Hit Your Bottom, Find Your Top

Cover of
Cover of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants

There are some, down the road between hither and yon

That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go, though the weather be foul.

On you will go though your enemies prowl

On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl

Onward and up many a frightening creek,

Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”

~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go

Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”  It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch.  It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom.  The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives.  A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival.  An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt.  While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.

Some people get lucky.  They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues.  We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe.  Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in  life’s white water before finally gaining perspective.  Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming.  Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails.  These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.

Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives.  Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.”  How bad does it have to get?  What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live?  Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted.  Bad things happen to good people. Yet,  life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system.  Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality.  If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction.  For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time.   It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light.  Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities.  They reward us with their simple acts of  forgiveness and love.  In giving us grace, they receive it.  They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.

It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others.   “Sinners make the best saints.”  Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace.  Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul.  It is a currency that never depreciates.

A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt.  Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system.  When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible.  Pain leads to humility.  Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control.  The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance

A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed.  Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks.  Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear.  It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us.  “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.”  How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.

Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing.  If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence.  Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle.  Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view.  Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.

It is Springtime and a time of rebirth.  It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace.  Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed?  Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”

My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.   

Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side


“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

The Snobbery of Chronology

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship...
Image via Wikipedia

The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

A Guy Named Joe

Original Sin and the Good Samaritan
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr


Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Goethe

On March 1, 2007, Joe had his last day as a front desk security guard.  For over 15 years, he was the first person that you’d see when you entered his company’s corporate headquarters.  Joe possessed a special talent: You could meet Joe once and forever after, he would never, ever forget your name.

I interviewed with Joe’s company in February 2005 at their corporate offices in Trumbull.  Nervous at my first interview in over twenty years, I met Joe – who stood up and warmly grasped my arm with his large catcher’s mitt hands.  “Michael, welcome, welcome.  Isn’t it a great day today?”  I looked outside.  It was cold and gray, threatening sleet and other meteorological mischief.  “Nice to meet you, too; um…I’m sorry, I did not catch your name?”  “Joe, Michael. My name is Joe.  Come and see us again.”

I returned eight weeks later as a new employee.  My first day was filled with trepidation.  I had left behind a 23-year career with my former firm, and it felt strange and unnatural to be arriving at a new employer.  I had regrets and doubts.  I didn’t know where to park.  Everything was wrong.  I carried with me a box filled with pictures and mementos, depressed in the knowledge that a long career could fit so easily in a single cardboard container.  As is often the case with large companies, no one actually remembered I was starting that day.  There were no instructions for me on where to go.  As I walked in the front doors with my box, Joe looked at me and immediately smiled, “Michael, it’s great to see you back.  Michael?  Are you moving in with us?  Bless me, Michael; I believe you are joining our company.”  He stood up and came around the desk and grabbed my box, putting an arm around my shoulder, shepherding me to the rear of the building to my office and my new professional life.

Each day as I walked across the front foyer to lunch, Joe would be saying hello on a first-name basis to every employee as they walked by – on their way to meetings, lunch, or appointments. “Carol…how is that gorgeous daughter of yours?”  “Jeff, it’s great to see you.  You have a good lunch.”  “Tom, Tom, Tom…mmm, mmm, mmm, my friend, I believe you have lost some weight.”  My predecessor, the former CEO, would purposely have visitors, regulators and key customers wait in the foyer because Joe would be there to meet them; as he said, “Joe always warmed them up.”

Joe never missed a day of work in 16 years.  Joe lived with his two daughters in Bridgeport and, like so many who seek to serve others, he softened the sharp edges of his own neighborhood wherever he went.  A colleague driving through Bridgeport one afternoon happened to spy Joe riding his bicycle along a city street.  “I tried to get his attention but he was riding on the other side of the road.  I stopped at a red light and watched Joe in my rear view mirror.  There was a homeless man draped across the sidewalk; pedestrians were stepping over him, careful not to make eye contact.  Joe stopped his bike and instead of walking around the man, disappeared into a bank.  Joe walked outside, handed the man a $20 bill and rode away.  That was Joe.”

Joe scraped together money to study at night to be a minister.  He had passed his courses and begun a process of becoming an ordained minister.  When Joe’s company was bought by a much larger corporate giant, he remained the front foyer fixture.  Joe saw it as his mission to be an important source of reassuring continuity to employees new and old – reinforcing the point that no matter how large the firm became, one person would know their names and make sure they were all okay.

There’s a story…someone in the new parent company’s home office observed that the security guard in the Trumbull facility was possibly overpaid.  That was until a home office management team visited, some six months after their first visit.  Joe shined. “Dave, it’s good to see you again, welcome back.  Mike, you look like you have grown two inches.  Steve, how are those two boys you told me about?”  Their jaws dropped and one of the executives whispered to another, “We’ve got to give this guy a raise.”

Joe was the heart and soul of his firm.  He reminded us all that the most precious asset in any company is its people.  He embodied all the values that any well run firm seeks to cultivate in its employees – personal responsibility, compassion, commitment and focus on the customer.  Joe had figured out that the richest person is not the executive with the big salary or the private jet; it is the man or woman who has friends and who is guided by a purpose greater than themselves.  His humility was a sweet perfume that permeated everything and everyone around him.

