On Funerals

“Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship”

This may seem to be a gruesome topic for these pandemic days. One of the many impacts of COVID, however, is the extreme limitations placed on funerals. Once COVID has passed, we may need to find creative ways to say goodbye to those who passed during the times when funerals could not held

     I’d grown up with death. I had two sisters, both of whom had died of spina bifida.

They were present in one way or another for most of my life. They taught me a lot. In each of their passings, my parents taught me a lot as well.

      Each parent’s death was a very different experience. From diagnosis of cancer to her death was only three weeks in my mother’s case. My father’s walk, on the other hand was long and slow, marked by strokes and dementia. I lost mother all at once and quickly. I lost my father in inches over a long period of time

     I was 46 at the time my mother died and so had attended more than a few funerals by then. Most of the early funerals were for relatives, to include my maternal grandfather. Many of these early funerals were held at O’Donnell’s Funeral Home in Dunmore. Typically, there would be a day or two for “visitation”. The early funerals at least would have elements of Irish wakes. The women would be seated in the room with the deceased. The men would be in a room in the back which also just happened to have some bottles of whiskey. The women would weep. The men would drink. That was my first learning about dealing with death.

     When I went back home to see my mother at the end, I offered to help my dad set up funeral arrangements. I’d told my mother I was going to go to O’Donnell’s and she said “Oh yes. Talk to Annette.” Families in Dunmore knew one another and indeed when I spoke to Mrs. O’Donnell I reminded her that my Mom was one of the McDonalds from up on Drinker Street. A look came to her face and she said “Gena is your Mom?” She knew her.

     I learned a lot about the politics of funerals. Her son Al was talking me through preparations. On the day of the funeral, he said, he would call names of those present to walk up to the casket and say their farewells. “In what order would you like them to be?” I must have looked puzzled because he said “The order is important. I’ve seen some families get into arguments because someone didn’t like their place!”

     I learned another important lesson during the days of the wake. With one or two exceptions, I don’t remember much of what was said but I remember clearly who was there. In times of grief, I learned, words didn’t matter that much. Presence did. I remember who was there. Friends I hadn’t seen in years. A distant cousin I didn’t know I had. Friends of my parents. It was good to see how much she was loved. As my cousin Linda would later say to me “We all lost your Mom.”

     My mother also taught me another important lesson about dying. By then I’d had one experience of being present at someone’s death. It had been a potent spiritual experience so I went back hoping that I would be present when my Mom let go. But she hung on. One night after I left the hospital I raged at God. “She’s one of yours, Lord Take her!” But then the next evening I was sitting with my Mom and had a flash from, of all things, a Western Titled Ride the High Country. At the end of the film after a gun battle, Joel McCrea is lying on the ground speaking to his friend Randolph Scott. The two young people who were also there start walking to them. Joel McRae asks Randolph Scott to wave them off, saying “I’ll go it alone.” So said to my Mom, “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” She said quietly “Yes.”

     I realized then that she was the one doing the dying and therefore she was the one who got to set the terms, which is what she did. She died three days after Christmas shortly after a visit from my Dad. She was alone.

     My Dad’s leave-taking extended over 6 years. It began with a stroke 6 months before my mother died and ended in El Paso TX one week after he had fallen. He had moved to El Paso 3 years before and, for a time, lived comfortably at a nearby assisted living facility. Dementia began to set in, however, to the point that he was asked to leave that facility. My Dad for years had feared ending up in a nursing home. Fortunately, another assisted living facility was willing to take him. Wirth some adjustments in medication, his agitation left him and he was content. He had only two requests – that I not let him linger and that he be buried next to my Mom.

     That request not to linger would teach me an important lesson. When he fell, he’d suffered a hematoma which was causing pressure in his head and, untreated, would kill him. A neurologist contacted me to explain treatment options. He described relieving the pressure by boring a hole in my Dad’s head. I hesitated and, in a move uncommon for physician’s he asked “What kind of quality of life has your Dad had?” I said simply “None. He’s lost his past.” The doctor hesitated then said “Well if it were my father, I’d let him go.” To this day, I greatly appreciate that doctor sharing from his heart. So that’s what we did. Nothing.

