Tag Archives: hope

Thoughts from the Road

I have been on the road. I visited my 95-year-old mother late last week. Found her much as in other recent visits, a little weaker each time, but not dramatically so. A few days later, I got a 4 am call from her nursing home that she had just passed away.

Until age 90, she had been unusually active and healthy. Disgustingly so, we might say in jest. No prescription medications. Living on her own. Driving. Visiting the less fortunate shut-ins of her church. Not so healthy in recent years, she had spent the last three in the nursing home. Vision problems deprived her of her beloved reading. Hearing problems made conversation difficult and TV impossible (although, aside from Jeopardy, she had never had much use for that medium). The joys of life were increasingly harder to find, and she had long been ready to meet her maker. For some time she’s been telling people she had awakened disappointed that God did not take her in the night. Yet she still continued to defy expectations.

When I would visit, I would take her a cup of coffee. The nursing home coffee was tepid and so weak that you could see the bottom of the cup. We would sit together, each sipping our McDonalds Senior Coffees. This last trip, I could not even do that. She was restricted to thickened beverages, and thickened coffee was intolerable. Her final illness was swift and merciful.

So I have made two round trips to North Carolina in a week. And while my travels were focused on my mother, this post is not really about her. I am not ready to do that yet. My travels did, however, generate some figurative side trips, and memories of some real ones, running through my head alongside the thoughts surrounding Mother’s death. The side trips, I can write about.

Side Trip #1: I listened to lots of political news on the radio as I drove. Senate hearings and other major drama. Abundant occasion for raised blood pressure. Sadness. Despair.

As I walked into the hotel early this week, the ubiquitous silent TV monitor showed a banner running along the bottom of the news channel: The president’s daughter is surprised at the vehemence of her father’s critics. Huh? Her father is vehemence-in-chief!! How can the reaction of his detractors be a surprise? It’s a basic biological reaction: fight attack with counter-attack!

Did you catch that? That I am part of the problem? My sarcastic response is vehemence and anger returned. I am truly fearful and angry at the president’s agenda and actions. If he succeeds, many will be hurt, including some in my immediate family. But what if he fails? If he fails, his many supporters will be presumably be angry and hurt (and fearful?). And that is the scariest part of all. I do not know how to relate to his supporters, and they do not know how to relate to me. No matter which side prevails, a large portion of our citizenry will be hurt and angry and left out. We—our country and our world—are in a deep bind. And I do not see any political leader with a vision for bridging that divide.

In Monday’s meditation, Richard Rohr wrote:

Don’t waste any time dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Hold them both together in your own soul—where they are anyway—and you will have held together the whole world. You will have overcome the great divide in one place of spacious compassion. You, little you, will have paid the price of redemption. God takes it from there, replicating the same pattern in another conscious human life.

I wish I had that faith, and the wherewithal to “hold Trump and anti-Trump together in my own soul.” For now, it remains merely a hope. The only one I have to cling to.

Side Trip #2: On a lighter note: I am not a photographer. I’m not skilled at it, nor do I often even think of capturing an image or event until the opportunity is gone. I did not think to photograph the raccoon groping in Nancy’s frog pond in the middle of the night. I did not think to photograph the red-tailed hawk drinking from the pond early one morning. But the one I did think about—the one that would not have been able to escape before I grabbed my phone and pressed the shutter, the one that would have lifted the dark tone of this post toward a healthy chuckle—that one I saw on my travels this week. But I did not turn around, park on the shoulder, get out of my truck, cross traffic to the median, and take the shot. It was indeed an image worth many words. And since I did not take the photo, you will have to indulge my words. Imagine a tractor-trailer. The trailer is a fuel tanker. The rig is stalled, partially blocking the right-hand lane. It is surrounded by a protective row of orange cones. Emblazoned on the rear of the trailer is the company name: RELIABLE.

Side Trips Galore: Over the years, I have made that trip to North Carolina more than a hundred times. Four hours, one way, via I-40. And I have taken about every alternative route and side trip that I could find on the map. US 25/70 from Newport to Asheville via Hot Springs is an obvious diversion, and I had some especially great drives on its twists and turns when we owned the Miata. US 70 from Old Fort to Hickory is another great alternative, with good views across Lake James into the southern end of the Linville Gorge, interesting restaurants in Morganton, and the Burke County Courthouse, built just a few years after the hanging of Frankie Silver.

If you have the time and an urge for back country, descend the Blue Ridge escarpment from Ridgecrest (Exit 66) to Old Fort via Mill Creek Road, past the artificial Andrews Geyser, a 19th century railroad marketing ploy. For the more adventurous with a couple of hours to spend, make your way between the Harmon Den and Fines Creek exits (7 to 15) via the backroads.