On Friday, March 1, we let the word out in headquarters that Joe would be celebrating his last day.  The pace of the day and the time of year had us assuming perhaps 50-75 people joining us for an intimate farewell.  I was an accomplice in getting Joe to come with me to check something in the main cafeteria.  The doors opened up and I was shocked to see over 900 people – smiling, clapping and crying.  “Joe, Joe, Joe” was a rhythmic chant that rolled throughout the building.  Joe began to cry.  “I am just so grateful to be called your friend.”  We exchanged our favorite stories about how Joe calmed angry customers, consoled fellow employees and celebrated marriages, births and promotions.  He was leaving to become the pastor at a rural Baptist church in South Carolina.  In his first impromptu sermon to an adoring congregation, he paced the room trying to find the words.  In the end, he handed me back the microphone to hold back the tears.  “Thank you, thank you…” was all he could keep repeating.

Joe later walked out the front door, a slight figure wearing a faded blue vest and brown pants, carrying bags brimming with presents from his admirers – a new bible, gift certificates and a massive picture album signed by over 800 people including two retired CEOs.  He left as he came every day, urging people not to worry about him. “Michael!” he yelled back to me.  “Don’t let them change this place and don’t let the ‘community’ die.  It’s all we got, man.”  He got in his car, gave the right of way to another car and disappeared.

As he headed to a new community as an ordained pastor, most of us realized he was our lay minister, teaching us every day that the thing that matters most in life is each other.  All that from a guy most of us only knew simply as “Joe.”

The Mythology of Us

Inuit family, 1930
Image via Wikipedia

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.– Robert Fulghum

In Farley Mowatt’s Never Cry Wolf, a young wildlife biologist named Tyler is dispatched by the Canadian Wildlife Service to investigate whether the Arctic Wolf is to blame for the decline of the great caribou herds in the Alaskan wilderness.   Tyler’s adventure is a life altering journey through a looking glass where every preconceived notion of survival is cast aside by the harsh and cunning of the wild.  With the help of some local Inuit, the young biologist becomes one with the savage landscape and in doing so, he discovers that the arctic wolf, Canus Lupis Arctos, is not the indiscriminate killer of caribou but in fact, is culling the herds of its sicker and weaker members — all but ensuring the herd’s  survival.   In the vast emptiness of an Arctic twilight where  the summer breathes but a few endless nights of day, Tyler discovers the power of Inuit mythology.

As the acrid smoke of a burning fire creates broken shafts of light inside the makeshift Inuit shelter, a tribal elder recounts to some younger members of his Inuit tribe how the wolf came into existence.  In the form of native myth, the ancient sage, Ootek, shares with Tyler and the Inuit children how Mother Earth first created the People and then realized she must provide food to sustain them. In her infinite wisdom, she reached into an ebony hole in the ice and pulled out the Tuktu (caribou) to feed the Inuit people.

“Soon the tuktu had multiplied to such a level that food became scarce and over-population created a generation of sick and weak animals.  Their decline threatened the very existence of the People. The great Mother once again reached into the black hole of ice and pulled out the amarok (Arctic wolf) to whom the task fell to thin the overpopulated herds of the sick and weak thus ensuring a stronger generation so that the People might thrive. “

Ootek smiles a toothless grin and nods his head.   Tyler watches these lessons being handed down – worn gifts of insight wrapped in a timeless skin of mythology.  At that moment, he eases backwards, arms folded behind his head – pondering the brightest stars struggle through a permanent summer twilight. Beams of smoke and light escapes from a thousand seams bewteen the roof of broken pine boughs and caribou antlers. Tyler finally comes to understand through Ootek’s ancient mythology that Arctic wilderness is a last Garden of Eden, ingeniously balanced with each supporting actor playing a vital role in the symbiotic dance for survival.  Everything is here for a reason.  In the end, Ootek the old one, comes to accept Tyler as one of his own, teaching him the mythology and traditions that serve as guideposts for survival.  In Inuit society as in the life of the wolf pack,  there is no such thing as an orphan.

As the campfires of our own summers are now dwindling to tangerine glows, we reflect on the time  we spend trying to recapture the power of simple things – a gathering of our own tribe and perhaps the retelling of our own stories. These allegories offer lessons and foundations for our children.  For most, our memory of youthful stories and early American mythology has been erased. We have lost our all powerful talisman – a rabbit’s foot, a shark’s tooth or a ten banded Diamondback snake’s rattle.  Myths are no longer handed down and perpetuated.  As a society, we no longer wonder how we came to be and instead focus on what is yet to come.  Faith and wonder have been supplanted by anxious impatience for instant resolution.  In taming and deconstructing the natural world, we have marginalized the virtues of mythology as a way of understanding how we fit into this vast endless continuum of humanity.

Today’s tribal family no longer lives among multiple generations.  Our children do not enjoy as much access to or the patience to rest at the feet of an elderly relative who is eager to paint a picture with the patinaed colors of the past. With so much “reality” barraging us every day, there is no room left our own mythology.

We have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  – – migrating from basic needs of shelter, immediate family, and stories that served as framework for living  — to a more permanent and material state of perpetual want.  Many families no longer dine together, spend time in the same room, or express curiosity about their own unique history.  The “snobbery of chronology”, as CS Lewis shared, is believing that we are superior to all that came before us because we have the benefit of hindsight. As a society, we seem to be moving away from our own mythology of self reliance, sacrifice, generosity, naive optimism and independence to a place where we are more cyncially defined by what we have today.  It seems success is our most celebrated virtue and that virtue itself is viewed as an almost orthodox sentiment.

