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spirituality

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Blue

"It's coming on Christmas, they're cuttin down trees. They're puttin up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..." JONI MITCHELL   River

Its been such a hard week. I'm digging to find something, anything,  positive to hang my hat on. On the television are a bunch of ass-hats actually saying, out loud, that if all teachers were strapped, our babies would be safe. Why can't you just keep that to yourself?  Then you could at least pretend you have an ounce of understanding.

--- --- ---

My head is spinning. I can't string two cogent thoughts together that don't contradict each other. I've been listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue album. Its about running away. Not all of it, but enough of it to make it worth listening to. It was a mainstay of my college days, when life was full of seminal events and defining moments and philosophy classes. Joni Mitchell always told such great stories. About being sad, or  just tired and alone, or wanting. My first album was Hejira. The title means "journey". The songs are about traveling or being on the road or wanting to be home. But they are also about knowing what you want and what you have. They are about choice and the consequence of choice. And isn't everything...

--- --- ---

As an educator I'm not at liberty to write about education. That would be a conflict of interest. But I can say that anyone outside of the field of education hasn't a clue about what the inside looks like. At least at the K-12 end of the rainbow. You should change that. Soon.

--- --- ---

Ever since my dad died I've felt adrift. We lived very separate lives eleven hundred miles away from one another. I didn't see him or my mom nearly often enough. But it never mattered. We always made up for time and distance when we were together. During their penultimate trip north P and I took my parents to Buffalo so my dad could photograph the Kirsch Saloon building on Niagara Street. We scoured Black Rock all afternoon looking for lost neighborhoods and lumberyards that served as playgrounds. We found most of them. We think.

It was a great day...

--- --- ---

I bought extra Christmas cards this year. They Have the word Christmas in them. As of this writing I think I've made out seven. That leaves, um, a lot left to do.

--- --- ---

I miss writing. I thought I had it back last week. I think I did, briefly. But then I got lost again. I know it will come back. Until then I'll keep stabbing at whatever words are too slow to escape my focus, and stick them here. And i'll listen to Joni mitchell sing, about blue, and green, and skating away. And i'll find solace in the love of my lover. And turn the F'n television off again.

At least until the NHL comes to its senses.

Mark

addendum: I apologize for the ass-hat remark I made earlier (but not really)

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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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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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Water Moves

Since I gave up hope I feel much better...   ANONYMOUS

 I remember a story from long ago, from a source I no longer recall. The story is one of competitive sailing, on big, fast, ocean-going boats.  It seems that during a regatta the skipper noticed a piece of seaweed clinging to the keel of the boat. These boats are so finely tuned that even a length of kelp could cause a noticeable slowing of the boats pace. A member of the crew was dispatched to remove the kelp with a pike pole, a long pole with a hook on the end. He stabbed furiously at it, trying in vane to dislodge it. The skipper screamed in anger, as his action only further slowed their pace, the stabbing in the water caused more friction than the seaweed itself. Another crew member grabbed the pike, and punched it into the water just forward of the mass, letting the water move it along, catching and freeing the kelp at the pole moved past, swept by only the current. The secret was to let the water go and move with it rather than resist it.

We live in a rural location, with streams and runs crisscrossing our county. Recently P and I were out on one of our beloved day trips, stopping to photograph when inspiration presented itself. It was one of those perfect fall days that is neither warm nor cold, with air so clear and a sky so azure it hurts just to look at it. I found myself perched at the edge of a stream watching the water move past, swirling around some rocks as it moved by. Occasionally a leaf would happen by, carried by the current, and slip past the rocks with a little twist to and fro, and an undulation of acknowledgement of the rock as it meandered along. And then it was gone. And it struck me- if water is the passing of time, the passing of life, then we are either the leaf or the rock. Water moves, and we either give in to it, move with it, and go where it takes us, or stand fast, in defiance of the current and endure its relentless sanction.

When we are rock, our entire existence becomes one of obstruction,  countlessly bombarded by life as it moves around, and past. We cling to our hopes, our dreams, We cling to our problems. The spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle believes we create and maintain problems because they help give us a sense of identity. We define our self by our circumstance. To change the circumstance is to change our identity.

But life for the leaf is relatively calm in comparison.  Granted, leaf life is a state of constant flux with an uncertain future, but from moment to moment the flow is smooth and transitional. If this, then that. For the rock it is one crushing blow after another. The constant friction wears in subtle and unsubtle ways. Until ultimately the rock is worn down, worn out, and worn away. The leaf just gives in. At first blush, giving in looks and feels like giving up. It feels like giving away- of power, of control, of authority. It feels like quitting. But rather, giving in is an exercise of power. Giving in is a conscious release of a false sense of personal identity. Circumstance no longer defines us.

