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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.


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.


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.


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





All Saints Day

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


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!




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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.


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You Can't Always Want What You Get

"The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."

My parents are both well into their eighties. But its only been in the last four years that they've begun to lose the  momentum of living. In 2009 they made their last cross country road trip. Two years ago my dad began planning his day so he only had to make right hand turns when they ventured out around town. A year ago he stopped driving all together. In this last year their aging has started to accelerate along a geriatric Moore's Law. My dad is falling. My mom is fading. Literally. She's tough as a bear but you can almost see through her when the light is strong. My mom's big concern is that they can't leave the house whenever they want, but have to wait for the days when their health care aide is there. But they make do. Its not the life they had, but its the life they have now.

My wife's parents are going through similar changes. We live close to them, within a mile actually, and in the last two years we've become their de facto caretakers. We wouldn't have asked for this, but its what we've been given. I'm not saying its bad, because honestly its not so bad. Its hard for Paula to be reminded on an almost daily basis of the changes in her parents, and between shopping trips and doctor and hospital visits it has spoken for a lot of our free time of late. But in other ways its been a gratifying and enriching experience for both of us. But, again, it wasn't a choice. It just is what it is. The underlying elements I want to pull from the stories are that we have no real control over what happens to us in our lives, and that we live in an active push/pull relationship with life. Life acts, we react. Finally, I understand the central truth of Buddhist belief.

  • Rule #1: Shit Happens

Buddhist's have a kinder phraseology for this first Noble Truth, that 'suffering exists,' but the sentiment is the same. At face value the idea that living means suffering is a bit of a downer, and it is really antithetical to Buddhism itself. I'd like to offer an alternate definition of that truth to use. It follows as; "challenges exist." And it is our acceptance of, and response to these challenges, both short-term and long, that determines whether or not suffering exists in our lives.

  • Rule #2: You Can't Always Get What You Want

Its a simple matter of living. There is always more to want if wanting is what you do. I remember just a couple years ago seeing a pair of boots in my latest GQ magazine. Up to that point my life was pretty perfect, but in an instant everything changed. Suddenly my life was incomplete, and not only that, I had the realization that it had always been incomplete, and would continue to be so until I owned those boots. I was devastated. It took until the next month's issue and the ad for the orange watch for me to get over it. But when I was over it, it was over for good. Its the second Noble Truth; "attachment creates suffering."

  • Rule #3: Learn to Let Go

The third Noble Truth states that "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." It reinforces this idea that between stimulus and response lies choice. Choice is our one true power. It is our single wieldable weapon in the struggle between living a life of suffering or a life liberated from suffering.

Our modern first-world view conflicts with this concept, as it allows that we alone determine the circumstances of our life. But its a narrow and ego-centric view, and at odds with the basic principles of nature. For as much as we believe that we can control what occurs around us, the simple truth is that we can only control what lies within us. Cause and effect aside though, the result is the same, as we still maintain ultimate responsibility for any measure of our satisfaction with our life.

I suppose at some time then we need to measurably define the meaning of suffering. My parents, for all the limits their circumstance has put on them, do not suffer, nor do my wife and I from ours. Perhaps it is because societally we put so much emphasis on getting what we want that have such a difficult time with simply accepting what we have. As a society we've set the bar pretty low as to what constitutes suffering. We focus on the accumulation of of things as the purpose of living. We define any want/need as equal in importance and urgency. But true suffering is more than the mere endurance of an unpleasantness or the desire for things we do not own. Suffering is the experience of a genuine life quality change. When we begin to feel physically or spiritually diminished by our condition, or feel helpless to change our circumstance, at this point we can say that suffering is taking place. And acceptance or acknowledgement of the cause of suffering is the key to ending suffering. Acceptance is not the same as giving up, its giving over. And only then can you harness the power that lies within you.

  • Rule #4: Walk the Line

So how do we end suffering? In short, we don't. (see rule #1) Our mission therefore, should we choose to accept it, is to endeavor to minimize suffering; for ourselves, and when possible, for others. Yeah, but how? Currently we leave most of the heavy lifting for the pharmaceutical industry and our friends at Grey Goose, but there is another option. Buddhists call it the eightfold path or the middle way. Redefined, it simply means first accepting the existence of a circumstance, and then crafting a balanced response to it. Its not a "when life gives you lemons..." approach, because sometimes life can hand you a bucket of nails instead. It comes from exercising our one true power; choice, and empowering ourselves to make change. Once you acknowledge the existence of a circumstance, you have the power to control your interaction with it. Denying it merely prolongs our suffering, and enables us to disguise it as something else.

And when it comes to healing, a balanced approach is always the best. Extreme measures rarely work.  The Buddhist parable is the story of the music teacher. He tells his student that when stringing a sitar, "If you stretch the string too tight it will break, and if there is too much slack it won't play". "You must find the middle to make the music." Its a delightful and magical solution to life. Measure your response, look for the good, let go, and make music.

peace and love,