Writer Umberto Eco once mused, “ In the United States there’s a Puritan ethic and a mythology of success. He who is successful is good. In Latin countries and in Catholic countries, a successful person is a sinner.”  Eco’s European view is borne from a very different life experience and a complex notion of how values, wants, needs, desires and expectations are reconciled when man by definition is meant to suffer in order to achieve wisdom and humility.  As Americans, we are a mass of contradictions.  We are modern families – fractured and yet, still hanging together by the threads of our own potential.   Yet, many of us have forgotten our own narratives.

The “mythology of us ” is a melange of truth and fiction, hyperbole and stranger than fiction parables of people, places and things. Some of us came to America as immigrants.  Others  rose out of religious persecution or abandoned lives in an effort to give their children a better opportunity for a new start.

I look for occasions to impart these stories to my children.  As they grow older they consider their own heritage and the mythology of their ancestors as trite and dated allegories that serve little purpose.  Yet, on the right evening I can still entice them with a wartime story of their British great-grandfather digging victims of a V-1 rocket attack out of a bomb shelter in London or a distant ancestor whose Ohio home was part of the miraculous and dangerous Underground Railroad.  They have learned of a mongrel heritage of confederates, saints, villains, nobility and cutthroats.  Our own mythology rises out of tragedy and often chronicles individuals who had the misfortune of being born in a time where they were overwhelmed by circumstances.  They were first generation Irish, German, French and English immigrants.  They were soldiers killed fighting for the English army with General Gordon at Omdurman.  Some died of fever and others endured physical and mental hardships. A famous uncle was the only cavalry officer killed as he rode with Jeb Stuart around the flanks of the egotistical Union General George McClellan.  A painting depicting the tragic  “The Death of Lt. William Latane” C.S.A hangs in the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia.

The kids get quiet as I paint a canvas of restless Irishman wearing Union indigo as he clutches his glistening bayonet staring across a frozen December battlefield at Fredericksburg.  There was once a Chicago inventor and entrepreneur.  Dan Canary ran a taxi service recognized for its unique color – bright canary yellow.  Years later, he would protest that John Hertz had stolen his idea of the Canary cab – launching the iconic Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company. Dan never won his case against Hertz and in the process, lost his first wife, leaving him widowed  with eight children.  Ever the resourceful man, he successfully met and married a considerably younger woman through a mail order bride firm. They had three more girls – one of which was my grand mother, Ruth Farr Canary.

Whether we were once Huguenots escaping religious persecution or indentured souls willing to risk everything for a new start – we have evolved from the DNA of stronger ancestors – – individuals who endured, suffered, refused to acquiesce and searched the horizon line for a better way forward.

These fireside moments are the times I cherish as I plant seeds of our history and leaven in healthy doses of our own mythology –  a bloated myth of how my father walked miles to school through snow in urban Chicago or how a mischievious uncle almost swam in a Florida alligator pond on a drunken dare.   I work  these moments to weave the sacred and profane together in an endless book of virtues in hopes that these seeds might one day germinate in a time of crisis or decision.

When I think of the attributes I want my children to exhibit when they finally released into the unforgiving wilderness of man, I wonder what have I done this week, this month or this year to plant those seeds of character and virtue – generously fertilizing these life lessons with myths, stories and the history of us.

Our personal and American mythology is a wonderful story of survival, noble deeds, redemption, human frailty and the progression from self to selfless. It is only through telling our stories again and again that we might transfer knowledge, courage and confidence to our children. Like the Inuit, these fables are intended to symbolically relate the physical laws of man and nature to remind them of their our potential as individuals and as a nation.  Our greatness has not been completely stripped, overdrawn, sold, stolen or spent.  It is here – waiting to be rediscovered in new places to be excavated, mined and processed into the virtues of patience, hardwork and courage to change.

Perhaps the mountain that looms ahead won’t seem so steep if our children come to understand the myths, legends and folklore of those that climbed before them. Whether it is coming to see our natural world as a living, breathing entity or realizing the impossible is a self imposed limitation, our mythology can teach an entire generation to reverse our self destructive course and speak up over the voices of the false prophets and political charlatans.

We need our mythology to survive. Robert Redford recently warned a small audience that time is running out, “I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology will eventually disappear and ( some might argue) we’re close to that already.

Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Screwtape 2009

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

In 1942, CS Lewis penned the Screwtape Letters – a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape and his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. The letters chronicle the advice and counsel that the elder demon provides to his willing associate to help him corrupt a mortal Englishman known only as ” the Patient”.  In the correspondence between the two demons, God is simply referred to as “The Enemy” and Satan as “Our Father Below.” Character is a sin and sin is character. Wormwood’s task is straightforward:  Lead the Patient, by whatever means necessary, away from The Enemy and to eternal damnation. Lewis’ creative narrative is timeless and gives clever context to the temptations that erode our morality and the strong temporal winds that conspire to blow us off the straight and narrow path.  While Lewis was a Christian, his allegory transcends any denomination in focusing humorously on our common fragility as human souls.  His demons have spent centuries examining man – attempting to exploit our weaknesses, especially our propensity to not learn from the past.

