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[No] Reservations

I'm remembering back to an episode of the Travel Channel show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, when Tony is in Japan. He is watching a man make soba noodles. This is what the man does- he makes soba noodles. His entire life he has made soba noodles. Every day of his life. And nothing else. As a matter of fact, in all his Asian travels, so many stops include a person who makes this one thing or does this one thing.

What is a life like that is at once so simple and so wholly purposeful? What it is like to just... be?

I have this memory from when I was young, of visiting the Carmelite monastery in Pittsford NY. The Carmelites are monastic nuns who live a cloistered existence, wholly abandoned to the worship of God. Their life consists of prayer, penance, manual labor, and spiritual contemplation. Out of context it is a beautiful, serene, and I suppose, rewarding life. In some paradigms it might seem a copout. In any, it is an act of renunciation of the tribulations of modern living, with a devotion instead to this one thing- worship; prayer. Every day is purposeful, every life, examined.

--- --- ---

I remembering taking my first picture at the age of ten, a picture of the janitor at my elementary school, with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera (which I still own). It was a child's pursuit, more curiosity than interest. But it was when I was nineteen that I made my first real photograph. I was working my first full-time job. I had been thrown into this crazy work cycle for which nothing in my life had prepared me. I worked eighteen twelve-hour days (3:30 pm to 3:30 am), with one day off between cycles. I followed this schedule for my first six months of employment. It was miserable, but it made me pretty wealthy. Especially for a teen who had been invited to not come back for a second year of junior college.

One of the first things I bought with my riches was a camera; an Olympus OM-1n. My friend Chuck and I were utilizing one of my off days, and we went to Akron Falls State Park. It was a crisp fall day. The leaves were turning, and the park was ablaze with color. Chuck worked in a camera store and was testing a new arrival from Olympus for the weekend. I was there because it was a Sunday and my only day off that month, and I wasn't about to spend it at home watching football. He handed the camera to me to try. I took one picture. The next day he called me from the store, and said I should meet him for lunch. When I arrived he handed me a print of the photo I had taken. I skipped lunch and bought the Olympus instead.

Its hard to convey what I felt when I saw that photo, but it was a combination of "that's so beautiful" and "I made that?" To that point, my adult life had been a combination of failing out of school, and working a meaningless second-shift maintenance job at an auto assembly plant. My uniform was greasy blue-black overalls, my hands perpetually soiled and scarred. Even my pillow case had a permanent yellow stain from where my head had laid upon it. I hated that job because it was not me. It was foreign and and fostered a contemptuous relationship for over a decade.

And then there was that photograph. From it I can trace a convoluted line that led me to where I am now, in my home with my wife and lover of twenty-plus years, a cat asleep on my lap, reaping the simple rewards of a career in teaching.

I teach about photography. And why photography is important. I teach in what is considered a small rural high school, and I teach evening classes at our local community college. I love teaching. I can think of few more rewarding professions. I make no allusions about what I do- at the high school level my job is to create connections- to open a door or two where none existed before, to point out the window and say "look", "see". Some students go on to study photography in college, most don't. But I think most leave changed for the better.

And this is my life. It is what I have done for my entire adult life. For almost twenty-five years. Every day. I never gave it much thought, but I can't imagine doing anything, or being anything, else. Being a teacher allows me to just be myself, to live a life that speaks honestly to me.

I get it now, the soba noodle guy, the Carmelite nun. Its all the same- none of it is about the "what." Nothing happens out of context. It's only ever about the "Why." My story is longer because its mine and I know it better. It is no more, or less, compelling than deciding to be the soba noodle guy, no more, or less, voluntary than choosing a vocation to the Carmelite order. It's about finding a personal water level. Soba guy still has bills to pay and children to raise, the nuns still feel the bone-cold of a New York winter. Life is life no matter how much certain aspects are romanticized. Every day I return home to the unconditional love of my beloved wife and lover. Every night a cat curls up on my lap. And they make me whole. And centered. And though I still carry scars from days as a laborer, they are but reminders of the journey here. About finding peace.

About learning to just...

be.

Mark

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Parachute..

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment... LAMA NORBU Little Buddha

I knew it would be difficult. And it was.

Difficult.

It wasn't difficult because I didn't want him to go. Going or not going wasn't my decision to make. It was his. And he made his decision. It was his time, he knew it was his time, he made his decision, and he embraced it. It was difficult because I was powerless to do anything.

Anything.

By the time I reached their Florida home he was already very weak. My sisters had been tending to him for a week by then, dutiful and doting daughters, expressing true unabashed love. He had stopped eating, and drank only to lubricate his throat. Twenty-four hours later he was in a dream state. In another twenty-four he was gone. Its forty-eight hours later as I write this.