     It’s the kind of decision I don’t wish on anyone yet we all need a person in our lives willing to make that call for us. I am grateful that my dad trusted me with that decision. His regular doctor, also a very kind and compassionate man, kept him comfortable as we waited. Thankfully it didn’t take long.

     I’d made preparations with (again!) the O’Donnell’s. From long distance it was easier. I asked Tom if he still had records from my mother’s funeral. He did and so I said ‘Please do the same for my Dad.”

     It was a smaller funeral in part because, as my Dad would say, “All my friends are dead!” which was only partially true. In any case, he’s back there in Pennsylvania, next to my mother.    

Funerals are for the living. It is a ritual that exists in many forms but in part for the purpose of helping us acknowledge the cycle of life and death.

As Robert Anderson writes at the beginning and end of his play I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship.” Funerals help us take that relationship to the next stage.

Reflection: 1. How have funerals impacted your spiritual journey?

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Spiritual Mentors: Vincent Van Gogh

File:Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait - Google Art Project (454045).jpg

In the early 1970s, I purchased a record album by singer Don McLean, mainly for the song “American Pie”. However, there also was a song titled “Vincent” which was my introduction to artist Vincent Van Gogh. Thus began a journey which most recently included a book titled “Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art” by Carol Berry.

As I came to know Vincent and his prolific works of art, I found myself somehow intrigued by him. What drove Vincent? What did he see that he articulated so profoundly? Through Berry’s book, I came to see that part of what has drawn me to Vincent was fundamentally spiritual. He saw something. In the wheat fields. In a sunflower. In impoverished workers around a dinner table. And when he looked up he saw something profound in a starry night. Vincent himself told us what that something was when he wrote “At night when the sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars.”

I have long believed that art can be a gateway to spiritual experience. At the very least, we can have the experience of awe or wonder when in the presence of a painting, a poem, a symphony. Van Gogh appears to have had a strong sense of that reality and manifested it through his paintings.

Vincent grew up in a religious home with a minister father. Although the God of his understanding may have changed over time (as it should for all of us), he never strayed from a belief in God and a strong sense of God’s presence in the world, whether in the worn face of a coal miner or the gentle beauty of a sunflower’

Vincent tried to become a minister but, when that didn’t happen, he became a missionary in an area of south Belgium known as the Borinage. There he lived in solidarity with the miners he tried to help. During this trying time, Vincent also began to draw. This opened the door that eventually led him to articulate spiritual truths where words failed. He committed to try to make God’s presence visible. He tried to articulate mystical truth.

Vincent’s paintings aren’t simply recreations. In them he tried to articulate the divine power of color. He tried to express a divine energy that permeates everything. Eventually he even suggested that God might be better manifested in a wheat field than in the Bible.

Vincent battled depression and despair but consistently found hope in his painting. As he took up palette and brush, was he not in some way praying a prayer of wonder? The wise doctor who treated him in the asylum at Saint-Remy recognized this when he made an extra room available to Vincent for his paints, essentially providing Vincent with a studio within the asylum

Other books I have read have focused on trying to unravel Vincent’s psyche. If one focuses on trying to diagnose Vincent, something quite important is missed — the consistent spiritual foundation not only of his work but of his life.

And, no, I don’t believe Vincent killed himself. I believe, as recent research suggests, that he was shot by some village yahoos. Vincent, after all, was not finished painting.

Perhaps more than any other artist (to include poets, playwrights, composers, etc.), Vincent speaks to me of the divinity that surrounds us if we only take the time to look.

Reflection: Have any artists (painters, composers, playwrights, authors, etc.) enriched your spiritual journey?