While Wormwood seeks to trick and trap the Patient into great sins and spectacular moral missteps, Screwtape is constantly counseling endurance and vigilence. A demon’s job, not unlike a lion resting near a herd of gazelles, is to be patient, hanging back in the shade, waiting for an opportunity to confuse, distract or separate his prey from the rest of the herd. Damnation, it seems, is best achieved through separating one’s prey from The Enemy and from others within his community who might seek to protect him.  Hell, after all, at its’ most fundamental level, is separation from The Enemy. Spiritual decline starts imperceptibly through self pity and self indulgence.  We are, in Screwtape’s view, toads that can be cooked to death by merely bringing the water of self interest to a gradual boil.  If you make things too hot, too quickly, he cautions Wormwood, the patient will leap from the cauldron and escape.

In 1942, Anglican England was  less concerned about politically correctness around issues such as the separation of church and state.  Britain was infinitely more preoccupied with physical survival against the Nazi war machine. Mid-twentieth century  society still enforced tighter guardrails around morality, religion and social conformity. As war raged in deserts, mountains and at sea, there was a battle for the soul of man that flashed every moment of a person’s life.  Lewis’ Great Deceiver sought to exploit the fear that permeated the corners of every community. He dispatched his minions to cultivate new values – a morality of selfish pleasure, self seeking and self interest. As one reviewer opined, “Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as good and neither demon is capable of acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.”

What advice might Screwtape proffer to a more seasoned Wormwood in 2009? Would he be pleased with the state of our society? What kind of exchange might we intercept between the experienced corrupter of men send via his blackberry to his brash novitiate tempter?

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Greetings from Venezuela, dear Wormwood.  I regret not bearing witness to your coming of age across the great green Atlantic. While I am nostalgic for the mist and slow moral decay of England, I do enjoy the turbulence of Central and South America. With such poverty, despotism and half the population under 20 years old, this is fertile ground for multinational corporations to exploit the poor, political fundamentalism and a great cup of inexpensive coffee. The closer you get to the Equator, it seems the hotter it gets – literally and figuratively. This is where all the action is. How goes your new assignment, nephew?

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I was delighted to get your card and photographs.  How did you get Hugo Chavez to pose in women’s clothing? I am off to a very good start since being reassigned to America from England last September.  The October financial meltdown was perfect brimstone from Our Father Below. Everyone is afraid and as you have so often lectured, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.  As people get more paranoid over their material circumstances, they become myopic to the needs of others.  Self centered fear is tinder dry hope and I spend most of my day as a spiritual arsonist setting little fires – destroying peace of mind – releasing carcinogenic defects of character to sicken and weaken Patients.  People become selfish, irritable and discontent.  They blame others. They fight, hoard, hate and best of all, worry only about themselves.  It’s a beautiful thing, really. Yours, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: What a plum assignment! You even have cable TV and an economic crisis. Is it true what they say that 90% of Americans believe in the Enemy but they gratefully think it is politically incorrect to mention him or talk of him? I have trouble in some of these more religious Latin American countries as the churches are constantly sending mixed messages to my target audience. I try to convince those less fortunate that The Enemy has abandoned them and that religion is an opiate designed to medicate them in their dire circumstances – but the power of hope and faith is strong. I suggest working through reality television, the internet, violent video games, fashion magazines and the music industry.  Keep casting shadows, Screwtape.

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I am doing my best to create unrest playing politics. I learned from you the art of hedging and playing both sides. I have started a non profit group called America First which I use as a shell to promote scandalous anti-liberal propaganda.  I also fund another group called Government for The People where I try to discredit conservatives and moderates who might interfere with the massive expansion of social programs.  Fortunately, most Americans have short attention spans and can only handle 144 words at a time.  Thus, the creation of Twitter and decline of print media. It’s much easier to undermine a nation with an entrenched two party system.  I particularly like to discredit Blue Dogs and non-profit groups who preach being of service.