And I'm in a good place.

It's not that I don't miss him. Every time I think I'm near the end of my list I find new reasons to miss him. I'm in a good place because I found a parachute.

--- --- ---

It felt like jumping from an airplane, like falling. An event uncertain except for the certainty of the pain to come. But it wasn't falling. What I was feeling was actually the sensation of clinging. Of holding on. In short, grief. Grief is the inability to let go of emotion, and the initial emotional freefall that comes thereafter. Thing is- the deed is done, the die cast. And wanting it to be different = Grief. With the capital "G".

And grieve I did. With the capital "G". It began almost as soon as I arrived, and never really stopped until I had said my goodbye and headed home.

I had to go partly because it was time for me to go. I had to get back home to my life, to my family. And partly because there was nothing I could do, except continue to grieve. Worse, my grief was beginning to feed on itself, and was becoming destructive. It was time to go. And let go. But what I didn't know was that hidden inside letting go was a parachute- a big gossamer veil to slow the fall. And within that veil of letting go was the comfort and healing.

I wrote about this not too long ago, about letting go, although it reads now like ancient text. What I wrote about then was slightly different. I wrote about letting go in one's personal life, of not being driven by goals or decisions. Of being the water, and not the rock in the water. Of giving over to inevitability. This is different. And the same.

One immediate acknowledgement was in the needs of mine own family. Life goes on whether we are prepared to go on with it. Or not. But normalcy made me feel normal again. People in the supermarket laughed and discussed weekend plans. The cats at the feed store gave their usual disinterested greeting. Gasoline still cost too much.  Normal. It felt "let go."

--- --- ---

From this point forward it will always be "after dad died." And yet life goes on. And will go on. In the way that life must. And I will miss him, like my brothers and sisters will, and like my mother will, though none of us as deeply as my mother will. And I will cry, at unexpected times, for unexpected reasons. And I will carry with me the memories, of his smile, his amazing piercing whistle, his mechanical genius, and his love- his unending, inexhaustible love. And from these I will build my parachute, and keep it tucked firmly under my arm in case of emergency.

because

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment...

peace-

mark

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Vigil

Go rest high on that mountainSon, your work on earth is done Go to heaven ashouting Love for the Father and the Son

VINCE GILL Go Rest High on that Mountain

20121115-132542.jpg

(Thursday)

Phyllis amd Kathleen have been singing to him since 4am. He sleeps, wakes and looks around, and seems to be in little pain. We kept a quiet and tearful vigil ovenight, stirring everyone at 3:30 when the end appeared close at hand. It's 6:20 now.

A few are back to sleep, quietly snuffling in uncomfortable chairs. After twelve hours any chair is uncomfortable.

Kathleen found some of Grandma's holy cards. We talked about Skip. Before dinner last night the son of old dear friends stopped to visit. Dad woke and mouthed "Oh- Larry!" He's been quiet since then. We had a brief moment later in the evening during the window of time when the morphine blocks pain but doesn't rob lucidity. We talked- well, more I talked and imagined his answers. I said goodbye, and so did he.

...8 am

Nothing has changed. Phyllis is still singing her lullabyes. Everyone else is sound asleep.

It seems wrong that the television isn't on...

...11 am

Hospice nurse is here. She tied off the drainage tube which hadn't drained anything in over a day. Dad is a bit more comfortable, but the disease process is making his blood toxic. I'm beginning to understand how tentative a word like comfort is.

Kathleen and Phyllis have been tireless attendants. Kathleen has the uneviable task of trying to balance a career in nursing with being a daughter. Phyllis pets and coos and reassures. Kathleen is a saint, Phyllis an angel. Its really a question of semantics...

My mother is prepared to let him go, as are we all. Her only concern is that he feel no pain. She prays to take it on herself.

Everyone is fed, a thousand cups of coffee poured and left undrunk. Mother is praying to Saint Anthony to ease the pain.

...12 pm

The hospital bed has just arrived...

Dad is more comfortable in the bed, but he's completely unresponsive now. The hospice nurse told mom she could get into bed with him. You should warn people before you say things like that....

Throughout this entire process my dad made only a single demand- he made it clear that he wants someone to hold his hand.

... 6 pm

It was a good aftenoon. It turns out that food and sleep are essentials, and brownies and coffee. regardless of their virtues, arent enough. Karl, Kevin, Phyllis, and I went to the store in search of a three-way lightbulb. It took an hour. And a half. I finally realized that I'm in Florida. They have palm trees here.