Here is Don McLean’s song with lyrics as well as some of Vincent’s work. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxHnRfhDmrk

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On Planks and Motes

Once again our country is torn apart by the actions of a racist. Once again pent-up rage is unleashed and images of stores and fire and of looting fill the news screen. Our country appears more polarized than ever as we approach an election. This amidst a pandemic.

Most so-called common citizens can feel quite overwhelmed and it becomes tempting to lapse into a certain detachment that can arise out of a sense of powerlessness.

Violence is never acceptable as a solution but anger has its place as do demonstrations. Individually one’s voice doesn’t amount to much but collectively we can make a difference.

Here is a clip from the great film Network in which a deranged news caster challenges us to “get mad”:

We all need to have a part within that can say on our behalf “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” We need to be able to say this on behalf of ourselves as well as our brothers and sisters.

But that’s only half the task. We need to balance this righteous anger. We need to face the planks in our own eyes. We have seen and are seeing the results of leaders who point fingers yet do not keep their inner houses in order. Televangelists who warn us of the fires of hell but then spend an evening with a prostitute. Law enforcement professionals who become so enamored of power that they can’t even recognize when that power becomes abusive. Politicians who selectively quote from the Bible while ignoring most of that Book, using the Bible to justify decidedly un-Biblical policies.

We are no different if we do not also look within and uncover and heal that which festers inside. I am in danger of being part of the divisiveness if I do not acknowledge the racist within me, the abuser of power within, the looter. These Shadow elements are never easy to face but, unless we heal them, we become part of the problem.

Many of the spiritual mentors I value have tried to point us in that direction. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who courageously confronted the evil of Nazism, also said “All change must begin with me myself.” Thomas Merton wrote “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.” Jesus said “First get rid of the plank in your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the mote if your friend’s eye.” And then there is the poem “Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Naht Hahn. This excerpt speaks to the challenge:

“I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.”

The easiest spiritual path is either to not care or to point fingers. The real challenge is to courageously speak out against injustice, be it police violence, rampant looting, border fences, political corruption, ecclesiastic dishonesty while at the same time also pointing my finger within to uncover that within me which, like my beloved country, is in need of healing.

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A Novel Approach to Spirituality

Yesterday I was watching a feature about someone’s opinion on great novels. I have mentioned elsewhere that my own spiritual journey has been enriched by art. Here then are 5 novels that have graced my journey. Where possible I’ve included a film clip from a movie based on that novel

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is the only novel which, upon finishing it, I immediately turned back to page 1 and read it again. It gave me a role model for parenting as well as a good example of the Shadow in the memorable character of Boo Radley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRmIef02Ajk

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This story of the Depression is also a story about courage in the face of unimaginable hardship, a theme relevant to these days of unemployment and forced relocation. Ma Joad is perhaps one of the greatest female figures in fiction. Here she is teaching a lesson relevant today https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPNBynJ11kY

3. Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. A gentle story about the agony of adolescence and the aching desire to belong. Through the powerful characater of Bernice, we also touch on the pain of loving and losing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elIgGbx4j3U

4. Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos This deeply spiritual book shares the efforts of a simple priest as he balances ministry with his own spiritual struggles as he faces illness. In this brief excerpt from the film, he faces the cynicism of an older priest as he seeks guidance for his ministry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elIgGbx4j3U

5. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien Yes, I know this is actually 3 books but it is one story with strong themes of temptation, redemption, and spiritual quest as well as a strong image of resurrection. In this scene Frodo struggles with that which we all face spiritually — having to take the difficult path. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RemBy5yeW8g

There are other great novels that have enriched and challenged me. These 5 and those others remind me that God speaks in many ways and that art is one of the most powerful manifestations of His/Her voice.

Reflection; Are there any novels that have enriched your journey?

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The Silent Sisterhood

I love Mothers’ Day. I love celebrating the wonderful mothers in my life. I know personally that Mothers’ Day is hard on those of us whose mothers are gone. There’s an edge of grief with the realization that I will not be able to dial her number and wish her a joyful “Happy Mothers’ Day!” But I have become aware that Mothers’ Day is also hard on another group of people — the women who have lost a child, whether to accident, illness, violence, or miscarriage.