Everyone thinks the freshman President is an agent of Our Father Below but the fact is, he won’t even take our suggestions.  Even we are uncertain where he stands. It’s amusing and exciting  to not be able to find anyone who will admit voting for him.  I am constantly whispering in potential Patients’ ears about how the President is going to ruin the country. I haven’t seen this kind of angst and animosity since Neville Chamberlain gave his “Peace in our time” speech. Warmly, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org:  My brave and noble acolyte, remember the key to social decomposition is a multiplicity of factions and fundamentalism. You must create suspicion, self centered fear and doubt.  Focus your Patients on what they do not have and what may be denied to them. If someone looks they might do the right thing, cast doubts about their own circumstances.  Use the media to promote the notion that the world is a hopelessly screwed up cat’s cradle of self interest and we have to get whatever we can out of it.  Make everyone think they are on their own. It’s a cold world out there – well, except down here in Sweatville.  Have you read Sarah Palin’s new book? Our Father Below was clearly the first angel to “go rogue”. Perhaps we should recruit her? Would she recognize you if you joined her husband’s snowmobiling team?  Respectfully, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I have not read her musings.  I have already signed her ex-son-in-law to a kiss and tell book deal. It will actually be written in comic book format as he has a low IQ and nothing to say – a perfect recruit! I may leave a few copies of her book on Barney Frank’s doorsteps for giggles – although I think Barney would rather read Levi’s book.  I listen to rap, hip-hop and have force my posse to watch MSNBC and Fox each night to grasp the polar extremes.  I preprogrammed one patient’s TV to an infomercial channel that promises him $ 10,000 a week from buying and selling houses using sub-prime loans and government money.  I have corrupted Patients through infomercials – urging them to clean their colons, quit their jobs,  become day traders and on-line poker players.  (I usually let them win a few hands at PokerStars.com and suddenly they have mortgaged the house thinking they are Phil Ivey). I am a huge fan of transfats, high fructose corn syrup and sugar. What better way to displease The Enemy than helping hawk junk food to kids and obese adults.  Have you ever seen a morbidly obese person try to tie their shoes? – G2G, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: LOL. I am off to tour the Amazon this weekend and drop in on President Lula in Brazillia. He is hosting Ahmadinejad from Iran. We have done such a good job in Sao Paolo, it is too dangerous even for a demon.  I had two pitchforks stolen from the valet’s closet last trip.  The Enemy still lurks in the shadows of the slums and in despicable do-gooder groups. However, they can only do so much   Antipathy toward and from the US is creating new enemies and shutting down critical channels of communication and financing. Your admiring uncle, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org:  Uncle, I do worry about the Christmas season.  There’s a lot of regression in America this time of year.  People become aware of one another’s circumstances.  There’s less self pity.  The Enemy seems to go on the offensive every December.  It seems like every January First, we regress back to square one. Worried, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Don’t forget the tried and true New Year’s recipe for creating distance between the Enemy and his Patients.  For women, the “3 Ms”: men, muffins and Mastercard.  If you can get them into bad relationships, eating to medicate feelings and mindlessly shopping, it will surely lead to a negative loop of behavior that will drive greater self loathing.  Our Father Below loves self loathing.  For men, the “3 Ws”:  women, wealth and worth.  Once men start to feel sorry for themselves or believe that they are their masters of their own destinies, they self destruct. It is beautiful to watch.  They have affairs, indulge, posture, and wallow in self pity.  They have less time to parent, lead in their communities or carry the Enemy’s message to others.

Christmas is a tricky time but like rich fudge, its sugar high eventually wears off. G2G. Hugo is about to nationalize the food industry and then we are off to Kabul for a two week vacation in the Pashtun.  Can’t wait. Your loving uncle, Screwtape.

The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”. John Newton, 1773

It’s spring and with it comes an avalanche of Easter lilies, bunnies, egg hunts and hidden baskets.  Somewhere off in the distance, floating like buds on a dogwood is the message of redemption.  Buried under a benign avalanche of modern day commercialism, resurrection stirs.  It may be as subtle as a crocus risking its bloom in an early spring chill or the daffodil bravely signaling that we have once again been reborn from the depths of winter.  It is a time of year that activates a latent emotion deep within us, the idea of dying and being born again.

The concepts of redemption and resurrection are essential threads in the fabric of human history and culture.  No matter a person’s ideological or theological orientation  – atheist, agnostic or fanatical acolyte, the idea that one might redeem themselves and “resurrect” to become a better human being, holds deep spiritual appeal.  As children we heard stories that focused on individuals losing and regaining their purpose in life.  For those marched to Sunday school each week, we were taught the religious allegory of The Prodigal Son.  As a parent, the story of unconditional love resonates more today.  In the parable, one of two sons leaves his family, demanding his inheritance early from his father, which the son then summarily goes out and wastes.  When the son returns home broken, the father does not reject him but rejoices while the brother who had remained faithful to the father becomes upset.  The father explains to the faithful son that he is rejoicing that the “lost” son has returned just as a shepherd rejoices when he finds a lost sheep.  Because of a father’s unconditional love, the son rises again.

In life, redeemed sinners have left indelible marks on the world. Bill Wilson was a physician that had lost his reputation, self respect and soul to alcoholism.  Through his efforts to help another alcoholic stay sober, he founded the most successful spiritual movement of the 20th century, Alcoholics Anonymous.  Bill Wilson was hardly perfect.   But through the simple act of sharing his humanity and serving others, he was reborn giving hope to an entire generation of broken souls. Bill W was resurrected.

Literature offers us innumerable examples of the rise, fall and resurrection of mankind.  Charles Dickens created our most beloved Christmas fable, a Christmas Carol, a ghost story of redemption detailing the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In 1965, Alex Haley chronicled the story of Malcolm Little, a small-time crook and angry hoodlum who discovered Islam during his many years of incarceration.  His epiphany led to his reincarnation as Malcolm X, a fire brand minister for the American Nation of Islam that tirelessly labored to advance the moral and social future of the African American community.  Most recently, a popular South African movie, “Totsi” offers us the view of a ghetto tough in the shanties of Johannesburg that finds a baby while carjacking the vehicle from the child’s mother.  His encounter with the child transforms him and redeems him.

Every culture values redemption and resurrection. Buddhists believe one can improve their karma and achieve enlightenment with personal change and better moral conduct.  Hindus believe that Moksha, the release from the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation), can only be achieved through the personal change and improvement – – through meditation, good works, devotion or knowledge. Many Christians worship the teachings of St Paul who prior to his miraculous conversion on the road to Tarsus, was Saul, the “crazed destroyer” of Christians.

As human beings, we are a complicated collision of opposites. We are fascinated by failure and those in our society who fall.  Even though we know at our core that everyone is imperfect, schedenfruede and insecurity compel us to watch the spectacular failings of people.  We are riveted by the gory public revelations of celebrities, politicians and every day people’s private imperfections.  In a bizarre way, we feel better about our own uneven lives.