The end will come when it comes, whether I'm here or not. So tomorrow I head home. I miss Paula so much it aches. I've said my goodnight. Dad is gone. Only this breathing machine remains. It looks just like my dad.

Karl is cooking again tonite. Pork. Cooked in pork. I love German food.

I think we're done. Kathleen is holding his hand...

(Friday)

Death will come, and will end life as I imagine most life begins. With some small complaint but no real objection. And never according to any schedule other than its own. My mother will kiss her lover on the forehead and whisper something to him that no one else will hear. Nor was meant to hear.

I will not argue with inevitability...

 

(addendum)

death did come, at 1:53 pm.  Good night Dad...

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The Squirrel and the Goldfinch

I was looking out the kitchen window the other morning, watching the birds at the feeder. As I sat a beautiful goldfinch flew in for a meal. At the same time a large grey squirrel charged up the pole, deftly stepping around the super-impenetrable squirrel blocking device I had painstakingly crafted and chased the current diners from their perch. The finch sort of hopped up into the air about a foot or two above the feeder, fluttered momentarily to get its bearings, and landed on the tip of an Astilbe frond. If you don't know Astilbe, it's a delicate, fern-like plant with pretty white or purple-ish flowers in summer. Its kind of a garden nuisance around here, but that's a different story. Astilbe is a featherweight plant, and I was surprised at how easily the finch was able to light itself upon the tip of that tender little stem and not even bend it. It sat patiently awaiting intervention on its behalf while the squirrel was busy gnawing a larger access hole in the feeder's tough plastic shell. I shooed the squirrel with a thump on the window. The goldfinch sat, unperturbed by it all, left its astilbe perch and set back down, this time at the smaller thistle feeder. It stayed only a minute ate a few seeds, and was gone.

The faint scenario played out by the finch was in such great contrast to the clumsy, blunt approach to living that the squirrel embraced, it was impossible, even for me, to miss. Squirrels leave little question as to their presence. Their loud chatter, copious litter, their damage to trees, eaves, and bird feeders alike, are an inherent part of squirrel-ness. Meanwhile the goldfinch, adorned in its fading lemon yellow, black and white raiment, floats in on the wind, sings a light and happy song, takes his seed, and is gone. The contrariety seems so profound. The squirrel, for better or worse, is not purposefully injurious but its actions are consequential in an immediate sense. The goldfinch in contrast leaves no echo of its actions. It touches lightly and refers the memory of its cheery song and beautiful plumage as the only lasting legacy of its visit.

The lessons of the squirrel and goldfinch

Events in the last week have put me in mind of considering legacy. When all is gone but for the memory,  by what gauge are we measured? I am much closer to the end of my teaching career than I am to even the middle. As such I am become more aware of what comes after, or more precisely, what remains. When I walk out of my classroom for the final time it will be without regret of any kind.  Though teaching was never something I aspired to do initially, I embraced it and it nourished me. Teaching gave me a new life, a beautiful wife, some prestige, and a living wage. When my teaching days are through my legacy will likely not be found in the room or building in which I taught, but more likely in the students that I taught.They are what remains. If I were to choose how I am remembered it would be fostering a love of learning, with laughter and fraternity, and random moments of inspiration. A Legacy would be that some of my students carry a love of art still, and make art, and teach others about art. It would be be that I cared enough to try, and tried enough to make some positive impact. It would be that I gave better than I got.

But that choice is not mine to make. Nor should it be. Because a legacy is defined by those who come after, by those who remain. Because while I look at the big grey squirrel and see only its littersome trace, others see a legacy of food left for smaller less robust animals to eat, and seeds cast for new trees to grow from, and nuts buried and long forgotten, feeding the soil and its creepy-crawly cast. Squirrel as provider. I see only my deconstructed feeder, and not the marvelous curiosity and tenacious persistence that this animal possess as it asks only to survive another day in the chilling fall air.

And therefore if my legacy decided is that I was a good teacher, or a good husband or friend, and doesn't extend beyond that -that's okay. And any memory of me need be nothing more than the faint tickle of a light touch or the echo of a laugh. In the interim I continue to be who I am, to do what I do.

And what remains, remains to be seen.

peace, and love to all

mark

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I'm Paper, You're Glue...