Giving in is letting go. It's the letting go of the frustrations over the things we never did for the acknowledgement of the things we've done. It's the letting go of anger over things we are powerless to change, and the embrace of the power we have. It's the letting go of idle hope and the embrace of action. Giving in is not giving up. It is the first step in moving on, of taking stock of who we are. Now. At this moment. Giving in is the inhale, the in breath. It gives us pause. A pause that refreshes our identity.

Over and over.

Because water moves.

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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PetSmart...

Okay, so yesterday I go in to PetSmart to buy a bag of cat food. No big deal, right? But when I get to the cat food aisle I turn the corner and am immediately stopped by an associate in the middle of training a dog owner. At PetSmart they will train dog owners how to be a dog owner while at the same time convincing them that they're training the dog. Like you have to train a a dog to be a dog.  But anyway the aisles at PetSmart are really long so I couldn't immediately find the food I was looking for.  And every time I moved I either stepped in front of the dog who was assisting in the training of his owner, or was standing between the associate and the owner being trained who were talking to one another from opposite ends of the aisle.

Now normally I wouldn't be put out by any of this but I was sensing this energy from them that was distinctly negative.  I was interfering with the dog owner training and my presence in the cat food aisle was not welcome. I sidled in, mumbling out loud at the inconvenience, barked at the associate when she asked if I needed assistance, stabbed at a bag of food, and took it to the register and checked out, fuming. Now honestly my agitation and confusion might have been compounded by the 5 Hour Energy shot I inexplicably purchased while checking out a few minutes earlier at Wegmans, but bottom line I ended up walking out with the wrong bag of food, and not even just a little wrong, but wrong by a mile. My mind was in a million places, none of them good. It took almost an hour for me to get beyond the whole stupid incident. It really, really got under my skin. But now, in the cool of the evening, things are different, and I'd like to make an apology to those two innocent souls.

I'm sorry I behaved so badly.

I don't know what it is that gets into me. At times I take on such a small-minded, egocentric view of my world. And in that frame of mind  it was easy to understand how these two people at either end of the aisle could create such an unworkable situation. Me- innocent guy trying to locate a simple bag of cat food, them- occupying and dominating an entire aisle of this otherwise sparsely populated store. I know their perspective was much different. Them- having a lovely, fun, and instructive afternoon, me- angry, agitated, and frankly, rude guy acting like someone just parked their car in his living room.

 I completely lost my self to anger. Over cat food.

I don't know where this anger comes from or what purpose it serves. Perhaps it is some sort of alarm, a warning that I'm out of balance, or tired, or hungry. But it seems so deeply rooted, and so quick to show itself. And that's what scares me. The fact that I'm capable of such irrationality. Looking back some hours later I can see that it came in reaction to being - embarrassed- not the word i'm looking for but-  I was caught off guard, I was surprised by walking into the middle of this dog owner training and -panicked. right word. I panicked. I could have so easily said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get in your way, but I need to look for cat food. I'll only be a couple minutes, don't let me interfere." But man did I not do that.  Not even close...

Thomas Merton, always helpful in a pinch, says that anger stems from a loss of connectedness, a separation of spirit, which allows for a polarization of humanity. It makes sense when I look at the way in which I wrote the original scenario, with the focus on the "Me / Them" conflict.  And although I will stop short of questioning Merton's insight into humanity, I have to put forth a different postulation of my own. Having had some time to think this through and develop a reasonable rationalization, I'm hoping that it really wasn't anger at all that I felt. I think I was, for lack of a better word, scared. A situation I was not prepared for presented itself and I acted like an animal does when it finds itself cornered and confused. I made myself as threatening as possible.  Yeah- that's the ticket- it was just animal Mark. But although that may be a reasonably argued explanation for my actions, I won't allow it to be an excuse.

Because I'm better than that.

At least that's what I tell myself . And then I keep proving myself wrong.  But I'm beginning to think that therein lies the point. That life gives us unending opportunity to test and retest our beliefs. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon putting summer to bed- getting outdoor furniture packed into neat arrangements in the garage, getting the lawn mowed one last time, raising the porch swing to its winter position - and throughout it all I kept rewinding that five minutes of my life and doing it over and doing it better.

