Sunday, April 2, 2017

We Now Interrupt Your Regular Programming for KIDS!

I had a whole big post planned today on things I've been reading -  about New Monasticism and social activism and Zen and spiritual energy.  I had quotes picked out, and videos.  I sat down to type, and then, kids happened.

Eleanor wants to go outside.  It is a beautiful, sunny day and she would like to ride her bike, or poke sticks in puddles of water.  Mabel wants to read and be on her iPod.  Eleanor said that was not fun.  Mabel said Eleanor was being annoying.  So, Eleanor stole all the throws and blankets from the girls' bedroom so Mabel would get chilly and could not be comfortable.  Then she hid all the chargers so that Mabel couldn't charge up her iPod, which was on a low battery.  Mabel said she hated Eleanor.  Eleanor cried and came to me demanding that I fix it, while there I was, at the computer, having typed in a blog title that referenced a Jesuit method of decision making through prayer.

Of course being the sage, wise, calm father I am, I handled the situation in a patient, loving way, right?  Nope.  I yelled for Mabel to come downstairs and threatened and guilted her into going outside.  Then I saw the pile of blankets and the barricade Eleanor had created in the spare room to stop Mabel from stealing the loot from her dragon hoard.  I yelled and fussed and got mad and pointed and threatened and lectured.  They had ruined a peaceful afternoon, I told them, they always have to fight when I'm trying to do something. Both the girls got quiet and hurried to clean everything up and escape out of the house. 

While they were outside for five minutes, because that was how long for Mabel to decide that it was "not fun", I sat down and examined what had just gone on.  My adrenaline was pumping, I had fussed myself into a sweat, and I could just imagine the scowl on my face from an afternoon gone bad.  Why did they always do this, I wondered, just when I'm trying to do something I want to do.

Then I realized - they weren't the problem, I was.

I was not mad at the girls, I was annoyed that they were not letting me do what I wanted to do.  I had everything all planned out, set a schedule, a long productive list of enjoyable work, and they had not only interrupted me, but put me in a bad mood to boot.  Basically, I was telling them that what they wanted me to do was "not fun".

This happens a lot with us parents when we try to take a break from being care-giver, mediator, and entertainer for a few minutes.  We have "important" things to do.  Being a parent is hard, tiring work and we never get a chance for ourselves, we tell ourselves.

But what if I had included myself into what they wanted to do?  What if instead of trying to stick to my schedule that seemed so important to me, I had gone outside to play with Eleanor, or to talk to Mabel and check on what she was looking at on her iPod?  What if I had decided that what they were doing would also be "fun" for me.  What did I miss out on by not spending time with them, all in the name of having time for myself, and even worse, in a "spiritual" discipline?  

In a spiritual and compassionate sense, that is what serving others, including kids, is about, and I realized that I fell way short.  Sticking to my own wants and schedule when others are yelling for my attention, help, or kindness is a - sorry judgmental word coming up - selfish way to be.  And "be" is the right word, an active form of "be"-ing, not just in a Zen-like awareness.   

As a grown up, I get stuck in that feeling that I always need to "do" for others in a way that seems "productive" - service project-type things: doing house repair for the elderly, or feeding the homeless in a soup kitchen, or sorting clothes to give out to underprivileged kids.  The more common "do"-ing, if I stop and think about it, is more in the middle of "do"-ing and "be"-ing, an active form of awareness, what we mean when we say we're "being" there for someone.  The times where we are showing love and kindness by spending time with a kid who wants to go outside and play with sticks, or listening to someone's worry about a friend who seems stuck in a bad place professionally and spiritually because of harm done to him by someone in church, or sitting by your grandfather while he eats applesauce and drinks Ensure after his most recent chemotherapy session.

At least that's the lesson I learned today.  Maybe those interruptions are God's way of telling me to get my head on straight, to be kind and attentive.  It's a better way of thinking about it, anyway, than that my kids are spoiled, or just like to fuss, or other things I tell them when I'm stuck in my way of doing.  If I can only remember to keep this up.

So, I better go - the girls finished their ice cream and the Power Puff Girls episode just ended.  And you know how whiny they get.  