In a hurry? There is still hope. Eastbound, past Newport, take the Wilton Springs exit (440) and follow the Hartford Road to Hartford, where you can re-enter I-40 (Exit 447). You will rarely be out of sight and sound of the interstate, but if you slow down and open the window, you can also hear the Pigeon River, which the road closely hugs. It will add less than ten minutes to your trip, maybe years to your life.

For some reason, I was recently thinking about the line from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and turning it around to say, “All who wander are not lost.” Is it not necessary to wander, to take the occasional side trip? And are these various side trips perhaps key to making sense of our path through life, and to making a positive and creative contribution as we pass through?

The Questions

For much of my adult life, I have been trying to figure out what I want to be “when I grow up.” Some are born knowing the answer to that question, develop a plan for achieving it, and follow the plan. For the rest of us, there is a whole self-help industry. I once had a small bookshelf devoted to the topic.

I have explored the color of my parachute; chronicled and charted successes and failures, likes and dislikes, aptitudes and attitudes; and, at one time or another, laid claim to a third of the Myers-Briggs types. Several career changes and two retirements later, I’ve come no closer to the answer than Zen-like koans to the effect that the journey itself is the destination.

But I am still a fan of the genre, particularly the underlying principle that we are born with a true self and a true purpose, and that our search for career—for vocation—is a sacred journey back to the God-given calling we have somehow lost. If I am doing “the work you have given us to do” (Book of Common Prayer, p 366), I will be energized by that work. If instead, I am dragged down by what fills my waking hours, perhaps it is not my work to do. The work may be valuable, even essential, but not mine.

Where I might differ with the find-your-true-career gurus is in the implicit assumption that a calling once found is mine for all time. That I have spent so much time in search does not mean I’ve never found the deep energizing satisfaction of knowing why I am here and what I am called to do. I have, a number of times and for extended periods. But not forever. There will be no neat summary on my tombstone.

One of the favored exercises in the self-help toolkit is to look to our earliest childhood memories—to what engaged our energies and imaginations—and to seek there the seeds of the calling we were born to. At this exercise, I am a total failure. Nancy can remember the dress she wore to her fifth birthday party. I can barely remember being a child.

I was reminded of this exercise when I encountered Courtney Martin’s March 10 On Being blog post entitled, “What Was Your First Question?” As you might expect from the title, her approach asks what the child found troubling and has spent a lifetime trying to explore or resolve. Beginning with how the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 shaped the life and work of Dorothy Day, she writes of other famous people whose early experiences led them to a life’s work devoted to questioning the status quo and healing its wounds. She then recounts her personal slow realization of a unifying thread in her own life and work.

So far, at least, I am as much a failure at this exercise as at the earlier ones. I have not found the unifying thread in my own life, nor guidance for the future. But it is an intriguing question on which I’ll continue to gnaw.

Parker Palmer, another On Being blogger, asks a different question, one more relevant to me at this stage of my life. His February 22 post, “Withering Into the Truth,” is a reflection on aging as he approaches his 78th birthday. I am less than a decade behind him, and musing about similar issues.

First, he redirects my thoughts from past to present. Quoting from his own poem, “Harrowing,” he says

I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

Looking back is valuable, to a point. But there comes a time when plowing up the past is no longer productive, and it is time to look forward and plant something new.

Then, apropos of my own struggles with too much stuff, he rephrases the question about what to let go of and what to hang on to, replacing “hang on to” with “give myself to.” He writes, “The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity.” It seems a critical distinction, whether addressing the tools and wood scraps in my shop or the non-physical baggage of my life. And it is reminiscent of the adage of an unclutter-your-life guru that Nancy has been reading: Does it spark joy? If not, throw it out.

Back to Palmer and this particularly rich post. He claims the most important sentence he ever wrote was the single word, “Enough.” To say “enough” is to reject more. At first, I thought Palmer meant rejecting the unnecessary and unimportant tasks and burdens and detritus we allow ourselves to be weighed down by. Perhaps. But he is also saying “enough” to what is wrong in the world. “Enough” to hatred and prejudice and selfishness and exclusion, to cruelty and injustice. To say “enough” in the face of evil is not to walk away from it, but to face it with a resounding “this far and no farther.” To say “no” sometimes requires us to take on a countervailing “yes.”

This, too, I struggle with. What am I called to give myself to? In what way am I called to “show an affirming flame?” I’m still seeking the answers. And I’m grateful to Martin and Palmer and, yes, to Auden, for raising and re-phrasing the questions.

Of Chaos and Spring

Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.

My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.

On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.

The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.

I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.

