Life

I was thinking about how when we went to Montana in February it snowed and snowed and snowed. Every day, all day. There was so much snow everywhere. It seemed like the Bozeman road crew just kind of gave up — there was really nowhere for the snow to go after a while.

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It was so pretty outside, all that white. Except that Nate’s magnificent girlfriend, Gretta, was in the hospital and we had to drive through all that snow each day to get there. Also, I had to drive Nate’s trusty Subaru Outback through a bunch of that snow to get us the the emergency room the night she had a seizure and it scared the heck out of all of us, but we got there and Gretta got better and eventually winter turned to spring and Nate and Gretta (whose names we almost always mash up into one: Netta or Grate) came to Vermont and we all played outside in the warmer, longer days and the whole family fell in love with Gretta and with Nate being in love with Gretta.

We got this new car recently, also a Subaru Outback, and Coco and I were thinking about what to name it because we always name our cars. We settled on Gretta because the car is trustworthy and reliable and sporty and strong, like our human Gretta. Then we learned that Gretta is kind of a derivation of Margretta, which means the pearl and because the car is pearlescent white the name took on another layer of significance.

It was kind of funny, thinking back to all that snow and driving the Suby in Montana and our Gretta, how white everything was. Now we have this pearly white Suby of our own, The Gretta, here in Vermont.

Life is funny, right?

A couple of days ago I walked into the room of one of the people I serve in my role as a chaplain in an elder and long-term care place in Saratoga Springs. A bunch of the person’s family members were there, visiting and being together. It turned out that one of them had been Coco’s teacher back in Charlotte, Vermont, a whole bunch of years ago. We were amazed and awed and delighted to have returned to one another, all these years later, in a totally unexpected place.

A few weeks ago I walked in to the office of the organization I work for in Bennington and was wandering around meeting the staff, turned a corner and saw the familiar face of someone I had worked with about twenty years ago when I was a teacher in Manchester. Here we are, all these years later, both of us having raised and launched our boys, gotten divorced, gone back to school to learn how to do something different, working together again.

I mean. Life. Wow.

I have found myself many, many times this summer, marveling at all of it. The bees that showed up in the Saratoga backyard, the incredible green of Vermont, the chilly perfection of Lake George, the quiet of the dirt road in the morning, the birds singing so sweetly, the babies! There are babies again … Frida and Brooklyn and Keene. Thank god for those babies. Fireflies, fireworks, evening fires … woodsmoke and honey and summer sun, brown skin and baby drool, music and art … I mean … come on!

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I gave a talk to a group of new hospice volunteers the other day, about my work as a chaplain. I told them stories of all the amazing things I’ve experienced over the years, in the company of the dying. I talked about the sacred nature of the work, the holy endeavor they were choosing to pursue. There were a couple of college students in the group: a Sam and a Beanie. It made me think of my Sam, somewhere in Croatia at the moment, and my Beanie (Nate), hunkered down in Montana and headed out on the road soon (with the human Gretta), touring the Pacific Northwest in search of a potential post-graduate home.

I told those hospice volunteers a bunch of things, I probably talked too much. Most importantly, what I told them was to stay curious. To keep all of their senses awake and to stay curious about all of it, all of life. And about all of death. “Because we are all deeply interconnected … us, the natural world, the animal world and the spirit world.”

Magical things will happen, I told them. Be grateful and curious and good and magical things will happen.

For certain, I promise.

Church, Croatia.

Church, Croatia.


Sceptical

For a number of years I chose suffering as a way of life. I mistakenly thought that, in order to be a good healer, a good minister, fair-minded and available to all, I had to take on a lot of pain and grief. A lot. I walked through this world as a sponge, soaking up everyone’s suffering. I thought that I needed to be poor in order to serve well a God I believe in and trust. I thought that becoming ill, suffering misfortune, being endlessly forgiving and constantly shoring up the lives of everyone who needed shoring up was simply part of the drill.