Yet, within that same psyche that celebrates the fall, we also celebrate redemption. We are irresistibly drawn to tales of emancipation, salvation, and atonement.  The most happy among us seem to be able to re-embrace those that they, at one time, had banished. We find ourselves pulling for any person who overcomes self inflicted hardship. Whether it is a pro athlete who was once addicted to pain killers or a celebrity that succumbs to the artificial reality of stardom, we have short memories and a predisposition to forgive.  We love a comeback.  We have awards for most improved person and the comeback player of the year.  We love redemption.

What reassures me is this human capacity for compassion and forgiveness.  Vengeance and resentment are social and psychological cancers.  Actress Carrie Fischer once remarked that resentment was like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die”. Resentments are warm, familiar mud but they wash away in the fresh water of resurrection. We want to believe in salvation.  We pray for the various forms of resurrection – recovery from disease, release from heartache, redemption from corruption or resurrection from failure.    The one common attribute in anyone’s recovery and resurrection is the love of others – an individual or a community willing to unconditionally help a flawed person recover and find their way.  It is our quest to be part of a society that participates and celebrates in the return of any prodigal “son”.

As my children search for Easter eggs and baskets, I search for something more elusive, a golden egg hidden deep in the tangled undergrowth of my soul.  I am reminded on Easter of the value of resurrection.  In my church, I will faithfully hear the story of the son of God who rose from the dead.  As I ponder the themes of death and resurrection, I try to translate this to my children so they can practically understand that anyone can be reborn. Progress, not perfection is our human quest. The ability for anyone to recover depends on the love of another. Forgiveness and the instinct to celebrate when another lost sheep rejoins the fold, is an essential ingredient of our humanity.

I guess in the end, the “golden egg” I seek is grace – the ability to give it and receive it.

Ehrmann’s law

Ehrmann’s Law

 

Pulitzer Prize Winner MacKinlay Cantor once wrote that perhaps loving one’s children too much was a form of severe conceit.  That somehow by loving too much and living too vicariously through them,  that we forget that we are merely stewards preparing them for life.  In deriving too much happiness through them, we lose ourselves. 

 

I had the great privilege of witnessing Joe Ehrmann’s “sermon” at NC high school the other evening.  What I appreciated most about his life views was challenge to us as a community to consider how we are raising our young men and women.  More importantly, how do we prepare them to be a part of a community – whether it be on a sports team, middle school or our town?  As a parent, employer and coach, I was interested in how Mr Ehrmann defined success and what he did to reinforce it in his kids. 

 

Ehrmann talked about the pain and dysfunction visited on many children who fall outside of the fringes of a very distinct social order that starts at an early age and is reinforced by society – – a society that celebrates strength, athleticism, conquest and financial prowess in men, and beauty, belonging and popularity in women.  He related his own confusion as a young man with an absentee father.  He shared how he relentlessly pursued his athletic career, suffocating his own sense of self and having no interest in anyone other than the validation that came from winning.  As a 29 year old, All Pro NFL star, he lost his eighteen year old little brother to cancer, and had his epiphany.  Perhaps there was more to life than conquest, self satisfaction, conflict, and finally an unceremonious death where the crowd pays homage and then turns its backs on the cold hole in the ground and melts away.

 

He began a journey that he travels to this day – as a reverend, a coach, a father, a friend, a citizen of his community and a man.  He believes our society’s messaging to kids is all wrong.  He believes a parent and a coach’s responsibility is to validate each kid and to use that precious self esteem to teach them how to be the best that they can be.  A society defined by seeking to maximize the potential of every one of its citizens is a great and noble society indeed.  On his football team he asks his kids, “ what is the coach’s responsibility ? “  “ To love us” is his kids response.  “What’s your responsibility” asks the coaches.  “ To love each other “, is the team’s response.  He promotes compassion, community and self-less respect for everyone.  He has been the subject of an HBO special and an award winning book.

 

Ehrmann believes boys and girls need to be taught that it is ok to express emotion and love.  The penchant to hide one’s emotions, to dread embarrassment, to muscle through  pain and to always wear your “game face” has trained a generation of young men to separate their heads and hearts and to perhaps miss the very essence of what it means to be a real man, a complete human capable of love and to be loved openly and unconditionally. 

 

Ehrmann’s football teams sign contracts of conduct.  They have ten minute lessons on a variety of social and racial issues before practice to sensitize his community of players about their obligations to themselves, to young women ( these are teenaged boys after

all )  and to their broader community.  Sure, some parents feel like the coaches are overstepping their roles.  As Ehrmann said, “ the Mom’s get it right away.  It takes the dad’s a little longer , especially if they were brought up in the don’t cry, don’t back off, conquer everything “ culture of the great American Male. 

 

As I think about my own experiences as a baseball coach and the audience of young, earnest boys that I lead each season with my friend Michael Kramer, I understand the opportunity we have to shape these young men and reinforce key messages.  I realize when I coach and parent, I send my kids hundreds of little messages every day as I react to their actions and their accomplishments – – their grades, sports, achievements and popularity.  Am I reinforcing the right values?