Last Friday I was invited to speak at a conference for artists, educators, and workers in the social services. It was a two day conference focused on balancing life, work, and art, and how to stay vital in fields which will bleed you dry if you are not properly prepared. There were two morning sessions this day, and two more in the afternoon. I was scheduled as the final afternoon speaker. The morning sessions were really pleasant; a plein air painter and a yoga instructor. During the yoga talk were were to be led through some basic asanas while we meditated on famous artworks. Following instructions I took off my shoes- and discovered I had a hole in my sock. "Hello toe, what brings you out today?" But so it goes. Lunch was really pleasant, if a bit too long. I had a peaceful conversation with a few colleagues. We talked shop talk and gossiped about mutual friends. The speaker scheduled before me was a colleague and friend. She is a paper artist, an installation artist, a book binder. A visionary. She simply blew me away with her talk. Most public speakers, if they are anything like me, have a habit of telling you what they know that you don't and what they've done that you haven't. But this talk was different. It began with a brief and humorous biography, followed by some introductions to her approach to art making. And then she said it. She said the most profound thing I've heard in a long time. She said, "In my classes I tell my students that all materials have inherent properties which have to be respected." What she meant was that you have to understand how paper reacts to pencil or paint or pen. You have to realize that pencils make dust, and ink smears. What she meant was "Acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the things and people you encounter in life." Intuitively I think I've always known that, but I never heard it put quite that way. We all have inherent properties. I'm quiet, he's not, she sings really well, he can fish... These qualities make us who we are, they make us the individuals that we are. And we have to respect these qualities in ourselves and in others.

We have a tendency to want to make things conform to our standards. Van? Ick. Sport Utility Vehicle? Sweetness. It's not wrong, but makes everything unnecessicarily complicated. The military calls it mission creep, the software industry calls it feature creep. What makes something work for a specific situation limits its usability in others. So we tack something else on or accept a bit less utility overall. Occasionally it's nice to just back off a bit and relish in the simplicity of simple things. Savor in that one great thing that small business do, or that people offer. Focus on your strengths. That one thing you do better than anyone else. Find a way to apply it, find others who share your passions.

P has found twitter to be great for that- for sharing that one thing. Twitter conversations tend to be long in nature, because the tweets are short in nature. There is a sort of conversational semaphore that takes place. Short, punch, punch, punch conversations. I makes the conversation open to anyone. Focus on one idea at a time. Move on. Not everyone likes it, or is good at navigating through it. P is the best I know. A pro. She has met the most fascinating people and learned the most fascinating things through twitter. But it, like everything else, requires an understanding of what it can, and can't do. It's not a public square like Facebook. It's a roundtable discussion. Everyone gets to say their piece, and everyone is given equal weight. And it works because of brevity and the clarity that brevity offers. But their are some who want the tweet length expanded, or have photos inline. But the purists balk- it would change the nature, begin a feature creep that most don't want. So it's stays short. One hundred forrty-four characters. Period. In its own way it's perfect.

My talk that day was not profound. I'm not sure it even rated 'good'. It was characteristiclly random and all over the place. It was about me, and what I know. It was forgettable. I'm trying to learn, to acknowledge the inherent qualities of the people I know, the things I encounter. I've found blogging to help, if only because it makes me write things down. And I'm learning to listen, because when I do I hear the most amazing things...

Peace

Mark

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All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!

PRAYER TO ST. ANTHONY

Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!

peace,

mark...

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Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.

mark

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the thirteen virtues...

“Time lost is never found again.” – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

I haven't really been a good boy lately. It's not like I've been purposely naughty or a meanie-gut to old ladies or anything, but I have been almost purposely inattentive to some important aspects of my life, and the net result is just as dissapointing. I'm behind on work, way behind on relationships, and hopelessly, hopelessly distracted. Maybe it's the change in the weather, but my monkey-mind is out of it's cage and is and is making a shambles of everything. I'm suffering from a profound loss of focus. I have a list of a dozen things that need my attention, some big, most small, but regardless, the list has sat unaltered for three days now. I'm fine when I leave the house, I have a clear grasp on my daily goals, but within thirty minutes of arriving at school I can't remember a thing I wanted to accomplish. I've tried lists, voice notes, but when you no longer remember what the underlying point is of the task you wish to accomplish, then its just a chore. It's like I have to remind myself to be mindful, to stay on task and proceed one step at a time.

It's proving to be one of my biggest weaknesses, especially because its so crucial to everything else. I think the problem lies in the fact that I have all these things I want to do, but I never want to do them at the time they need doing. So I do something else. Or I do nothing. I'm good at that. It may be my biggest weakness, but I end up setting the bar too low. It's not like I ever wanted to be super efficiency guy, but I'm beginning to hurt myself, personally and professionally, with my inability to simply follow through from start to finish.

--- --- ---

Benjamin Franklin, the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States, wrote copiously about living a thoughtful and considered life. Although his most famous collection of pithy quotes is found in his Poor Richard's Almanac, there is much great reading to be found in his autobiography. There is a fabulous online copy, called the Electric Ben Franklin. Early on Franklin mentions almost in passing of his decision to adopt a mindful approach to living. At page thirty-eight we read, "It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other."