I did not think that it was possible
to find peace
to be content
to make a decent living
to be respected, honored and heard in love
to wake up delighted and not filled with dread

I had become so used to settling for so little in life that I had become the very worst thing one can become: sceptical (I use the British spelling because I like it).

The way the world felt, the way my life felt, with calamity and chaos playing out in all directions; upheaval, disconnection, dis-ease holding a starring role in my daily existence, I began to think that this was a less than desirable place to be, that maybe the other world would come as a kind of relief. Death can easily become the norm, a compelling option for an exhausted hospice chaplain. What’s worse still, when I expressed this to someone I loved, his response was essentially, I will not be held responsible for your happiness.

But of course. We carry trauma from our difficult childhoods and, when unresolved, spend our adult days giving that away in the form of shitty behavior toward others. We are tethered to and slaves of our devices and our addictions. We slip into a trough in this life and ride it out until we take that last gasp of the air that fills this world and depart for someplace that sounds much nicer, from what I can glean from my friends who have died.

I’m still here, you may have noticed.
What happened?

As is so often the case with any re-routed trajectory in life, I had had enough. I reached the point of saturation; I was tired of being tired but not so tired that I truly wanted to sleep the big sleep. Tired enough that I was ready to make some changes. I spent time walking these dirt roads alone, praying, meditating, Reiki-ing the heck out of myself. I talked with my kids, the best healers I know. I looked at art, wrote stuff down, ate lots of fruit.

I looked around for the good teachers in my midst. I could tell who they were by the way they looked me right in the eyes, were not in a hurry and always liberal with their warm and genuine hugs.

I cleared space, did the difficult work of The Ending. Closed chapters, gave away a ton of stuff, relocated myself away from toxic spaces and told the Great Universe I was ready for better to arrive (the Great Universe already knew this, but it was my job to say it anyway).

I took responsibility for my own well-being. Instead of seeking out others to poke or prod or listen to me, diagnose and prescribe, I taught myself how to heal myself.

Good things came, good people, honest and real people, ones whose feet are on terra firma and whose hearts face True North. Vocation and purpose became clearer; I am doing everything every day that I love with all of my heart. The sun became warmer, the lakes cooler; my nights are filled with deep and replenishing sleep. Heck, I even got a new car, a white one, my chariot.

No one congratulates us on our deathbed for having thrown away our lives, given away our joy, sucked up all the pain in our midst, settled for anything less than a truly satisfying life. It is, in large part, about a willingness to own all of one’s own-ness. To heal brokenness, to dispose of the worn-out tape playing over and over about who we are and what we do or don’t deserve in this life.

I am whole, present and strong and on any given day you can come to me to spit shine your aura or tie-dye your chakras. I will do my best to channel the light of this world in your direction. I am learning to do this without giving away my peace or the entire bandwidth of divine love and grace flowing through me. I will share, though, I promise. I got this, and you do, too.

Happy, happy, happy summer days.

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The Clark

We went to the Clark in Williamstown. They’ve created a kind of small miracle there, of indoor and outdoor spaces of equal splendor and delight. I don’t want to spoil it for you; you should just go.

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My favorite painting is there, the one by Sargent of the woman in Tangiers standing over a beautiful silver senser with burning ambergris. I could stare at it forever.

They have an exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s sister, Ida’s, work. It’s interesting. But disappointing to read how poorly Georgia treated her sisters, who were both painters. Ego stuff.

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We sat down at a table outside for lunch and just as we were getting up to leave we noticed a dime on the far corner. The spirits have been very busy in my life lately, but this move was particularly mischievous as both of were certain that no dime had been there when we sat down.

I love this world. And the other one, too.

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The great thing about art museums and about taking a day away to walk slowly among great paintings, to sit in the sun and do nothing, to talk about life and death and love and fears and kids and parents and dreams and paintings and food and other things, too, is that it helps you to look at the world differently. It shifts your brain in good ways so that when you go home you might be inclined to crawl beneath a flower for a change, so you can see what the grass sees and what the bees see and how that flower sees the blue sky.