Dang, forgot already.

Old picture of the girls when they didn't fight as much.
Those were the days!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Briefs

Catching up on my reading from this year - here's what I've read so far:

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

This book has been laying around the house for awhile and I was reluctant to read it for two reasons.  First, it's 748 pages.  Second, there was that movie with Colin Farrell in it that was advertised as an epic romance.  Luckily, the book has little to do with the movie, and is much better (I'm assuming from reading online reviews of the film, which got a 13% critic rating and 43% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

The book starts out Gangs of New York, with the character Peter Lake drifting around the Four Corners in New York City running from a criminal boss.  While attempting to burglarize a large house one winter night, he comes across Beverly Penn, the daughter of a William Randolph Hearst-type newspaper tycoon, when she is the only resident present of the large mansion Lake has broken into.  They fall in love, but she is dying of consumption.  The Four Corners boss catches up with Peter and he whisked away in a mist never to be seen again.

The book then switches from a historical fiction into a kind of modern fairytale, with time traveling characters, artifact carriers, and demi-god like people questing to find a perfect city that no one has ever seen but seems to exist up in the clouds.  The book then turns straight into magical realism, and then to Christian allegory, tied up with steam engines and the mist, the good city, and a bridge of light.

Going into this book expecting a romance and ready to put it down after 50 pages if I had to, I was incredibly surprised.

The Kindness Handbook, a Practical Companion, by Sharon Salzberg

This is an introduction to Metta practice in Buddhism, or Loving-Kindness.  It is easily understandable, and seems to be directed by the publisher to the self-help, to "transform our daily lives".  The root of the book is Metta, though, and Sharon Salzberg, whose bona fides as a Buddhist teacher are for real, gives a good, basic way to understand and gain some terminology without having to delve too deep into the literature.

A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins

In October 1973, Peter Jenkins, along with his dog, a 95 pound Malamute-mix named Cooper, started walking from his college town in New York, with a goal of reaching the Gulf of Mexico, and then across the United States to California.  He did so in order to "find the real America" - the real people that do most of the living and dying in the small towns of America (catch the reference to It's a Wonderful Life? - that was my reference, not Jenkins' - I love that movie and can quote it at length).  Along the way, he meets friendly farmers, and unfriendly police, a true-life mountain man, and lives in a single wide down in a holler with an African-American family in the mountains of North Carolina.

I've been a sucker for these kinds of books ever since I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon when I was 19 or so.  A Walk Across America is a sort of mix between Blue Highways and Bill Bryson's A Walk In the Woods.  The themes are similar - that people no matter where you go in America are generally friendly, helpful, have incredibly rich lives, and are sometimes a little scary.  Also, the narrator is changed by the journey in ways they did not expect. One thing I did expect - Jenkins got caught in several snowstorms, because he decided to start walking south from New York in OCTOBER, through the northern and central Appalachians.  Did he not think to learn some basics about the area before he took the trip, like that it can snow a foot on top of your tent in one night while you're 3,500 up in the Blue Ridge?  Well, spoiler - he survived.

 The great thing about books like A Walk Across America is not what you know is coming, but the scenes and personal stories you learn along the way, along with the narrator, sort of like a photo album, but with a depth of knowledge about these people that you wouldn't have otherwise.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

I am still trying to read through all of Stephen King's books and have the first three Dark Tower books at home, so I thought I would try the first volume.  King's two sources of inspiration for these books were the Lord of the Ring Trilogy, and Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" from the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns.  Imagine if Frodo was a loner with six shooters, wore a duster and hat, and smoked cigarillos.  The Gunslinger was not a long book, but I'm not sure at this point whether I'm going to follow him on his journey or not toward the Dark Tower.  Think he'll be okay without me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

I've Got the Music in Me...

     I read an article this week in the Atlantic about a study that finally put a name to people that don't like music- it's called being defective.

