stuff

My mother told me yesterday evening that the folks who came for the end of the month open food shelf at church took home a bunch of the things I had left on the tables from our tag sale last week. The tag sale was lots of fun, I met so many good people, and when it was done I left everything there at the church and told everyone I knew to tell everyone they know to help themselves.

Some folks seemed sad, some confused, that I’m getting rid of pretty much everything I own, but if you lived a life like mine: nomadic, with ever-widening concentric circles of responsibilities, love and desires (to be with my kids, to serve the world in creative ways, to spend time with the people I love), you would start to see the ownership of stuff as a problem, too. With a new position as pastoral care coordinator at an elder community in Saratoga, the place where I grew up, this fall I will be “living” in three different places.

Is it weird? Crazy? Unsustainable? I’ll find out. Something will have to give, no doubt. In the meantime, I’m releasing the things I’ve collected in the days when I was homesteading. And it makes me giddy with delight and relief.

When people are dying, and I’ve been hanging around the dying for a good solid six years now, so I’ve seen every imaginable configuration, diagnosis, age, scenario. Rich, poor, young, old, surprised, angry, tired, desperately hungry for more. But not more trips to Target, not a new car, not more stemware, shoes, rooms, money, books. More time. Everyone always wants more time. They want more time with their kids and grandkids. They want more time to do the things they put off doing when they weren’t sick. They want more time to just be in this world, doing things with their people.

Six years of witnessing that and it starts to sink in: many of our habits are misguided. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that ultimately makes most of us miserable: we’ve been trained to think we should want more, bigger, newer. Our consumeristic tendancies, our unnquenchable thirst for more stuff, our jealous longing for what that other person has are a tremendous waste of resources and lead us down a road to spiritual and physical exhaustion. I read recently that one in ten Americans is taking an anti-depressant. How did it come to this? How did we become so unhappy? So lost?

Time is our most precious commodity and we don’t know it until it’s almost all gone. We don’t recognize happiness until we see it in the rear view mirror. We seem to be unable or unwilling to exist peacefully inside our own lives. If we accumulated less and gave away more, perhaps then we would find satisfaction. If we treasured time and gathered love the way we hoard stuff no one would die with regrets.

And believe me when I tell you, everyone dies with regrets.

When I tell people about the hospice thing they usually scrunch up their face and say something like, “that must be so hard … I could never do that.”

I wish everyone would though. I wish hospice training and hospice volunteering were a mandatory part of the curriculum of life. Because it’s only when we face death that we start to understand how to live. Death is life’s greatest champion. Death looks you straight in the eye and says Get to the point, cut the shit, we ain’t got all day.

For those requiring more tender language, death wraps her wily self around us and reminds us of what really matters: people, love, trees, dogs, the deepest yearnings of your heart, the members of your family, facing the truths about yourself so you can put that aside and get on with the business of being present and accounted for. We have a lot of dress rehearsals: we die to our dreams, we experience death in relationships, we lose our way, our focus, our health and eventually our bodies. Eventually we face The Loss: the clock strikes midnight and not only does the coach turn back to a pumpkin, we turn back into stardust.

Its hard to hold a baby when you’re dust. It’s hard to say I love you when you no longer have lips. It’s impossible to sit and talk with your kids when you’re dead.

Mom told me that a woman who came to the food shelf said that she had nothing hanging on her walls and so she took all of my photographs home with her. They were some of my favorites, nicely framed. I always hated putting a price tag on my work, always believed that everyone should have access to photography, nice imagery. I don’t think I can describe how happy it made me to hear that that woman took all those pictures home with her yesterday, maybe hung them on her walls, looked at images I have loved before she went to sleep last night. Woke up today and gazed at them again. This is the treasure of a life.

Peace in your hearts, my friends. Put your phones away today and be present with your people, be present with yourself. Be present in this beautiful world. Be generous with your gifts, with your time, with your love. You’ll never regret it, I promise.

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Not So Superstar

We have in this Sunday’s reading what I would call the crankypants version of Jesus.

It’s a passage from Luke, one of the books I like because whoever was doing the writing did it for an audience that was sort of … let’s sit around and have a bite to eat and talk about this God stuff. Right up my alley.

Jesus is in a hurry to get on with things, to get the whole preaching and ministry thing up and running and stabilized, presumably before he dies, and his friends are kind of dragging their feet, talking about stuff they need to get done first and Jesus is that mother who is desperately trying to get out of the freaking house to Just Get the Goddamned Grocery Shopping Done and the toddler needs that one tractor toy and the mom is like “I’M WALKING OUT THE DOOR AND IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE CAR I’M LEAVING YOU HERE GET IN THE CAR RIGHT NOW!”

Which you know is never true because no mother worth her weight in Cheerios would actually ever leave her kid behind. I hope.

Jesus is pulling the same stuff in this reading. When someone says, “I have to go home and bury my father first,” in response to Jesus’ giddyap, Crankypants replies “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

Question mark.

Dead people can’t lift dead people, duh, Jesus. Let the dead bury the dead? Does he mean … only the spiritually dead will be left behind … to tend to the dying and dead? Because if that’s what he means I take umbrage, capital U.

Another person in the passage says “Let me first say good-bye to those at my home.” To which Jesus responds “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Bull-oney.