I’ve been doing my work a long time and it has become clear to me that there is nothing worse than losing a child. My mother lost two children. It was only later in life that she began to talk about that loss but I had known all along that she carried those two girls in her heart and thought of them often. Thus, it was with joy that she said on her deathbed “I’m going to see my girls.”

I’ve learned from many other women I’ve known that the loss of a child becomes a silent pain. Not often talked about or even acknowledged yet always there. The loss of a child is such a terrible tragedy that indeed many do not want to hear about it and most don’t know what to say and so the women suffering the loss gradually don’t talk about it.

A friend lost her daughter to cancer at age 23 and, while she had much support at the time of the death, as the years past others moved on but her pain did not go away. She said one day “I am part of a silent sisterhood.” She referred to herself and the many, many women who silently bore the loss of a child every day.

Other women have taught me that the lost child lives on in possibilities unmet such as “He would have turned 35 today” or “She never had the chance to have a child of her own” or “He was smart and funny. I wonder what he would have done with those gifts.” (These are all things that have been said to me by members of that Silent Sisterhood.)

I know how inadequate words are for such a tragedy. But for those who know members of the Silent Sisterhood, give them the gift of listening. So, knowing first-hand the inadequacy of words,  to the members of the Silent Sisterhood who might read this, I share this story.

The night my mother died and in the spirit of some Algonquian beliefs, I went into my back yard to find my mother’s star. I looked for a while but then I saw it! There was a bright star with two smaller stars to each side. I knew then that my mother was with my sisters and that she was happy.

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On Being an Introvert in the Time of COVID-19

If You're An Introvert, These 17 Tweets Will Speak Your Mind ...

When this madness all started, I saw the above quote and, given that I am a self-declared militant introvert, it made me smile. I’ve seen similar quotes about social distancing.

First of all, let’s be clear. Introversion is not being antisocial. It has to do with energy. I deal with people every day. While that is often rewarding, it can also be exhausting. My wife on the other hand is a dedicated extrovert and so is energized by social contact.

There is no doubt that these days are much harder on extroverts. The need for contact and interaction is not readily met and so extroverts are vulnerable to depression and frustration. Many are being creative in how they maintain contact with others. This may be something good that comes from all this — that technology and creativity can enrich the ways we can connect with one another.

But what of we introverts? Are we secretly cheering when the requirements of quarentine and social distancing are extended into the summer? In my own case, no I don’t cheer. While I am not outgoing, I miss the cancelled opportunities to connect with family and lunch with a handful of friends.

So what can I as an introvert learn from all this? I am reminded first of all that I am not anti-social, that I value human contact. I can challenge myself to do more of what comes easily to an extrovert — reaching out and connecting or re-connecting.

I can be more sensitive to the needs of the extroverts in my life and can take the time to listen and to share. I can challenge myself to take the time to thank the grocery clerk or the mailman or the many other service providers.

I can also draw on my introversion to reflect on some important themes. These days I have become aware of much that I have taken for granted including those who provide me with a service. I miss baseball. I miss bookstores. I am more appreciative of food stuffs (especially eggs!) I like to think that perhaps I will be able to carry that awareness forward.

Spiritually I am challenged to reflect on Fear. As I judge the man leaving the grocery store with four bags of flour, I need to remember that I too panicked when the store was out of eggs. I too can get caught up in catastrophizing and borrowing trouble from tomorrow. I am challenged to live what I claim to believe, especially the Serenity Prayer. Ultimately I need to recall that, if he were alive, Viktor Frankly would be challenging us to find personal meaning in the COVID-19 crisis. He would remind us that we always have a choice as to how we face things that life throws at us. Thus, I can productively ask myself “How do I want to face this crisis?”

REFLECTION: How do you want to face this crisis?

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Baseball Memories

 

Stephen Carroll's Dudley Field aka The Dudley Dome - El Paso Texas ...