     I'm just joking about that - a little bit - actually it's called specific musical anhedonia.  Still, even with naming the thing, I can't understand someone who doesn't like music, but could actually take it or leave it, and more often than not would choose to leave it.  Music has been a part of my entire life, even though my parents were not particularly musical.  From my first 45 - I think it was Eddie Rabbitt's "Every Which Way But Loose" - to my first cassette - Men At Work's "Business as Usual" - to my first CD - the Black Crowes' "Shake Your Money Maker" - I have always had music playing, buying music, listening to new music, driving to music, playing music.  According to the Atlantic article, I am what they call musical hyper-hedonic, which describes people who find life unimaginable without music.

     Some of the most energizing, joyous, ecstatic moments of my life have been with music.  I remember listening to marching bands in parades when I was a kid and the soaring feeling I got from the harmony of the instruments and the thump of the drums in my chest, playing guitar and singing with my friends in high school, sitting under this old oak tree in a field at night, after learning just enough chords to play U2's "Running to Stand Still," playing in my high school garage band and the energy that you get from the music that you never seem to get tired no matter how long you play.  Going to see big arena shows in high school and college and the feel, the concussion of the kick drum that knocks the air out of your windpipe and hits you way down deep, past the gut, behind your heart, deep in the diaphragm.  I love harmonized voices - the Jayhawks, Carter and Ralph, Emmylou and Gram, and good guitar of whatever genre, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Page, Django and Mike McCready and Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam.  I love soulful voices and operatic one, Maria Callas and Aretha Franklin.  I love jazz and funk and hip hop and (good) country and Bob Dylan and Big Star and Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., the Pixies and Nirvana., This past year, I cried for David Bowie and Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, and don't even mention Prince.

     I can both change my mood by listening to any kind of music, and be unable to listen to music that doesn't fit my mood.  I am likely to skip genres within a single morning, from bluegrass to hip hop, to Aaron Copland to Cheap Trick to John Coltrane.  I still think Spotify is the best invention in all of the history of the world, after the multi-track recorder.  

     So today, after I spent 30 minutes of Sunday School, helping Abby Cain work up "This Little Light of Mine" with a small youth choir, I have been bouncing off the walls with energy.  I clapped and stomped and worked up a sweat, and yelled out directions, and new lyrics and, just listened to the amazing voices of these teens and kids we have in our church.  I was bouncing in my seat all the way through the church service after.  During the sermon, I was signing the gospel version of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" over and over.  

     I listened to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" today, danced and sang along to Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" while making fish tacos - signing, "Aaaaalison" - dipping the Tilapia in the egg wash, then cover in breading, then in the pan to "I know this world is killing you, ooooh..." Sizzle, sizzle.  At dinner tonight, put on a Latin playlist on Spotify and my bass drum leg was going on its own until I apparently was shaking the house and my attention was called to it.

     All of this started from snapping off "This Little Light of Mine" and I recognized in church the energy that can come from music, especially with hedonics like me.  I was lifted all day.  I felt "in the spirit" and nothing I did all day could work out that energy.  And that IS the Holy Spirit, in all His infinite, transcendent, and tangible glory.

     The Buddhists teach that everything is temporary - good, bad, whatever - so, I recognize the impermanence of this feeling of being filled.  Even then, I wonder why everyone doesn't want to have church be just like that every week - energetic and hopeful and full of love and spirit and vitality - so much vitality that my hands stung from clapping even after the church service, an hour after we stopped.  But I have to remember that there ARE those anhedonics out there - those that don't get a feeling from music, and some people come to church to find solace or company or peace or quiet.  As for me - I think I like to praise Him on the loud cymbals.  And I know where to find the Spirit again - because next Sunday is youth choir practice at 9:30.

(This song doesn't really fit the end of this post.  I heard it on TV just now and to me it is instant "up".  There is not hardly a better, more rocking, spirit-rousing song than "Why can't we give love, give love, give love...  dang, is this a Gospel song?)

Monday, March 6, 2017

NY Times Article - Kendrick Lamar, Beck and Tom Waits on Artistic Creation, via Leonard Cohen

Great article from the T, the Style Magazine of the NY Times this past week:

Three Iconic Musicians on Artistic Creation — and Its Importance Now

Here's some videos of some of my favorite songs from Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I've never really been in to Beck since his first album and I was in college, I think. I love Kendrick Lamar, but all of his stuff is protected and can't be shared off YouTube.

