearly from our table. Every time he’d start a riff, my granddaughter would would start shaking her shoulders and dancing in her seat. I would join her and we’d both break out in huge grins just feeling the freedom of the moment expressed in that wailing sax.
Music is creation’s universal language of life and love. The whales in the ocean, the birds in the trees, children, even before they can talk, make music. Every culture expresses itself through music. We bind ourselves together with it and often choose “our” song when we commit to another person. It can make a one year old come to know this old man sitting next to her in a restaurant as someone who loves her. Even if she only sees him once or twice a year.
A couple days later I would attend a little outdoor concert with a new friend. Coincidentally, much of the music played at that concert was written and first performed right around the time of that first motorcycle adventure. Life coming full circle? I don’t know, we both grew up with those sounds and today they help to make me feel like I still belong to the same culture. Even if so much of the world has changed, generations are still listening to the music of my youth. There’s a certain comfort in that. That first bike is gone, but the music remains. Like love, you can’t grab a handful of music and trade it for some other object. It’s ethereal and yet timeless. Long after all the “stuff” is gone, music and love will remain.
Sing a song (or write a poem) to those grandchildren. Leave them with something much more valuable than things. And change the world we live in, one kid at a time.
There’s a certain kind of power granted to one when they realize that they have no control over the future. We are minuscule little deflections in the matrix. Very little of what we do here matters, in the grand scheme of things. Does that mean we should just throw up our hands and concede defeat? Not at all. In fact;
It’s all terribly important. But none of it really matters.
In the end, nothing much of what we do here will be remembered. But, to those we love, it can make all the difference. And sometimes, it means everything to someone we’ve never even met. Every single one of us has the power to change lives. One at a time. That irrelevant seeming little post you make on social media means nothing to 99.9999999% of the population but there’s always the possibility that what you say reaches deep into the consciousness of that one person and gives them the hope they need today. Maybe you only save their life today. But tomorrow their whole world changes. Would you deny them that? If all you had to do was show up and be present?
We all wonder what our purpose here is. What if it’s as simple as telling someone they matter to you? In the darkest of hours, that can feel like someone just threw you a lifeline. We never know the circumstances of the lives we touch. Does that mean we should stop reaching out? I think it means we should extend our hands. Even if they are repeatedly slapped away. The ones who need that help will find us there to help them up. It’s the way of the universe. Ask, and you may receive. Whenever it’s in our power, we should be the ones who are there.
When no one else would hear my pain, I found you, with a hand open and willing to help.
There are always winners and losers, right? He who dies with the most toys wins. Must we always climb over the bodies to reach the top?
Not if we redefine the goal. I’ve always struggled with the idea of competition. On the one hand, it’s the very essence of nature. Species compete with each other for resources. Individuals compete within the social order for the opportunity to mate, eat and survive. The strongest come out on top. Most of the time.
This works quite well. On a local or even a regional level. But scale it up to the level of nations, continents or planets and it’s a recipe for wholesale destruction. Greed is not good. Greed will get us all killed. And guess what? Greed starts with the individual.
That’s right, given the current state of our world, your desire to have it all means somebody else has to go without. As long as it’s “anybody first” we all lose, eventually. The richest nine men in the world have more combined wealth than over half the worlds population. A helluva lot of people are going without for these guys to “have it all”.
The tribal nature of humanity is an evolutionary dead end.
The only way out of this mess is to redefine what having it all means.
The Iroquois held that in all things one must peer seven generations into the future to prepare for the impact of today’s decisions. Seven generations is about 140 years. Longer than anyone will live. Long enough that no matter what you have acquired, it will no longer have any value to you. Long enough that, given the current state of the environment, humanity and most of the rest of the large mammals on this planet may not survive.
And yet almost half of all American’s have essentially no retirement savings at all. People, we can’t even look far enough ahead to make sure we ourselves don’t die of starvation while, in the immortal words of Matt Foley: “living in a van down by the river!”
Why is this? Because, somehow we’ve come to believe that “beating the competition” is a noble pursuit. But it’s not. On a planet with almost eight billion human souls, it’s tantamount to genocide. There must be a higher good. Something beyond animal instinct to create meaning in life. All the wise sages of the past knew this. They taught cooperation, love for your fellow beings, peace. None of the holy writings of our history advocated grabbing all you can get for yourself. And yet, this is what we have decided to hold up as the crowning achievement of civilization.
I submit that we have collectively lost our souls. Sold them for thirty pieces of silver. And that’s a more apt description of it than you might realize. Because if we don’t pull our collective heads out of our asses, we may well have sold out all life on this planet. The planet will survive, even thrive, eventually. But we may not. And how much potential will we have squandered?
I think there’s a better way. But it starts with empathy. We need to learn to care about others. Other people. People who don’t look like us. People who don’t think like us. Even people who don’t love like us. And we need to consider all the other life on this ball of energy too. Only then will we be able to redefine success as a measure of ones positive impact to the world in which they live rather than by the size of the fortune they leave to their heirs.
She stood in the doorway in that dismissive way a teenage girl stands when she’s feeling put upon. Clearly, she had better things to do and he was just an inconvenient obligation she had to address before she could get on with the important matters of the day. Still, she was nearly transparent. When she looked up and met his eyes, his blood ran cold. For here was Death herself. Not carrying a scythe. Not dressed in black. Nope, not this time. Today, she was just a pretty teenage girl. Albeit, one you literally see through. Not exactly what one would expect to see at the moment oblivion comes calling. No one would ever suspect she held the power of eternity in her hands. That is, until they looked in her eyes. There was no mistaking her identity when those bottomless black orbs caught your gaze.
“Relax”, she said, “someone very important to you asked me to stop by and remind you. You made a promise. And you’re dragging your feet. Time’s a wasting old man. Don’t make me come back here. You know she won’t be happy if you blow it again this time.”
He was just about to say something when she interrupted him. “No excuses” she said, “You have had ten years to grieve. She sent along just about every kind of human being you could possibly need to learn the difference between what the two of you had and what everyone else thinks is love. You know this, deep down. Accept it. And do what you promised to do.”
“But the kids…..”, he said. “Will be fine” she countered. “How many times have they themselves told you that? You’re just scared.” And he knew, to his very core, that Death was right. He’d set an intention in motion two and half years ago. He’d retire, somehow make the finances work and go have that adventure he had always dreamed about. The very one he described to his wife just months before she passed away. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a promise he’d made to be more than an empty husk of a man after all she had suffered.
It certainly seemed like every cause for concern was magically removed whenever he came up with another reason to hold back. The job was outsourced a month before he was planning to retire. It put him in an even better financial situation. Every obstacle just seemed to evaporate, almost as soon as he thought of it. For someone who couldn’t seem to stop worrying about what could go wrong, everything always worked out in his favor. And he knew, it was because of her. It was the gift she gave him in return for a promise that had been made and must be kept.
Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned to look. In the mirror on the wall, a flash of black wing and the shiny edge of a sharpened blade passed through his field of view. When he turned back she was gone. A waft of burnt cookies caressed his nose and the unspoken words kissed his soul, “Don’t let her down, you promised her you wouldn’t waste the time she gave you.”