This Most Contradictory of Seasons

The bottom is about to drop out! We’ve been living on borrowed time. Still reluctant to face reality, it is what it is.

It’s not as if we haven’t been warned — today’s high in Minneapolis is to be 57; tomorrow’s temp is forecast to be 22! The redolent release of Fall is past. We are in for a full-bore collapse into the depths of winter.

We Minnesotans pride ourselves in being of hearty stock. Each year we enter this season with a conflicted mixture of reluctance and pride, reenactment of a familiar script and rehearsal for an even bigger drama that lies ahead.

Natives counsel new arrivals to our state with sage advice — learn to play in it; skating, cross-country skiing, show-shoeing, ice-fishing, “walk” the lakes. Those of Scandinavian descent advise the rest of us, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Through Minnesota’s own expression of “natural selection” those of less hearty stock concoct veiled excuses to bail. Their loss!

What the uninformed protest as “harsh” Minnesota winters actually preserves our famed North Woods. Quail and other wildlife need snow cover to burrow into for cozy quarters. You haven’t truly relaxed until you know the solitude of cross-country skiing across of a frozen lake encircled with verdant pine, sentinel birch and the silhouettes of naked bur oak. A good hard winter is also nature’s best defense against the devastation of Emerald Ash Bore and the invasive Asian beetle. Then there is the hearth — that place where hearts are warmed, friendship deepens, and love finds expression.

So why such resistance? Why this talk of the bottom falling out? Why such reluctance and resignation? …a hunker-down survivalist stoicism? …the insistent urge to escape? Some seem captive to the sparseness of winter, afflicted with tunnel vision, willing to wallow in a life of hibernation. They appear constitutionally incapable of embracing beauty, recognizing promise, and plumbing life’s depths.

But is not this hardness of heart an unyielding refusal to change, a fear of any disruption to preferred routines, a denial of the passage of time, a poverty of imagination? We can too easily and stubbornly hold the promise for any potential future in a straight-jacket of our own making.

You need not be a privileged Minnesotan to embrace the offering of this sparsest of seasons. Our lives are also lived according to passages not made of uniform chronology. At any time of year we may bear the brunt of loss, the trauma of a potentially terminal diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship. Thankfully not all disruptions to the way things are, or want them to be, are as harsh or traumatic. We must engage them all to their depths if we are to fully live.

Mary Oliver lives on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod and has long been our most loyal chronicler of life’s fury, simplicity, sparseness and sublime beauty. Her poem, On Winter’s Margin captures both the timeless potential and promise of this most contradictory of seasons:

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

What’s Really on My Mind; What’s Really Going On

You’re correct… I haven’t been blogging much recently. Part of the reason is that I have felt constricted by a presumed obligation to write “for others” and not for myself. Would my honest curiosities and musings be too raw, too honest? Would anyone else really care? I’ve heard the blank response from my family (perhaps the only ones caring enough or willing to tell me), “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Well, today is different! Here’s what’s on my mind, the stuff I really want to talk about, what I’m really wrestling with inside. It’s from an email I just sent to a dear soul-mate friend with whom I had a long overdue phone conversation last evening. I offer it here with the simple desire to transparently “let others in” and with a faint hope that something, anything, will be of interest — maybe even helpful — to someone else. Here’s what’s been on my mind and what I really want to write…

Thanks for the great conversation. Really good to reconnect. It’s triggered a few more thoughts prompted by recalling that I had not spoken of a key awareness central to the “shift in consciousness” I’m aware of HAPPENING TO ME. And that last part is critical… happening to me.

I used to interpret the likes of Stephen Fowler and such behavioral psychologists as if we/I somehow had the ability or responsibility to “recraft” or even “recreate” our sense of meaning (e.g., our understanding of God, our “faith” as if it were some sort of volitional act). No!!! Now I’m recognizing that this “reformulation” is something that happens TO US, is done FOR US, is given (grace).

This is why talking with you is so important. I don’t create or craft the “shift in consciousness”. I don’t do the work. It’s done to us, for us!!! Nevertheless, speaking about it clarifies the experience (sheer gift) and enables me to recognize it, to RECEIVE IT! Thanks, buddy!

Another recognition from the past couple months of my wrestling with what felt like depression (dark night?)… the institutional church (in my case, the Society of Jesus but compounded by the global clergy sex abuse crisis that triggers my PTSD) betrayed me. Charlottesville and the pardoning of the AZ sheriff, etc. further sends me over the edge because it to also triggers my sense of betrayal.

I’ve both a BA and MA in Political Science, I worked for the Nebraska Legislature for 4 years, been a delegate to state Democratic conventions, staffed a district Congressional office (all before entering the SJ). I taught American Government as a regent, did a summer internship in DC with Network, spent three years doing human rights advocacy at the Jesuit Conference again in DC. I could be fairly described as having been a “Faith & Justice” Jesuit (I would be honored by such an epilation).

Trump and our thoroughly dysfunctional Congress feels to me like wholesale betrayal (not to mention the racist and fascist undertow and allusions) by the institutions of government — our “public life”, really — paralleling the earlier betrayal by the church. In other words our public institutions have proven themselves to be wholly undeserving/unworthy of the faith I/we presumed I/we could place in them.

This is the context in which I experienced the killing on July 15 of our neighbor, Justine Damond, by a Minneapolis police officer. She had called 911 for help — actually she was reporting what she feared was a sexual assault in the back alley. She was doing what she trusted was the correct and right thing to do. Those who were invested with the public trust to “protect” us shot her! (Welcome to the world of Black America!!!!).

Again, those in whom we thought we could place our trust proved, not only to be unworthy of trust, but abusive. In sum, the core institutions of our culture — the very foundations for my sense of meaning and trust — have proven to be bankrupt and even a source of betrayal.