Tom Waits - Time
from the Rain Dogs album

Leonard Cohen - Bird on the Wire
from the Songs from a Room album
This is a live recording from 1979

Sunday, March 5, 2017

An Almond Blossom Kind of Day

     Outside our kitchen window is a flowering crab apple that the girls and I planted for a "Mother's Day Garden" several years ago along with several other shrubs, plants and flowers.  After the past few years of floods and being trampled by dogs, drought and freezing, and soil that needs amending, the only thing left from the garden is the crab apple.  The azaleas were not suited for the light or drainage of the site.  The flowers were too delicate to survive being rolled over by playful dogs.  But every spring, standing over the sink, I look out the kitchen window in the morning, drinking coffee out of my Abbey of Gethsemane mug, and one day I am surprised by the tiny pink buds on the crab apple tree.  This year everything is blooming all at once and way too early.  Two weeks ago, just past Valentine's Day, I noticed the nubs of the small rose-pink buds on the tree, and then the blooms seemed to explode overnight, with the most blooms of the most vibrant color that we've ever had, either because of the warm winter, or maybe that interior pruning I did last fall.  And the blooms stayed this year for longer than I've ever seen - a showy scene each time I would stare out the window.  I even saw it crawling with honey bees one day, in February, which seems unnatural, until I remember it is nature, after all, so the bees probably know better than me.  This flowering crab apple has been a continuing inspiration the past few weeks of this winter, and an always ready hit of instant brightness and uplift for the spirit.

     Last week, however, the blooms began to fade, seemingly too soon as they always do.  We always grieve a tiny bit to see such a beautiful thing leave.  But this year, I stopped myself and realized these are not dying flowers, but changing ones.  And I saw a next phase starting where the blooms are longer, with stems reaching down to the ground like tiny fireworks on each branch, that even though they were no longer what we think of as "beautiful flowers" they were more beautiful because I had to look harder to see them and pay attention to their detail.

     It's like the Van Gogh painting, "Almond Blossom".  This painting is not striking in its color, there is no mad inspiration in the brush stokes of thick paint, like the sunflower paintings or "Irises".  There is no awe-inspiring, passionate cry of the mystery of "The Starry Night".  There is just a pleasant day with tiny blooms on a craggy limb.  The blooms have no color, they sit, small, because they are utilitarian nut blooms and do not need to be showy to accomplish their purpose.  They are what they are because God made them that way, and they can be nothing else, so I don't think they would even apologize for being less than other more flashy flowers. When you look at them closely, however, at how delicate, how precise, how perfect they are in their simplicity, they are poetry.  They are life at its most real and most beautiful.

     Today has felt like an Almond Blossom day.  Some days you have inspiration or drive that propels you through, with seeming unlimited energy, be it love or rage, excitement or passion.  Some days are down, rainy days, or tired ones where you ache or can't think because your head is too heavy to lift. Today was neither.  It was not quite warm and not quite cool.  We had a beautiful clear sky, but with nothing to put the sunshine in context, just seemed to be a bright day.  It was a day I got some work done, and some rest, some prayer, but with no real reflection, just a regular day full of going and being and neither one of them strong enough to keep any inertia going in any one direction.  It was a day, though, where if we look close enough at how everything has fit into its place, how everything with a use fulfilled its purpose, and at how the regular nature of a quiet Sunday fits into keeping Sabbath among all the hundreds of Sabbaths that we live over our lives, that was a beautiful day indeed.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Singing a New Song...

I ran across this Ted Talk this week on "Reclaiming Religion" by Rabbi Sharon Brous on the two most dangerous forces to religion - religious extremism and what she calls "religious routine-ism".  The extremism we see all the time - in terrorist attacks all over the globe, in the Israel/Palestinian conflict, in the recent hate crimes against Jews in the United States, and a resurgence in the Klan and other white nationalist groups since the Presidential campaign last year.  It is a dangerous thing what people are doing in the name of God, not just to the people affected, but to the religions that they use to blaspheme our God, turning the mass of people against religion.