 

I have nothing profound to say about COVID-19. Others more articulate than I are speaking to fear, the power of prayer, cooperation and so on. Others are noting people pulling knives on one another over toilet paper.

But I miss baseball. The start of each season always spoke to me of hope, especially for a year after my Redsox stumbled and may have been caught cheating. Most of the sports channels are replaying great games from the past. Such memories can sustain us as we await the season that may not happen.

  1. Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning home run in 1960. I hated the Yankees. Still do. And so to see the underdog Pirates upset them, winning game 7 on a dramatic homerun stands out as my greatest baseball memory.
  2. Having admitted my hatred of the Yankees, the second memory involves a Yankee. In 1961, I traveled to New York to see the Yankees play Cleveland, mainly so that I could see my boyhood hero Jimmy Piersall play. But I also noted that Yankee Roger Maris was closing in on Babe Ruth’s homerun record. And indeed that day I saw Roger hit #56 on his way to 61 (which I also saw on TV).
  3. Having seen Field of Dreams I had placed seeing a game at Fenway Park on my bucket list. My brother-in-law George actually managed to secure tickets to a September game against the Yankees! What an evening! Rogers Clemens pitched (years before he too got caught up in scandal). But George pointed out to me that this evening third baseman Wade Boggs had a chance to break Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive seasons with 200+ hits. But he’d need 4 to do that. Amazingly he got a hit the first three times he batted. When he came up a fourth time, everyone knew what was at stake. Wade hit a line drive that glanced off the top of the center fielder’s glove and ended up at second base. The crowd waited to see the score keeper’s call and erupted into a great ovation when the green Hit light lit up.
  4. The Steal. That night in 2004 I thought “Skunked again by the Damn Yankees as they were up 3 games to 0 in the AL playoffs. I almost went to bed after the eighth inning but decided to be loyal. In the bottom of the ninth, Dave Roberts stole second, the Redsox tied the game, went on to win 4 in a row and then won the Series.

There are others. But I also have to add that perhaps my warmest baseball memories are right here in El Paso. The ballpark was Dudley Field, an intimate park where many future stars passed through playing for the Double A Diablos. I spent many a pleasant summer night there with friends and, most especially, my kids. The announcer Paul Strelzin added a particular flavor to proceedings by encouraging fans to wave a tissue at an opposing pitcher leaving the game. He would intone “The bases are FOD. Full of Diablos” as he would also play the great song “We Will Rock You” with fans pounding on their seats. Somehow those games capture most for me the joy of baseball. Memories of the Dudley Dome will have to sustain me until we hear a cry of “Play ball!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from COVID-19

“If you can keep your head/when all about you/Are losing their/and blaming it on you”. So wrote Rudyard Kipling with words that apply today.

We have much to learn from COVID-19 politically and medically. But we have much to learn at a personal level as well. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. One of my greatest spiritual challenges involves fear. As I have been taught, I’m reminded daily to “let go and let God” yet my doubts and fears crowd in. It stirs up my long-standing struggle with the “why” question. Why do some recover and others not? Why does a loving God even permit such a thing as COVID-19 and, if it is not God’s doing, then is God completely out of the loop, as Annie Dillard wonders. And yet I still find comfort as Jesus walks across the water toward me and gently says “Don’t be afraid.”
  2. I like to believe that, thanks in part to recovery, I’ve made progress with my control issues. The daily sense of powerlessness we all face confronts me with the reality that I still have much work to do. In that spirit, I am reminded of guidance from Viktor Frankl. I may not have a choice over the reality of COVID-19 but I do have a choice as to how I face it.
  3. I am reminded again of how much I take for granted. Daily comforts and conveniences are suddenly not readily available. And, yes, that includes taking toilet paper for granted.
  4. I have known for some time the value of a spiritual discipline. Daily prayer to include a prayer of gratitude now seems more important than ever.