 

I consider my own ten year old that lives for sports, idolizes ands seeks to please his coaches and thrives on the chaos and testosterone of his band of brothers. I think of my teenaged daughter and her vulnerability to the messages the media and our society sends her about the way she should dress, interact with boys, spend her money and time.  What will ultimately define her as a women ?  Is femininity defined by being cool or compassionate ?  Thin or thankful ?

 

Is the fact my eight year old son shows less interest in sports than he does in reading his Guinness Book of World Records ?  Nope.  It’s about me remembering what’s important and that if my kid finds a sense purpose beyond himself,  he stands a better chance to navigates life’s currents and shoals and find ports of serenity and peace.  It stands to reason that the opposite of self love is humility – not thinking less of yourself, just thinking of yourself less of the time. The true definition of love is to serve others unconditionally.  Ask Mother Teresa.

 

The fact is, as a coach, parent, friend, neighbor, boss, brother, sister, husband or wife, we can change so many lives.  As Clarence, the angel, says to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life,  “ you see George, you really did have a wonderful life”.  It took Heaven to remind old George Bailey that his own self imposed sense of failure was defined by a misguided sense of what society judged him as and it had no real bearing on the fact that he was a great man, friend, father and civic leader.  George Bailey was a “rich” man – – wealthy in character, integrity, compassion and selflessness.  Joe Ehrmann reminded me that those are the attributes of a real man. 

 

I looked around that auditorium and I saw my friends, neighbors and fellow coaches.  I felt a sense of deep kinship to my community as I saw a village recognizing its need to come together to better raise every child.  That’s Ehrmann’s law

Mikey’s Song

imagesLet children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.  John Muir

It was a gorgeous Indian summer day when I heard the news that Mikey Czech had passed away.  It was the kind of day Mikey Czech would have loved – warm, breezy and perfect for New England Patriots football. Mikey was 11 years old and had been battling a brain tumor for months with extraordinary courage and resolve.  Over the course of the spring and summer of 2008, Mikey had become his generation’s Johnny Gunther Jr. demonstrating with every step, breath, treatment, and remarkable milestone, that the size of one’s body has no relation to the size of one’s heart.

I was 14 years old when I read the book, Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther Sr, who chronicled the battles of his son Johnny Gunther Jr., as he valiantly fought a brain tumor.  The memory of this best selling novel written in 1949 remains with me to this day and changed my perspective on how each of us can achieve meaning in our fragile lives.  Not unlike John Gunther Sr, Mikey’s dad Steve Czech chose to chronicle his son’s battle via emails to family and friends giving and drawing strength from the community and the humanity that seemed to arise out of every “How’s Mikey” moment.

I followed young Master Czech’s story with keen interest and smiled as Mikey became a beloved accidental celebrity. A broad audience of concerned friends, family and acquaintances regularly gathered inspiration from his progress following treatments and were amazed at the extent of outreach, well wishes, support and prayers that he received from the farthest reaches of the world, from celebrities, athletes and dignitaries. Mikey became a surrogate son to many of us who followed his brave journey. At 11 years old, he was near the age of my own boys and it was only by one degree of separation that I realized it could be me sitting in a pediatric chemotherapy wing waiting for my child.

I watched Mikey fight hard.  He downplayed with his parents and sister Sydney the disabling effects of his chemotherapy and radiation.  He insisted on walking the several blocks to and from the hospital where he was receiving his treatments.  He dreamed of getting back to play baseball and football with his friends.  He threw out the first pitch, kicking off the 2008 New Canaan Baseball season, returning to play and graft back easily on to the huge oak of friends that shaded him and gave him strength.  I was so pleased to see kids in the community aware and rallying unconditionally in their support for Mikey –writing letters, sending cards, creating a massive banner and wearing Stay Strong wrist bands.

Throughout this long journey across a pitched black ocean, the Czech’s family ship kept taking on new crew, people wanting to lend a hand, offer a hug or just take a turn on the helm to let the family grab some shut-eye.  Mikey became every man’s child which is what every church, synagogue, temple or mosque strives to inculcate into its congregations – – that every child is our child, that no man is an island and that we are given the capacity and emotional bandwidth at our creation to care for everyone.

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, 
The black minute’s at end, 
And the elements’ rage, the friend-voices that rave, 
Shall dwindle, shall blend, 
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, 
Then a light, then thy breast, 
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, 
And with God be the rest. 

Robert Browning

Mikey’s passing is devastating – – for his family, his friends and his community.  As a father of three children, neighbor and fellow member of the Czech’s community, I find myself unable to even comprehend the magnitude of the family’s loss.  I arise each day, first and foremost, a father who adores, loves, shapes and mends his children.  I have come to believe the true definition of joy is watching someone you love obtain happiness and that despair is the inability to trade places with that person you love to ameliorate their pain. It’s times like these that we look to Heaven for answers and we ask questions  – lot’s of questions.  Most often, we simply ask why?  However, if Mikey were here, I am certain he would be pleased that he brought people together and he would want us to celebrate his life.  He would probably explain that he has just run ahead of us into that deep mysterious wood around the trail’s curve.  He’s checking it out and he’s laughing as he shouts back, “ it’s beautiful.  I’ll just wait for you guys to catch up.  Bring your baseball glove!”