Routine-ism is a more quiet danger to religion - the quiet death of institutions either unwilling to change, or using liturgy or reverence as shield for its members' fear of change, or as an excuse to being unwilling to engage those that most need help - the hungry, the poor, the addicted, the despondent and depressed.  A living religion, Rabbi Brous says, is one that seeks to create social change, and one where the worship is relevant and joyful.  Here's her Ted Talk:

This comes following last week's meeting at church to address the needs of our kids and youth at St. Peter's.  This meeting has become a wellspring of energy and ideas flowing out of all corners of the church.  We have so many new projects and new energy that have come out of a one hour meeting that I have been amazed by the power of the spirit that has emerged.  And it seems to be growing exponentially across different sectors of the church.  

As we enter into a high energy surge at St. Peter's, it reminds me that worship should be capable of being joyful, to provide solace when called for, and to allow reflection or penitence when needed.  A worship that is not capable of providing all of that when called upon in the life of a church, is not an alive religion, but another casualty of "routine-ism."

I found another video from Rabbi Brous, of one of the services from Ikar Los Angeles, which she helped found:  

This seems to me to be such a perfect blend of tradition and modern worship - this is not a mega church that seeks to give every person some kind of entertainment over substance, but a group with its feet firmly planted in tradition, that makes it relevant and joyful.

Then Mother Chris showed me a video of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, an Episcopal church:

I don't think this type of service would fit at St. Peter's or many other churches, but it shows that there are ways to make liturgy relevant without giving up the tradition that help to define our religion.  And it's exciting, and joyful.  Because it is with hope and joy that we are to engage the world, for that is what the Word gives us - empathy for others, prayers for our enemies, and hope for a better world in the future.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Remember the Children... A First Step at Reconciliation

Mo. Chris' sermon today was on Matthew 5:21-37, which has to be an incredibly difficult part of the Sermon on the Mount to preach on, because it is more or less a collection of all the stuff that is hard to talk about stuffed into one passage: hardness of heart, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths.  (I always think this is one of the "Let's Get It Over With" days that the folks who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary try to add as much stuff all on one day so we don't have to deal with it the rest of the year, kind of like how they completely leave out the story about the prophet Elisha bringing the bear out of the wildnerness to devour some village boys who were making fun of his bald head - it's in there, I swear.  Dang, just broke Matthew 5:34.  See, it's hard.)

So, Mo. Chris picked maybe the easiest part to preach about, but one of the hardest to live - that we should not let things come between us and others, but if you hold something against a brother or sister, you should reconcile that as quickly as possible.  We reconcile those hurts by talking about them, Chris said, or else holding a hurt or grudge can turn cancerous, and growth within us, from where it can infect our family, our community, and the society at large.  The key is reconciliation, not just an airing of grievances.  Jesus says that we should reconcile and then go offer our gift at the temple, which means that we should work out whatever we have against someone to the point that we are of sufficiently open heart that we could then ask for forgiveness.

Being that open about our hurts is a big step, to not only tell someone that they hurt us, or allow someone to tell us we have hurt them, but to do it to the point we of a forgiving mind and heart is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  So, I am going to air one of my hurts that I have been harboring about my church family for some time, hoping this is a right forum, and with full effort at loving-kindness, with no judgment or attacks, but knowing that airing my hurt may make our church family better able to serve ourselves and others in love.

This morning in our children's Sunday School class, we talked about a different part of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:19-21: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth... but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Since we joined St. Peter's 10 years ago, I have held the thought that the church does not place much of its treasure in our children.  Without blaming or accusing, here's what I've seen.

We have never had a regular Sunday School program until Dawn and I volunteered to do it every Sunday.  It is more or less a case of "if you don't do it yourself, no one else is going to do it." And at this point, if it were not for the parents of the few children, along with Mo. Chris, and Elizabeth Taylor, Heather Prichard, Debbie Lowe, and Kathy Johnson, they would not be provided for at all.  Children often feel to me like secondary members of the church.