And eventually I did get it right. And then I put it to bed along with everything else .  It left me with a beautiful little gift to roll around over supper, knowing that I had it within me to do it better next time, and knowing that a next time will come. Because for one thing I still need to return the bag of cat food I did buy and buy the cat food I need. And if I happen upon the associate who was training the dog owner, or the dog owner, I'll have to accept whatever version of the afternoon they remember for good or ill, if they even remember it at all.

And I'll do better this time, and maybe the time after this.

till' next time...

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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Everyone I love is Here...

"What does it mean when you promise someone?  That no matter how hard or whatever may come..."

The Finn Brothers WON'T GIVE IN

We live in a time of great anxiety, a time marked by global financial uncertainty and domestic political polarization. Any middle ground of reason is quickly deteriorating and little commonality of voice is to be found in any topic outside of how poorly the NFL substitute referees performed last month. It has become a great paradox that our technological interconnectedness has done little if anything to strengthen our spiritual connectedness to one another. Our relentless forward thrust for more and better has had the effect of insulating us from the present and dulling our ability, in a abstruse way, to feel. Rather, we move continually onward without a clear destination or purpose other than to keep moving. For many it has created a spiritual dead zone in which they find themselves surrounded by scores of people they barely know, profoundly alone, forsaking any true fellowship, and seeking validation through the quality and number of their possessions.

But let's not worry about that today.

Recently I've reading a lot of, and about, Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk in a Kentucky monastery during the 1950's and 60's. He wrote copiously about living a quiet and contemplative life, and the importance of compassion for and understanding of the needs of others in fulfilling our purpose here on earth. Our capacity to live contemplatively was a gift, said Merton, the outward sign of a spiritual awareness that we are alive, and all that all potential that exists in this world exists within us. Merton maintained that we can not fully express our potential as spiritual beings if what we strive for is to exist alone. That it is only within the umbrella of relationships with others that we are fully alive. Our true self is  not what we perceive, but rather that which is reflected back toward us by others. To Merton, the increasing societal ill he saw was the reflection of an increasing alienation of people from each other at a fundamental spiritual level.

The modern definition of the phrase "Contemplative Living" is an outgrowth of the Merton philosophy. Contemplatives seek a mindful awareness of their actions. They seek a slower, more determined approach to living, a life unfettered by needless distractions and activities.  They actively seek to deepen their understanding of self and their relationships with others. Contemplatives accept that we all are different, that we all are fragile and flawed.  Contemplatives endeavor to live with a genuine appreciation for the successes of others, and act with open compassion when others suffer. Contemplative living is compassionate living. When we live contemplatively, our everyday life becomes our spiritual life. Each and every day we consciously attend to our relationships. The outcome is a deepened awareness of our connectedness to one another and to the earth on which we live.  It demands from us a deeper communion with others. Contemplative living is a powerful catalyst for change that leads us to a sense of increased well-being, gratitude, and a keener respect for life.

For many of us its hard enough just getting along in this world without having to be responsible for everyone else at the same time. Its a busy place out there. There just isn't time to slow down. But therein lies the beautiful subtlety of contemplative life. For it asks not that we slow down, it asks only that we act deliberately, thoughtfully. It asks that we forego the meaningless activities in our lives and focus on the meaningful. For many of us this is a simple matter of prioritizing our days. For others it requires a bit more introspection than we want. For some the contemplating part- the thinking of thoughts, is a scary proposition. Contemplation requires an openness, a simple honesty that sometimes brings to the fore situations and memories that we find too tough to deal with. It also requires a simple acknowledgement that we are not alone in this world- that we have debts owed and debts owed to us. In our society we like to think of ourselves in the singular but more often than not a plural is more appropriate. In truth I find great comfort in knowing that everyone I love is here. It has led me to realize that I need to drop my pretense and be more honest in my dealings with friends. It has also led me to understand that I need to further foster a couple relationships with some old friends that I've let lapse. But mostly it has allowed me to realize how many beautiful people I have in my life and how truly grateful I am that they consider me a friend. And it has freed me to focus on the things that are truly important in my life and drop the meaningless activities that were nothing more than time wasters. Each day becomes a joyous occasion, a chance to celebrate.