Good art and good days will do that.

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Eight

Of all the good stories swirling and swarming, this one is great.

Eight years ago I had bees. Why not, right? Everyone should try lots of new things in this life. Keeping bees helped me get over some fears I had and taught me a new appreciation for things going on in the world around us, things we often take for granted and ignore. I liked getting suited up and being among the bees in the same way I liked wearing the fire gear when I was a firefighter. You’re safe inside that stuff without being separated from the world. Plus it was fun and funny to have all those bees in our family.

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My love at the time, Kj, loved the bees too and wanted to have his own bees back home in Saratoga but he was really intent on capturing a swarm rather than buying bees, which was how I got them.

So he got all the stuff, the equipment and then he waited. If you build it, right?

And you know, sometimes that’s what it takes in life … patience. Fortitude. Preparedness. Tenacity.

A couple of weeks ago a swarm showed up in his backyard, way up high in a tree. Like way. But he’s strong and able and brave and funny so he climbed that tree and gathered those bees up and brought them down to the hive that had been patiently awaiting their arrival. And just like that he became a beekeeper.

They’re at the far end of the tennis court, getting the royal treatment with a water dish and an umbrella. Needless to say, no one is playing much tenny this summer; the bees have become the love story of the season. We watch them in the heat, we watch them fly away and back, we rescue them when they’ve flown into the pool.

A kindhearted and gentle beekeeping teacher, Tim, came to teach all of us more about bees. We were mesmerized, enchanted by the story of bee life, bee community. He told us there are over 30,000 bees in the hive. That’s a lot of new neighbors. He told us about their flight patterns, about the queen, about how a hive can build a new queen, he told us to come right up close, that the smoke would keep them mellow, which was true. He showed us how to open the hive up and to look around inside to see how the bees were doing.

He taught us so much, and we were all delighted and amazed all over again, just like we were when we heard the story and saw the pictures of the big swarm in the tree out back and how Kj filled that bucket with bees and then made a cozy home for them.

He’s good that way, with the taking care of all creatures.

But hold on … the honey. Fresh honey, on the comb, straight out of the hive … surely this is what all the food in heaven tastes like. And on this morning it was infused with a bit of the smoke from the smoker … the golden liquid, made with so much love, with the added smokiness … word failure here.

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I mean. Get bees. Get to know bees. Be patient and curious. And grateful. Eight years is a long time to wait for something good to manifest, right? And so worth it worth it worth it.

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Well

I had this funny moment yesterday when I was packing. I looked at the pile of clothes, which, by the way I never pack so well or am so organized that I pile the clothes first and then put them in the duffle. But I was really hellbent on getting it right, so I got all the stuff together and then piled it up and when I looked at it I kind of giggled because it was all either white or something with stripes. That’s what a pile of summer clothes looks like, I thought. And then I thought of what my clever comment about the clothes would be if I was still using social media.

I mean, to be fair, technically by writing here I am using social media, so it’s not like I’m some perfect, quiet little off-the-grid maiden, milking the cows and then reading a book and then chopping wood to cook dinner.

Please.

Anyway. Instead of taking a photo with my iPhone and posting it to Instagram and then putting the clothes in the black Patagonia duffle (read, gear snob), I eliminated the first look at what I’m doing all of you step, threw everything plus some shoes plus the green Patagonia Dopp kit (read, ridiculous) into the bag then went on my way. With kid. Can’t forget that part; everything is better when Coco is in the story.

The moment passed. And too did all of the moments throughout the day when I would have been checking back to see if anyone liked my photo and my very clever words about my stripy summery clothes.