Earlier attempts at Children's Chapel died off because it was difficult to get several volunteers to commit to Sundays and there was little training for the ones that did show up. There was a music program one year for kids, but that didn't carry on - even though we have at least 3 young women who are fully prepared for the full choir, and are probably the best voices in the church - Abby, Erin, and Sidney...

At events for Shrove Tuesday (we're Episcopalians, we do NOT celebrate Mardi Gras), we are having the traditional meal of pancakes, only because Dawn volunteered to do them.  Otherwise, the kids would be left out - have you ever tried to get an 8 year old not born in Louisiana to eat gumbo, or etouffee, or crawfish?  At other evening events we have,  the children are purposefully excluded - "childcare will be provided".  There is always plenty of wine available, but not often is there anything for kids to drink.

Our Sunday School room and the youth room gets randomly used for storage, from the flower guild, from construction in the church, from the "Junque and Treasure" sale.  Once we had to share the youth room where we were doing Easter painting projects with groomsmen drinking large quantities of beer for a wedding much later that day.  We had a refrigerator in our Sunday School room for most of last year.  One of the bathrooms downstairs has gone unrepaired for several years, first the wall was out, then the sink was unhooked, now the toilet doesn't work.  The Hispanic Men's AA group that shares our Youth Room have always been respectful of our shared space and the kids actually talk about how we should do nice things for them.  I don't know that the kids understand our relationship to St. Peter's, other than this is a place where they can have some space in the church.

Ok.  So maybe this hurt has grown a bit inside me already.

But through worship, music, fellowship, Christian Education, facilities, it's plain to me that St. Peter's does not put our treasure into our children.  When our room gets used for storage, it sends a message to these kids that their space is not important.  When they are left out of food in our dinners, it tells them they are not a part of what is going on.  I feel that we think - well, what should we do with the kids, and not, the kids will be here, what can we do to include them.

Here's what we do not need - more money.  Throwing that kind of treasure at renovating facilities, or hiring youth ministers, or sending kids to camp won't change a thing.

What we need is commitment and time and inclusion.  Regular commitment of time spent with the kids and integration of the kids in every thing that we do.  Kids thrive off consistency.  We need at least two people to commit to being there everything Sunday for Sunday School.  We need four or five people to volunteer for the rotation in Godly Play.  We need a dumpster to clean out all the old stuff that keeps accumulating in the Youth Room.  We need everything fixed and in working order just like it is in the new Paris Hall, not new, just working.  We need integration of the kids into every level of the Church as full members, not just as cute kids that we can share pictures of and post videos on Facebook.  We need to treat them like the members they are and to love them.

When Dawn started on Vestry last year, I stole that line from Abigail Adams when John Adams went off to serve at the Constitutional Convention - I told her to "remember the children".   Most at St. Peter's want our church to grow, to add families.  That won't happen unless we all put more emphasis into including children into everything we do.  They don't need separate programs, they need to be treated like the full members of the church that they are.  If we can show the world that we love and value our children, only then will they believe they will love and value theirs as well.

Like I said, that has been a long, lingering hurt.  But I hope it starts a good conversation, and I'm asking Mo. Chris to forward this to the Church email list.  This is not a problem that falls on one person, or one group, but all of us are complicit.  I hope that through love and respect that we can all get to the place where we are of open hearts ready for forgiveness, myself most of all.

Namaste, and Peace and Love in Christ,

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Sunday Contemplation

We have just finished our second month of contemplative Wednesday night services at church and in the middle of anxiety, fear, and anger, quiet, incense, and prayer may seem like an escape, or avoidance. I've found these past several weeks, though, that contemplation is necessary to keep a plumb line, to reorient my compass, to look, in the words of the prayer, to changlessness in the midst of chances and changes. To turn away others in need, because we have surrendered to fear, or to get lost in anger, even when in the sake of what is righteous, is still to be lost.

Thomas Merton:

“Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo.”