It's certainly not an original thought- to be a better person, to have a more attentive and deliberate nature, but it is unusual to actually have devised a workable action plan for implementation. Known today as the thirteen virtues, his personal moral code is a laundry list of actions any true contemplative might employ. For the sake of brevity I've listed them without their attendant precepts, but they posess a simple clarity. No virtue recommends pure abstinence, and all demand an attentiveness to action, and a mindfulness of purpose, outcome, and effect.

The virtues

Temperance

Silence

Order

Resolution

Frugality

Industry

Sincerity

Justice

Moderation

Cleanliness

Tranquillity

Chastity

Humility

I've found on the interwebs several different iterations of the virtues, but strangely, none of the writers who promote them do so correctly. I've run across several planner-style virture checklists- each day of each week we can check off our virtues as we live them- cleanliness, check; moderation, check; chastity sincerity, check... taken as a whole its a formidable, if not unworkable, set of hurdles to to tackle every day. The real shame though is that the checklist dumbs it down to a- well, a checklist. It completely forgoes the point of Franklin's pursuit- to improve one's self. He himself said it wasn't possible to juggle the entire baker's dozen at once, although I think he said it more eloquently than that.

To quoth, "My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view..." It's so simple its stupid. And brilliant.

Be really good at one thing and grow from there.

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And therein lies the key to mine own studies in contemplative living and controlling the monkey-mind. Construct a ladder. Make the bottom rung the key to reaching all the other rungs. Do one thing. Get it right. Build on it. Yowsa. I've reread my list of contemplative precepts and picked one to be my commitment. To wit:

Be not distracted by meaningless activity; Be attentive to the tide of living.

That should keep me busy for a while.

peace,

mark

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Unity Band

I went to a concert Tuesday night with Paula; Pat Metheny's Unity Band. The show was at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA. Mercyhurst is a great venue. The theatre is small and comfortable, with good acoustics. It was a great show, but in general, any Metheny show is.  But all the way home we both kept remarking to one another how special the night was, and how much fun we had together. And honestly it was one of the best evenings we've had in recent memory. Now keep in mind that P and I spend most of our free time together. Of everyone we know we like each others company the best. Which is how it should be, right? But really, we do everything together. We're really big on day trips. As long as the cats have food enough we're good to go. So this particular evening was nothing out of the ordinary.

Erie is less than an hour away. We left early and took the slower back roads like we like to do. We discussed the fall colors, the Amish way of living, New York State's approach to highway repair. When we topped the ridge that is part of the Niagara Escarpment and allows a one hundred fifty degree view of Lake Erie and glimpses of the Ontario shoreline far away through the crisp autumn air, we both quieted and took it in for as long as it lasted. Then we talked about trains, and what flowers we would plant in the spring, and what specials the restaurant might have tonight. Hopefully, lasagna.

And so it went...

We met friends for dinner before the show, and chatted the way friends chat, everyone talking over one another while stabbing at each others plates for a taste of their meals. We drove to the venue, remarking on how much we loved Erie and how easy the traffic was this night. I dropped her at the door so she could pick up our tickets at will call, parked the Bitch Kitty, and joined her inside.

It was P who first introduced me to Metheny's music, when we were dating. Letter from Home had just been released. P immerses herself in her music and was Radio Metheny when we met. I owned his New Chautauqua album, though I don't know why, but I loved his music from the beginning and was schooled pretty quickly. It made Pat Metheny part of our core foundation as a couple. This night was our first live Metheny performance in at least five years, so neither of us had any real expectations. We were both going in cold, so to speak. Not surprisingly it was an amazing show. With a couple exceptions all new music. P remarked that it reminded her of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette we saw at Art Park the summer we were married. She was right.

The show ended way too soon, as shows of this type do, though in real time it was two hours. We left the theatre, got on the road, and enjoyed another easy ride. We talked about the music, Erie, the light traffic on I-86. We saw the Aurora Borealis. It was a school night so there wasn't time to linger when we got home. Wrangle the cats, get them fed, hop into bed. A goodnight kiss and then sleep.

Morning broke as mornings do. Get up, feed the cats, make breakfast. dress for school. But this morning was different. It had an aura of the night before lingering over it, an aura of being happy and talking all night and laughing. An aura of connectedness. It spoke simple sounds. It said, "Yes, last night was special.  And I'm glad I spent it with you..."

peace,

mark

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An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood

 

I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.

namaste'

Mark

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