Mikey’s Song

You’re just a bit ahead of me

Exploring all there is to see

I can’t be sad to see you run

It’s who you are.  You are my son

 

It’s better when you’re by my sleeve

But I accept that you must leave

I’m supposed to take the lead

To clothe, to love, to teach, to feed

 

But you so full of life and spirit

You love the trail and never fear it

You made me more a man each day

Watching the way you lived and played

 

But now I’m in a shadowed place

I’ve lost my way, can’t see your face

The fear sets in, this path is wrong

And then I hear your happy song

 

It’s rushes waving in a breeze

The way the snow rests soft on trees

A single star aloft in space

The wind’s caress across my face

 

Our hands can’t touch but you are there

I feel your breath and smell your hair

Your song tells me you’ll be all right

Until the day we reunite

Mikey’s Song, M. Turpin

My Bodyguard

My Bodyguard

 

We all have people that come into our lives and in doing so, as Robert Frost mused, it can make all the difference .  My guardian angel, rumbled into my young adulthood in the guise of a six foot, eight inch ex-Notre Dame basketball player named Lloyd.  At 24 years old, I was still leading a rather self indulgent lifestyle and had failed to realize that having left the ivory tower and ivy covered walls of college, I was laying a poor foundation for my future. 

 

An intuitive friend introduced me to Lloyd, a 55 year old divorced health insurance salesman with a flaming red beard and a rapier like wit, who took me to lunch and within an hour became my mentor, confessor and closest friend.  Over the months and years that followed, we became inseparable.  Lloyd’s acerbic wit and self effacing humor was a bridge over our generational gap and my own deep canyons of self doubt. 

 

Lloyd would routinely inventory all of his character defects as if to remind himself of the need to be self aware and to celebrate his own imperfection. He was always mocking his chronic selfishness by saying that his girlfriend, Dee, and he had only one thing in common – – “ we both love the same person….me “.  He shared that humility meant “ not thinking less of one’s self, but just thinking of one’s self less of the time”.  Lloyd would complain about his commitments and the numerous “ knuckleheads “ as he would refer to me and others,  that he was shepherding through life.  However, if you watched where his feet went, it was always in the direction of serving others and in doing so, finding peace and serenity – – two things that so completely eluded him in early in his life as he was pursuing his own needs, ambitions and material goals.

 

“ You have to give it, to get it” he would muse.  Just another of his bumper sticker sound bites that would roll off his tongue as we discussed a problem or an issue at work.  His field of vision was very clear as he plotted all of mankind along a continuum of humanity.  On one end of the spectrum was self worship, self pursuit and often self centered fear.  “ It’s the root of all evil” Lloyd would muse.  “ Self centered fear is the trigger for each one of our own little pandora’s box of bad habits – envy, spite, disingenuousness.  They all percolate up when we are afraid “  On the other end of his continuum of humanity were those that served others with complete disregard for themselves.  “ You’ll find those that operate on the right side of the line ( serving others instead of themselves ) to be the happiest, most content and most durable in the face of crisis and catastrophe.”  If I would start to complain to him about a self centered problem, he would just look bored and say “ can you hurry up and finish your whining so we can get back to talking about me.”  That would usually cause me to laugh and realize how self absorbed I had become.  

 

Lloyd’s theology of living was non traditional and the focus of his worship was “an old woman in an apple tree.”  He would smile “ she yells at me and gives me advice the way my Irish grandmother used to.”  I would look at him as if he had three heads.  “ The point is” , he would share.  “ my God is my business.  It’s personal but there is no doubt in my mind that my higher power wants me to serve others, try the best I can but leave the heavy lifting to her “.  As if to confirm he was not in control of his life,  Lloyd’s computer screen had been programmed to read, “  Dear Lloyd, I won’t be needing you today.  Love God “

 

How this irreverent, self centered ex-athlete became this gentle giant of wisdom was revealed to me over time the way a war veteran might reluctantly share his traumatic experiences under the safety of darkness, sitting on a veranda on a summer’s night.  What I learned was that this man whose early years were marked by tremendous financial success, he had been adrift with no moral or personal compass to guide him. He ultimately was struck down, not unlike Saul on the road to Tarsus.  Thus began, his transformation from as he would say,’ being all about him, to it becoming all about everyone else.’

 

As I raise my children and I listen intently to their self centered fears and their material concerns, I  remind them that happiness may appear to temporarily come from getting what you want.  But real joy comes from serving others and realizing that we are here to not get ahead of the other guy, but to get ahead of ourselves.  I learned my life lessons from a guy who looked like the Jolly Green Giant.  He became my best friend and the best man in my wedding. Sometimes good things do come in big packages.  

God, Church and Construction Sites

Braswell Congregational Holiness Church's Sund...
Image by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

God, Church and Construction Sites

 

Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”.  My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church.  It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church.  The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers.  He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit.  We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town.  By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.

You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”.  We were not really sure what “pinkos” were.  We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home.  My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “.  This perplexed me.  We saw no Cubans at the coffee table.  No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.

In looking back now on that fateful day,  my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy.  That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week.  That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.

Sundays always confused me.  There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry.  We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town.  I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program.  My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave.  I hated it.

The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week.  As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris.  My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees.  He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling.  He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.

Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground.  As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation.  The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills.  Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed.  The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual.   I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.

The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them.  They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community.  I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes.  But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.

The key was finding a church home that felt right.  It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world.  As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood.  Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker.  He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view.  My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.

They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God.  1966 was a different time and place.  Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time.  In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone.  The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.

One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.