Signs of Spring

In my recent rant about loud in-store music, I almost added the descriptor, tacky. Almost. I know a class of once-upon-a-time college sophomores who would think that’s rich, coming from the guy who tried to teach them about economic growth using Steve Earle’s song, “Hillbilly Highway.” They were, unanimously, not-amused. Our different tastes in music were seemingly unbridgeable.

I like to think of my musical tastes as moderately eclectic. Yet if you scanned my library, you would find more than nine-tenths of it in the category called Americana, with only brief smatterings of blues, ancient rock, classical, Taize hymns, movie scores, etc. Of hip hop or recent pop and rock, I am in total ignorance. While I was enthralled by Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, and have read it more than once, my knowledge of opera barely goes beyond Elmer Fudd’s Wagnerian, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit.”

So I am intrigued by a review of the musical, “Hamilton,” in a recent issue of The Economist. A hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton that can be praised by both Barack Obama and Dick Cheney? The reviewer finds in the musical a hopeful statement about where this country came from and where it is going, a vision of an inclusive nation, despite current trends toward exclusiveness. A bridge builder.

Crocus After Rain
Crocus After Rain

To judge from the current presidential campaigning, this is “the winter of our discontent.” Deep discontent. A mood of anger and distrust and fear and exclusion. An us-vs-them, zero-sum victimhood of despair that sees walls as solutions. And yet, James Fallows’ article in the March issue of The Atlantic (“How America Is Putting Itself Back Together”) chronicles dozens of stories to the contrary at the local level in communities all across the country—stories of cooperative action and partnership and initiative and welcoming the newcomer, stories in which distressed communities are turning their fortunes around and moving in positive directions.

What has this to do with my parochial musical tastes? I could argue—with some justification—that taste is taste. That overcoming innate preferences is infeasible if not impossible. But, deep down, I suspect that more than taste is at stake. If I listened with an open heart, I could learn at least to appreciate, if not enjoy, what others see in hip hop and opera. I wonder, then, if my too-ready dismissal of other genres as uninteresting is perhaps, at the least, emblematic of the same attitude that dismisses otherness, demonizes the alien, acquiesces in the building of walls.

Upland Chorus Frog Singing in Nancy's Pond
Upland Chorus Frog Singing in Nancy’s Pond

By the calendar, it is still winter. And yet, this week I see signs of spring all around. Crocus are blooming and dogwood buds are swelling. Flocks of robins visit our yard and the upland chorus frogs are calling and mating in Nancy’s pond.

Mr. Fallows sees signs of spring. The author of “Hamilton” sees signs of spring. May we seek an end to the winter of our discontent. Let me see—no, let me BE— signs of spring. Let me build bridges, not walls.

Dancing

If I were to ever undertake the discipline of centering prayer, as have a number of my friends, I’d choose as my sacred word, dancing.

On our first date, Nancy and I tried dancing to the music of a Zydeco band. The results were laughable, but we signed up for dancing lessons, and by the end of the course, had set a wedding date. In those giddy days of new love, we’d sometimes start dancing to the piped-in music in the grocery store. The topper on our wedding cake was a dancing couple. The band for the reception was chosen for the danceability of its music.

Those days are long gone. But sometimes, life itself seems a dance, in which the events of our lives are our partners and each step we take is in response to their moves. It is easy to think of dancing to the hug of a grandchild; the yellow and blue of maple leaves against an October sky; the silence of snowfall; work well done or a game well played. Then we get knocked for a loop; by illness, betrayal, loss. For a time, we feel more like a pinball, battered by events beyond our control. But then, by grace, we find the rhythm and the grace, and we take up the dance again.

In Robert Earl Keen’s song, “No Kinda Dancer,” the chorus goes:

     I tried hard to tell you I was no kinda dancer
     ‘Took my hand to prove I was wrong
     You guided me gently
     Though I thought I could never
     We were dancing together at the end of the song

Can you find a better definition of love than this—the lover leading us beyond our self-imposed “can’t,” into a world of greater possibilities? I have received such gifts, as God, the ultimate lover, sometimes acting through Nancy or another agent, has led me, pushed me, “guided me gently” to places “I thought I could never.”

In literal, physical terms, I remain “no kinda dancer,” the aforementioned lessons notwithstanding. We haven’t danced in years. I sometimes fantasize that we’ll take lessons again, that we’ll move like Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere in Shall We Dance, that we’ll tango like Jessica Biel and Colin Firth in Easy Virtue. Not likely. But, the larger dances still go on. And there is always hope.

That’s what dancing means to me: hope, gratitude, grace, thanksgiving, love.

     And it made me feel lucky that I had a partner
     to teach me the dance steps
     And come back again