I have been watching slow things the long afternoon,
The thickening pad of snow out on the windowsill
That grows so slowly we can never see it grow
Although we say we can.  All that we know is that
It has grown and most probably will grow so long
As the snow falls.  And that is quite enough to know.
Then it will go and that will be a slow thing too
Whether it goes in sun or rain, whether a wind
Is or is not blowing. It always has been so.
And what is slower than this short, gray afternoon?
Slower than the way the sun, almost snowed in,
Begins by being low and ends by being low
And never sets or so it seems?  Such a slow sun.
Nor is there much to show for my long afternoon
Except perhaps that I've been growing I suppose.
Only the unremarkable growth that must be, though,
Which isn't much, Heaven knows, for anyone to show.

~ Robert Francis

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What's So Funny About Peace, Lovingkindness and Understanding?

Or How Metta Made Me Like Chris Thile...

Sometime in the past couple of years, I stumbled on a lovingkindness guided meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who teaches mindfulness practice.  The practice was similar to the mindfulness or breathing meditation I was used to, except that he asked that we imagine someone that for us exudes unconditional love, to visualize that person, and to visualize embracing that person.  Unconditional love is impossible for us to reason with our brains, but if we've felt it, we know it.  It is warm and happy and forgiving and understanding.  Unconditional love is unchangeable, so that no matter what you do, it will never be less and it will never go away.  It is the love of God, and most of us have experienced it through the love of a parent (hopefully), or a grandparent, or family.

The guided meditation continued, though, to not just experience that unconditional love, but to imagine what the person is feeling toward you, to physically feel the love they have for you, and then imagine it radiating out of them into you.  Finally, after meditating on that love for a bit, you were to imagine it was radiating out of you into the whole world.

This one exercise fundamentally changed me, in just one session.  I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for a couple of years as a means to ease anxiety and increase awareness and calm, but this was different.  It was proactive, it was radiant, it was compassionate.  So, I started reading up.

Lovingkindness is a translation of the word Metta in the Pali language of the ancient Buddhist writings, and is a Buddhist meditation practice that cultivates love - for yourself and for others, people you like, and even your enemies.  It is the foundation for the Brahma Vihara, or heavenly dwelling mediations along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  Basically, in lovingkindness when you meditate, you focus on certain phrases, like:

May I live in safety
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I live with ease

When your mind wanders, or you lose focus, you return to these phrases, with a concentration, not thoughts.  Lovingkindness is a religious practice, but in many Buddhist traditions it is easily useable within Western religions, especially Christianity, where we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. Metta, however, understands that before you can love your neighbor, you HAVE to necessarily love yourself.

Combining Metta practice with basic Buddhist and Christian teachings of non-judgment, compassion, forgiveness, and love for others, led me to a new way of thinking about how I dealt with others.  I would try not to act in a way that would do others harm.  I would try to think about how my actions affected other people, to try to do the thing that they needed at that moment over what I may want to do.  I would try to be kind and understanding.  And I would try to re You member that whatever emotion I experienced caused by the actions of another would quickly pass, that before I acted in a negative way, I should think what a right and good and appropriate reaction would be.  Granted, I'm not perfect, so depending on the day, hour, how tired or hungry I am, my success can change.  But when I am in a decent mind, I think - may this person live in safety, may this person have mental happiness, may this person have physical happiness, may this person live with ease.  Sometimes, I repeat those phrases right after I have just called that person an idiot, but not to his or her face, and then like I said, I'm not perfect.

One side note - Buddhist practices in many traditions are very compatible with Christian belief.  In fact, they supplement it - they are methods to get to the point where we live as Christ.  I've heard some Buddhists say that the Buddha had 80 years on Earth and Christ only had around 30, so that while the basic teachings on how to live and act are much the same between the traditions, Christ was taken away before he had time to teach us how to get there, but the Buddha taught for 50 more years.  You CAN be a Christian and practice Buddhist meditation - read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh for details.

So even people I have held grudges against, for whatever reason, I am compelled under the teachings of both Christ and the Buddha to let go of judgment, to seek a way to love them as my neighbor, to show them lovingkindness.  That brings me to Chris Thile.