I've said previously  that I do not believe in God, which is true. But I believe very strongly in the existence of spirit and the connectedness of all living things. It is my belief in this connectedness that has brought me to this place.  And if that is true, then our relationship with other human beings is the single most important aspect of living there is. I'm convinced that this communion of spirit is what makes us human, what gives purpose to our sentience. For without it we are truly alone in this world. And to be alone on such a big planet, for so long a time seems, well- humanly impossible...

namaste,

mark

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Martin Luther and The 95 Theses

In 1517, Martin Luther, frustrated with Pope Leo X's selling of indulgences for absolution from sin, nailed to the door of the Castle Church his "Disputation on the Power and the Efficacy of Indulgences", which became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. Luther believed that his opinions were right and just. He posted them in public where he was sure they would be read. He wasn't looking for validation of his opinions. For Luther it was a conviction of faith.

I am not in any way comparing myself to Luther, but I understand the significance of his gesture. It is not enough to have strong opinion or incontrovertible conviction. You must also be committed to take action based upon those beliefs, and be equally willing to endure the the repercussions of public expression. And since we've been addressing conviction, here, with all due apologies to Luther conveyed, are a few of my own.

  • God is what you believe God is. I don't believe in God. Or heaven and hell. Or reincarnation. I don't know why we were all put on this earth in this form. Or if we were put here.  I but I do know that what we do while we're here, and how we affect our world around us, is what makes a life.  Accumulation of physical things is a conceit. It accomplishes nothing. That's not to say I don't like nice things or have a favorite pair of shoes, but a ten dollar timex tells time as well as a five thousand dollar Rolex. All physical things return to the dust from whence they sprang. And all energy returns to the cosmos from whence it sprang.  So while I will never see another sunrise once my days on earth have ended and my body turns to dust, I am not afraid. I see God as every bit of energy in the cosmos, from the tumult that births the stars to the imperceptible hum of atoms. It means I am part of something big and glorious. It means my soul or essence can be a sunrise, or be a cool breeze on a warm summer's eve. Or a gentle snowfall. Or something so massively wonderful that my puny human brain could never imagine or comprehend its exisrtance. Over and over, infinitum. And some day some form of 'me' could inhabit some other physical form for all it's days on its planet. That's ok by me.
  • Spirituality can exist outside the realm of religion.  Thirty-five years ago I left the Catholic church. There was no one compelling reason, it just wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean that I don't pray, or don't feel a connection to life greater than my own energy.  I've been a practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, and embrace the four noble truths and eightfold path as right and proper. But I also don't think of myself as particularly religious because Buddhism doesn't center on God, but rather personal responsibility. I also practice yoga, which is distinctly Hindu, but practiced my scores of Buddhists, particularly American Buddhists. And that seems to be simply because yoga reinforces the quality of mindfulness. The long poses and metered breathing keep the mind focused on the present moment and quiet the inner conversations. Yoga teaches discipline and ritual, it enhances mental clarity. And it produces a level of self-acceptance among yogis that takes it outside the realm of exercise.  It creates a sense of spiritual awareness in the same manner as does mindful meditation or prayer. It was yoga that led me to explore Buddhism in the first place. To deepen my spiritual growth. And I think both together have made me a better person, both physically and emotionally.
  • You are what you eat. I've always had a fractious relationship with food. Food used to make me angry. Seriously. Angry. I remember once being at a picnic and having the choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, and Italian sausage. And I was angry because I was going to be forced to make a choice, because eating all three was out of the question. Now, I love Italian sausage, but I really love burgers. And I never overlook an opportunity for a charbroiled dog. I can still remember standing there in front of all this food thinking "its not fair to make me choose." Soon after I went into food rehab. At first I stopped eating wheat products, and it helped some. Then I gave up everything that came in a box, or had an ingredient list. Better still. Now I try to eat only meat, fish, leafy vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally some sweet potato. And gone are the internal food fights, the bloated belly, the monstrous cravings. Gone is the anger over having not eaten something that was there to be eaten. I love food now. And I love shopping for food. There is so much good food in the world, and I love finding something I've never had before. I'm now the type of shopper most grocers hate- produce, meat/fish, eggs, checkout. I'm not an aisle shopper or a coupon clipper. There are no coupons for broccoli. But I buy quality foods, organic when possible, local in season. It really wasn't a difficult switch, and it has made me feel healed.

Maybe its not much, or earth shattering in its disclosure, but Its an honest expression of some things I believe, and I wanted it to be public. I'm not trying to start an argument, or begin a paleo/secular reformation movement. Maybe its enough if it merely starts a conversation. If you feel so inclined, I would love to know what some of your core beliefs are- leave something in the comments box or email me.

 

Thanks / namaste

Mark

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