 

Some 30 years ago I caught a viral infection that triggered asthma and almost killed me. Am I afraid? In part because of what happened 30 years ago, you bet I’m afraid! And so, doubts and all, I turn to the words of a favorite hymn: “Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me and I will give you rest.”

REFLECTION: What lessons, spiritual and otherwise, are you learning during the COVID-9 crisis?

Here is a version of the hymn mentioned above:

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Lessons Learned at Camp Courageous

 

 

“The world is wide and beautiful. But almost everywhere,

everywhere, the children are dying.”

(Edward Abbey)

 

 

In the summer of 1991, my oldest son and I began attending a place called Camp Courageous. It is a camp where, for one week, he and I served as counselors. Not psychotherapy counselors but softball-playing, bracelet-making counselors. The children who attend are like any group of kids — energetic, testing limits, frustrating. However, there was one word which binds these children together. That word is cancer. Each of these children was waging a battle against cancer or, in a few cases, had won the battle or at least been given a reprieve.

Each year I attended, I was assigned as a counselor to the teenage group. This allowed me the luxury of getting up earlier and running. For the teenagers, thankfully, tended to greet morning with great reluctance, wanting instead to sink deeper into their sleeping bags (especially after having been up half the night.)

My run took me about five miles round trip, the midway point being a lake where the children might go fishing during the week. One of the small joys of my four summers at this camp was the memory that, for each of the last two summers, some of the boys in my group would actually get up a time or two to run with me. (In that regard, I’ll share one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. While running with one of the boys, he turned to me and said with utter innocence “Say, you’re in pretty good shape for an old guy.”)

The children we met over the course of four summers were both remarkable and typical. The teenagers, for instance, were just as adept at power struggles as any I’ve met. The little children (with whom my son usually works) could be annoying and demanding with the best of them. By the same token, these children had a profound insight or perspective. At times, simply hearing them talk about their battles rendered one speechless. My son recalls coming upon four of his charges, all under seven years old and listening to them compare stories about their experiences with portable catheters.

There is something within most of us that screams a resounding “NO” to the idea of children contracting cancer. We may be horrified by the inhumanity that we inflict upon one another but most often when we hear stories of atrocities we sigh. But when we hear of a child diagnosed with cancer, we feel the rumble of a protest within. Such things are not supposed to happen to children, we think. At whom are we raging? Are we not arguing with God? Absolutely! Many of my early morning runs at Camp Courageous were taken up with angry words directed at God. Especially when I had learned that another child known from previous years had died. Such harsh realities stood in sharp contrast to the magnificent forest and technicolor sunrises that surrounded my run.

And so it goes. I am always reminded of the Tao, of the tension of opposites. Bald heads and missing limbs against a backdrop of pine trees and flowers. This seems to be the world we’ve been handed. Even within nature, we encounter these poles. As I wax poetic about the forest, Annie Dillard’s horrifying story about the death of a frog comes back to me. Here is her description of how a water beetle kills a frog:

 

“(The water beetle’s) grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward.

It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with

enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite

it ever takes. Through the puncture shoots the poison that dissolves

the victim’s muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and

through it the giant water beetle sucks out its victim’s body, reduced to

a juice.”

That passage rivals the greatest horror-writing I can think of .

In contemplating the giant water beetle, I am inclined to view it as the villain and to define what it does to the poor frog as evil. But it is me that imposes a moral judgment here. The water beetle is just being a water beetle. Cancer, too, is simply cancer. It is neither a test nor a punishment, even when the sufferer is a child.

Nature after all is amoral. Thus, those who sadistically argue that a disease is invoked as a punishment, whether the disease is AIDS or cancer or anything else, are only imposing an ugly morality on amoral nature.

The amorality of nature, of course, does not ease our outrage. Are not the rules of nature set up by God? Many of these children, especially the younger ones, seemed to waste little time on such theological reflections, focusing instead on having a good time. Some of the older ones, however, would occasionally give a glimpse of their inner battles. One summer I sat with a young woman who spoke with anguish of how she could no longer dance and of how friends seemed to drift away. She spoke, too, in such a way that I knew she was preparing herself to die. And yet, poet that she was, she spoke of how, when she did die, she would live on by becoming a part of the trees and the wind and so would continue to be a part of the other children whom she’d grown to love so much. Such wisdom from a sixteen year old!