The first time I saw Chris Thile perform, it was before he was leading Nickel Creek, at Merlefest in 1998, I think.  Sara and Shawn Watkins were with him, but I don't think they were going by the Nickel Creek name yet.  At the time, I was a hardcore bluegrass and country traditionalist.  Ralph Stanley was still in decent health, Del McCoury had the best band in the world, and I got to see Guy Clark, one of my absolute all-time music heroes, on a small stage with 150 or so others, so close I could smell his cigarette smoke from the stage.  Guy Clark can always make me feel something real, raw, yell out, or cry.  His songs are about packing up with his wife and taking the freeway out of Los Angeles, or about crying over his dead father's Randall knife, or how feeling yourself free after a bad relationship was a like a coat in the cold, or how a man could go to his grave knowing that the only happiness he found was in the arms of a Dallas prostitute.  Oh, and also home-gown tomatoes.  Hey life ain't all bad.  Sometimes you forget all about the sweatin' and diggin'.  But for the most part, his songs were gritty, heart-wrenching, real, poetic, beautiful stuff.

In the midst of my Guy Clark worship, and Ralph, and Earl Scruggs playing live for the first time in decades, and Gillian Welch on the small stage, and some really amazing stuff, here comes Chris Thile, with his teenage arrogance and show-offy mandolin runs, and preppy haircut, and white guy guitar expressions on his wankerish solos.  At one point during their set, he told the audience to "imagine you are a lighthouse" and then he sang this overly-emotive, new agey song about how he was a light house and I left.  That was it for me and Chris Thile.  Sorry bud, not my thing - you live in your world and I'll live in mine.  Difference being mine has good music.

So, cut to last night - January 14, 2017 and on my way to Tractor Supply to get dog food, who should come on WUKY, but Chris Thile, new host of the Prairie Home Companion.  If this were 5 years ago, no question, I would have turned the dial and not thought anything of it.  I actually would have felt good about myself for having standards.  But a self-congratulatory attitude about negative judgments do not really mesh with metta, you know?

So, in a completely open, non-judgmental, open way, I thought, may Chris Thile live in safety, may Chris Thile have mental happiness, may Chris Thile have physical happiness, may Chris Thile live in ease.  And it kind of worked. I eased into listening, letting judgment slide on by each time it popped up, and when talking about Chicago, from where Prairie Home was being broadcast yesterday, he mentioned Wilco, and one of his favorite albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  And then he sang part of a David Bowie song, and part of Led Zeppelin song, and the intro to a Rage song, and a song he wrote comparing the bad pitching changes of the Cubs manager to our country picking Trump as president. I remembered then that when I saw Chris Thile play in 1998, almost 20 years ago, he was probably 15 year old and I think I was probably more obnoxious than him at that age, especially since I didn't have his talent.  We'd both grown older, more mature, our tastes had changed, we'd lived life, and by the end of the episode, not only had I shown Chris Thile some lovingkindness and compassion, I think we're friends now.

That's how the metta practice works - start with yourself, then reach out to others.  Start by loving the neighbors close to you, and then eventually you can work your way to even your enemies, even Chris Thile.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Word About the Blog Title...

So, blogging can be a very egocentric exercise - with a tinge of arrogance in a belief that something the blogger could publish would enlighten the world.  That feeling has kept me away from this for awhile, but I'm still feeling the need to publish one, mainly with the thought that regular publishing would force me to actually finish something with punctuation and proper grammar. 

With the bare truth that not many will ever read my blog, but still fighting off the feeling that I am participating in an exercise of some self-centeredness, I finally came up with a name.

...That's All I Got...  means two things.  First, I probably won't blog that much, and when I rarely do have a thought worth writing about, that will be the end of it - I won't be holding back any big ideas that would benefit the world.  There's nothing else there in my brain.

Second, it's the admission that what I do end up typing on this free space on the web provided by Google is that it's probably not worth much - you want enlightenment, you might want to check somewhere else. 

So, the title is both a comment on the quality AND quantity of my thoughts and writing.  Not much there, and, when there is, there's not much to it, but that's all I got.  Like that joke from Annie Hall - the food is really terrible, and the portions are so small...

Welcome to my small portion...