You may be able to surmise from this little piece that I am still coming down from the effects of a good ten, I’m guessing, solid years of Facebook and Instagram use. I don’t remember when I first signed on to Facebook—it’s been around for fifteen years and I, curious about everything, was an early user. Like any recovery period, things can get dicey from time to time. The whiff of former habits remains. It’s never easy to stop doing something that adds a zing (or fifty) of adrenaline to one’s daily diet. Those little upward pointing thumbs, tiny hearts, the numbers going up throughout the day … yes, I am alive, yes, people notice my life, yes … those are feel-good moments and the folks who are working diligently to keep you engaged with those platforms know this—they work in the same building as Big Pharma.

Let me be clear about something. Your life, your days, your hours, are yours alone to spend as you wish. I’m not here writing about social media to chastise anyone for the choices they make in regards to how to use their time; what I do here is tell little stories about my days in the hopes that someone may go … hmm.

That’s all. Just hmm.

I have evolved, at the tender age of 54, into a work life in which people move slowly. Some because they are in a wheelchair, some because they are very alone, some because they are in the process of dying. Days are long and quiet for many of the people I get to spend time with. The worlds in which my people reside are often very small — a room with a bed. Many of the people I am with don’t have the freedom to go where they want when they want, to do as they please. Being with them slows my life down, a lot. One simply cannot be in a hurry when one is talking with a person who is coping with a terminal diagnosis or dealing with the irrefutable reality of our fleshy existence—that limbs stop working and disease comes home to roost.

So these people, they are my teachers, their one-bed rooms my classroom. In this School of Life I am learning to use the time I have consciously.

By consciously I mean thoughtfully. By thoughtfully I mean intentionally. By intentionally what I hope I mean is well.

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Obviously I can’t spend every minute of every day well. I mean, I could, but even that gets exhausting after a while. What I can do is work harder to own and accept the truth that I choose how to use my time, my time is limited, and so it’s probably a good idea for me to use what I have in meaningful ways.

In meaningful ways means something different to everyone. For me it means being with people I love, looking at their eyes, talking with them, touching them. It means eating yummy food with them. I love food! It means helping people who need help. Sometimes that’s someone I love, like my parents; sometimes that’s someone I’ve just met, like the young woman who was hitchhiking to Manchester the other day, a Long Trail hiker in need of a lift. I learned that she is a bookbinder and that bookbinders have competitions (!) and that she has taken a month away from her bookbinding life to hike alone and that she grew up in Maine. I saw her bright blue eyes and heard the New England lilt of her voice. I saw her courage and was inspired by it. Her life touched mine for the 20 minutes she was in my car with me.

I have often wondered what our lives would be like if we were born with an expiration date on the bottom of our foot. Would we turn away from people and things that suck the life and time from us? With a known stretch of time here on planet Earth would we accomplish more? Take more risks? It often feels like we lull around in this haze of … I have forever, I’ll do that tomorrow … until the diagnosis comes, until someone we love dearly dies, until the sideswipe of the car accident. Or maybe we make it all the way to our 60s or 70s where we begin to really taste our mortality. We get that metal taste in our mouth; we are going to more memorial services than weddings; we understand that our best days may be behind us and not out front, beyond that haze of uncertainty, of fear, of laziness that has clouded our thoughts and slowed our movements for much of our lives.

I don’t have any answers to the conundrum of immortality, the vexing truth that we all die, the question of how to live while we are here. But I do think that life is more about giving up than taking on; I think I’ve lived long enough now and traveled enough dark tunnels of regret and sorrow and loss to know that it’s most often in the letting go of the unnecessary noise and inhibiting habits and relationships of our lives when the soil beneath our feet becomes rich and our soul has room to really grow.

There are almost eight billion of us on this planet today; my story is only one. Everyone’s heart hears a different song; everyone’s journey is novel and important in some way. I can tell you what I have learned and what I believe to be universally true: that life is far more fleeting and uncertain than you realize, that everyone, without fail, when they are dying, wishes they had spent more time with the people they love; that love is both the question and the answer.

And that the love of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with an emoji.

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