These experiences tend to deepen my outrage with God. Yet I also know that these children taught me clearly that time is indeed of the essence. I have often taken time for granted, assuming that I have lots of it left . I put off saying something or trying to heal a relationship. I allow the passage of time to cause friendships to wither. Were it not for these children, I might still not fully notice how foolish I am when I continue to presume upon time. Certainly adult cancer victims I’ve known have helped me also to appreciate time. But it was these young ones who challenged my assumptions that I will live for many more years. Suppose we all were given the same number of years, let’s say seventy. In other words, we all knew that we’d live until age 70, then die on our seventieth birthday. How might that effect the manner in which I live? Well, in my own case, I believe I would spend roughly sixty years in self-indulgent activity and then begin to worry about my immortal soul for the last ten years. I would quickly become very religious. These young children remind me of the absurdity of that scenario. They are the teachers of the 90th Psalm: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”

And then there was John. One day, I walked out onto the lodge porch to find John standing next to a hummingbird feeder, his arm stretched out with his index finger poised by the feeder mouth. When I asked him what he was doing, without moving or looking at me, he said “If you hold your finger out and wait long enough, a hummingbird might land on it.” A chill went up my spine. A few moments later, John lowered his arm and rubbed it, looking at me and commenting “Chemo.” While he rested, I attempted to take a picture of a hummingbird at the feeder. But each time, I lifted the camera to my eye, the hummingbird would dart away. John silently observed, then said “Hold the camera to your eye and wait.” I looked at him and thought to myself  “Am I in the presence of a Zen Master?” I followed his guidance and indeed captured a hummingbird on film. One year later, I returned to camp eager to show John the picture. At the meeting place, I learned that 16 year old John had died two months previous.

The Algonquian tribes had a tradition. On the evening of the death of a loved one, the family would go outside, look up into the sky and select a star to stand as the campfire of their loved one, lit brightly so that he or she could be found when the others would follow.

Each summer after John died, I had the same experience during one of my morning runs, most often on the last one for the year. As I ran, I noticed in the sky a last bright star still visible as sunrise took over the sky. I know that some would say that what I saw was the morning planet. But I know the truth. There is no doubt. It was John’s campfire.

 

 

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The Desert: Going Out is Really Going In

El Paso Texas desert, what the ground looks like- can butt up to mountain range. Fort Carson Co, Come And Take It, Sun City, West Texas, Road Trip, Le Far West, Mother Earth, Places Ive Been, National Parks

 

The Desert: Going Out is Really Going In

“The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wander

for forty years. It is a way of being”
(Lawrence Kushner)

    When I first took up running, the desert was one block from our home and afforded a wonderful myriad of trails, twists, and turns.

What strikes most Easterners first about the Southwest desert is the absence of green. There are no trees, no grass. The color that stands out is brown. That is, until one comes to know the desert a little better. Then the desert takes on a certain quiet beauty uniquely its own. Others may talk of the beauty of the desert in bloom, truly spectacular. I am thinking, however, of the desert in all its brownness and barrenness. This stark facet to the desert’s personality has a certain dignified beauty about it.

Sadly, what could also be found in the nearby desert was a significant amount of trash. Not just your usual bits of plastic and aluminum. Within minutes of our house could be found sofas, mattresses, tires, mufflers, and a vast assortment of discarded building materials. It seems that people may treat the desert with the same reckless disregard as we treat the air and ocean. It is so big. What difference will a little trash make? Sadly, when hundreds take the same attitude, it makes quite a difference.