That’s the context for my outrage about “God never gives us more than we can handle” bullshit and my passionate insistence, “Oh yes He does, AND THAT’S PRECISELY THE POINT!!!” I/we don’t reformulate or recreate “our” concept of God or recompose our understanding of faith. It’s done FOR US, TO US. My best way to give expression to the experience is that “We are BIRTHED into it!”

BTW, I hope you noticed that I used male specific language to describe God just above. That was choiceful and deliberate! Even our politically correct language and tip-toeing around our God-talk for fear of “offending” someone else’s sensibilities — or that gender-specific language somehow “limits” or “constrains” God — is fairly bankrupt in itself (if not a pile of bullshit — but we dare not say that out loud, do we😨😱😃👍👏👌)?

Maybe the reason I don’t blog very much any more is because this is really the stuff I want to write about. And I’m aware that most people wouldn’t know what the hell I’m talking about (I hope that’s not as elitist as it sounds). And for those who do, they’d take it as a cognitive exercise, an “academic” speculation, a Lonerganian “insight” we think we can “comprehend” in our 30s. And the truth is it’s just the opposite.

It’s not something we comprehend or “command” as as if we were strategically moving pieces in a cosmic game of chess! Every shift in consciousness is done to us, for us, is wholly given! We are continuously re-birthed when the womb in which we have found so much security and nourishment is found to be inadequate (i.e., “not-God”), actually idolatrous. When God gives us (i.e., invites, teases, nudges us to experience) more than we can handle!!!

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity sayeth the Lord!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “I should be glad of another death.”

😎😃😉🤡🤓 Smile… this is all very Good News!

Antidote for What Ails America

“Vulgar! He’s simply vulgar.” comments my neighbor from the driver’s seat of her car as we enjoyed a spontaneous conversation in the alley. Shocked, appalled, outraged are equally good words to describe our reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Now I’m getting scared, simply scared!

Polls suggest the actual election of Trump to be our President is still remote. But as improbable as that may be I’m still feeling overwhelmed, grieved and frightened. Why? Because that which Donald Trump personifies will not be resolved on Election Day. Neither will resolution be achieved by the election of Hillary Clinton.

It will likely come as a profound disappointment to the man, but what we are witnessing ultimately isn’t about Donald Trump. No, this isn’t about slapping the “Trump” brand across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! Rather, it’s about the deep pain, festering resentment even, that resides in homes across America. And this national despair cuts across gender, race and socio-economic groups.

So what are we to do? Build higher walls to further insulate ourselves? Move to Cape Brenton Island, Canada? Buy a gun? Fear, resentment and desperation may be the source of such considerations. But they merely exacerbate the problem we must address.

So, what are we to do? Well, first of all we must never give up. Somehow, we simply must restore trust in one another to reweave the social fabric of our nation. There is no easy fix. This will not happen on Election Day 2016. No, our work is much more arduous and will take more than our lifetime. But begin we must.

But, what? What can we do that will make any difference? Yes, vote! But that’s hardly enough to counter the vulgarity that has overtaken America. Yes, it would be easy — but an abrogation of personal responsibility — to assume this is about an election and the “majority” expressing its collective will on November 8. That’s simply delusional.

Conservative pundit David Brooks has his finger on the pulse of America and points us in the right direction:

…first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.

As is often the case with matters that really count, our answer resides within a huge paradox. Rather than building walls, leaving the country or buying a gun our way forward opens by doing the exact opposite. The antidote for what ails America lies in tearing down walls, reinvesting in our communities, disarming ourselves.

Sounds a whole lot like once again becoming brother, sister, neighbor to one another; caring for the orphan, widow and outcast; welcoming the stranger; loving our neighbor as ourselves.
___________________
You may read David Brooks’ insightful and provocative much more extensive analysis at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0 

Not a Blanket, but the Cross

A profoundly wise woman! Tragically, she died of Lupus at age 39! Now that I have lived many more years than she, I am all the more moved by her insight, faith and honesty — imagine if she had lived a full complement of years. Perhaps she had…

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.
― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Aspiring to Wisdom

Have you noticed? The world has gotten better — all the problems have been solved. Really! My brother and I have been together for ten days now and pretty well taken care of all the world’s troubles. No need to thank us — we’ve enjoyed doing it.

Mornings typically begin at Starbucks. We take the New York Times and Orlando paper delivered to his doorstep. But we never seem to get to them. Rather, the state of our world is so dire we need to attend to these matters first.

Yesterday was special. After services and a pot-luck at Bear Lake United Methodist Church featuring Black Gospel singers from Alabama, my brother and I settled into twin recliners in front of the fireplace. This time we ruminated on family, our ancestors, favorite relatives, reasons they were the way they were and we are the way we are. Three and a half-hours passed like thirty minutes!

This morning, specifics and details have coalesced into an all-embracing sense of gratitude and contentment. That’s pretty amazing given the characters, personalities and circumstances we rehashed, the achievements claimed, wounds recalled and losses remembered. Let’s just say Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and the Viscount Downton, has nothing over on us.

Here’s what’s becoming clear after these days of trying to make sense of this thing we call “life”… We cannot always “think” our way into knowledge. Some explanations are simply beyond words yet we know them to be true.  Perhaps this is what St. Augustine, fourth century bishop in North Africa meant as well — “The heart has reasons Reason knows not.”

Call it “wisdom” if you wish. My brother and I would like to think our machinations suggest we are more than just two senior citizens grousing in front of a fireplace. We’d like to believe these are the sort of conversations and conclusions true elders begin to formulate.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we’ve concluded for certain: It’s not that some of what we “know” is irrational, it’s that some things are simply beyond reason… such as love, self-sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile.

In the end, this remains the hope in which we aspire to live.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

_________________
“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.