Towards the end of the film Forrest Gump, Forrest tells his wife of all the places he has run. He mentions with special fondness running in the desert at sunrise. That scene was moving for me because I understood. To see shadowy shrubs and ghostly mounds of sand gradually become illuminated with pink and orange, to smell early morning desert dampness, to spot a dashing road runner or jack rabbit — this is the stuff of wonder. At times, too, even in the arid Southwest, the desert blossoms. Cacti of many varieties as well as shrubs unknown on the East coast take on delicate short-lived blossoms. I treasured my runs through the desert, even in the midst of wind storms where the sand stings or in the midst of heat where suddenly one understands the thirst which the desert evokes.

But civilization has pushed the desert further and further from my home. The desert now begins several miles from my home. Where the desert began there are now churches, schools, a mall, stop-and-shop gas stations, a Pizza Hut and numerous other “cultural achievements”. We no longer have our house and cars regularly sand-blasted. Lizards are rare. Tumbleweeds are now crushed by car tires long before reaching our street. As I run through streets in the area, I can still spot the sunrise but not with the uninhibited vista of several years ago. Something within my spirit has gotten lost in the process.

To connect spirituality with nature is not a new thought. From Emerson and Thoreau to Dillard and Eiseley, we have had prophets who have pointed us back to nature to find a glimpse of God. The spiritual call of nature enjoyed a resurgence of sorts during the eighties thanks in part to the New Age movement. But the New Age movement tended to ignore the dark side of our relationship with nature. There is a tendency to attend to the benefits without also looking within to discern our own sinfulness in our relationship with nature.

We all have within our own dark side a desire to dominate, to control. This shadowy power can be felt as we chop down trees or chase animals. It is in evidence if we carelessly flip a match or cigarette butt into dry underbrush. It is apparent when we dump trash in the desert.

Our shadowy treatment of the desert is especially sad since it is such a potent spiritual place. Many of the great spiritual struggles of the Bible occur in the desert such that the desert is often invoked as an image for a time of spiritual wandering. When we wander in the desert spiritually, we may feel lost, we may even be lost. But we wander with a certain element of hope that eventually we will find our way out. And when we do, we may be surprised to find ourselves changed or at least ready to change. Terry Tempest Williams expresses this thought most clearly: ” . . .every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.”

Once I went on a solitary run into the desert and got lost! I took a turn that I thought would cycle back toward my house. But direction in the desert is deceiving and I realized at one point that I was moving further away from the water tower in the distance rather than closer. What started out to be a four mile run turned into nine miles and extended into the later part of the morning and, therefore, midday heat. I have to admit that, as I tried to find my way back to civilization, I was inundated with all sorts of images from movies and cartoons of French Foreign Legionnaires crawling through the sand dying of thirst. Fortunately, I did get out of the desert although, sunburned and dehydrated.

Metaphorically, this particular run stands as a warning regarding the spiritual journey. One should not run blindly into the realm of spiritual experience and particularly the realm of doubt. We need to approach the spiritual dimension respectfully and with full awareness that, if we take that realm for granted, we can be consumed by it. Yet at the same time, a vibrant spiritual life is not meant to be always comfortable. There are moments of doubt, moments of darkness, times of feeling lost. The spiritual experience of the desert, pursued respectfully, is a key element. Perhaps my foolish desert run was preferable to settling for the known and comfortable. I like to think so. I have run in the desert since then. I am just a little more careful.

 

My fellow human beings appear to be continuing with their invasion of the desert, pushing it further and further East. In the same way, we continue to push forest and wildernesses further and further away. This disrespect and corruption of power is bound to backfire much as my foolish desert run did. And in that corrupting, something profound will be lost.

One morning my run took me along a street where the desert used to be. It is now paved and lined with warehouses. But in the shadows I saw a jackrabbit! Perhaps the jackrabbit and his desert are waiting, waiting until we curious creatures self-destruct and return the desert to its natives. It may yet be time enough to learn to share what is left of the desert with those who already live there and to simply be grateful when those creatures allow us in as we seek the Spirit.

Williams, Terry Tempest Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Places Vintage Books: New York, 1991, p. 148.

 

 

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