First of all, Jesus, my understanding is that everyone is fit for the kingdom of God, even and perhaps especially those who are tending to the dying and those who are caring for the earth and growing food and caring about everyone back at home. I would argue that it’s precisely within our vocations and relationships where we find God. In all of the daily crap we have to tend to, in all of the things we don’t really want to do, in all of the hard work our lives ask of us, in all of those people back at home who are driving us nuts. God is hiding out in those places.

Also, everyone should have one last chance to say good-bye. Take a chill pill, Brother J, the kingdom of God can wait.

Maybe Jesus is talking about a kind of urgency that we’re supposed to pay attention to. Maybe what we’re supposed to understand is that the sooner we show up for God the better our lives will be; the sooner we get on board the train, the quicker we’ll get there kind of thing.

Well. I grew up on the train. I went to Catholic church for the first 18 years of my life. The very same church run by priests who were raping children and nuns who were pushing kids down the stairs. That church. So I have some questions for you, God. And you, Jesus. I’m not in a rush to buy into the whole thing, kadabing and hurryup! I. Have. Questions.

Yep, it’s true, I’m a pastor and I struggle all the time with what I do and don’t believe. I’m a pastor and I don’t care what you do or don’t believe. You can believe anything you want to believe, your secrets are safe with me. In this passage Jesus says that anyone who takes the time to plow their fields, anyone who isn’t sure about the whole God thing, anyone who is maybe a little tired today and just wants to get their work done and go to bed and think about it tomorrow isn’t fit for the kingdom of God… to which I respond … Crimminey Jesus, you need a day off.

Wrestle with your faith, wrestle with your un-faith. Take your time. It’s the wrestling, not the answers, that matters. Certainty isn’t the endgame. Expansion is.

Therein lies the great paradox of life: the more you give up, give in, give away, the more you grow. If you don’t believe me, experiment with it for a while. Give only love and unconditional acceptance to the person you find hardest to love, stop drinking, find a faith community that feels OK and hang around there, spend some time each week in service to those who need your help: the homeless, hungry, lonely, scared, impoverished members of your own community who have become invisible to you. Give a bunch of your stuff away to people you know will appreciate and enjoy it. Just give it all away: your time, your love, your stuff, your addictions. And if your soul doesn’t feel better, your skin isn’t glowing and you’re not sleeping better than you have in years in six months’ time, come find me and I’ll give you a full refund.

Seriously.
Also, I’ll see you Sunday, when we will have a more comprehensive breakdown take-down of Crankypants the Christ.
Also, a rainbow in the side field, just because.

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Photographer and filmmaker Barbara Hammer once said something wonderful about the camera becoming part of her body, “when I am letting it express how my movement feels … how passionate I am about texture and the body.”

I used to feel that the camera was a kind of technical encumbrance, that it was a necessity to capture the thing, the moment, the light, the face, but also a burden. I greatly admire how my seven-year-old nephew can pick up a pencil and draw effortlessly. A 10-cent pencil and a piece of paper are all he needs to manifest his artistic interpretation of the world.

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Still, I have come to love the tools that allow me to capture the images that reflect how passionate I am … about the world around us.

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I find every bit of it to be breathtaking and I am content to have finally settled into a relationship of acceptance and respect for this confusing and heavy piece of black plastic and metal and glass that goes with me everywhere and has become a part of me.

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Community

It was a perfect night at Earth Sky Time Farm in Manchester, Vermont. Truly, it was. Bands played, babies slept, kids boogied. The place is a small miracle. An oasis in a world of madness, disconnect and fear. For a night, music, friends, food, love.

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Eight

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to write about this this year. It has become more of a personal, sacred piece of who I am and I find that the more I retreat from public spaces online, the less inclined I am to share too much of myself. I’m wary of a lot of things these days, but more wary, I think, of too much of anything.

I question, on a regular basis, why I write publicly. My friend, the writer Steve Amick, and I wrote back and forth about this recently. Is a writer a writer if he or she doesn’t share what they’ve written with anyone else? Do the readers make the writer?

I’m not sure. Is a musician a musician if she never sings in public, only writes lullabies for her babies and sings them to sleep at night? Are we defined by what we do with our gifts out in the world? By how those who are on the receiving end respond to our output? I’m not really sure.

What is it that I’m supposed to do with my story? With the stories I see and hear and collect every day?

Today I celebrate eight years of sobriety. If I were in AA I’d be getting some kind of special coin, some applause, hugs, pats, etc. But I’m not. When I quit I quit, I just stopped doing the thing. And I kept on not doing the thing. Eight years is a long time to not do the thing, and so I feel proud. But it’s also a long enough time so that it’s not really a deal anymore. All the other things are, though, all the things that came to take the place of drinking in my life, those are things.

I know there is a movement now toward something called sober curious. There are non-alcoholic bars popping up, so people seem to be feeling something around too much alcohol in their lives, and I’m happy to hear that. I can’t say anything terrible has happened as a result of not drinking; I can say that a lot of lousy things happened as a result of drinking, so I can say with 100% conviction that it was a good choice for me to stop drinking.

It’s my tagline and I plan to stick by it for the rest of my life: I have yet to see drinking improve anyone’s life. Ever. I could start a list of all the people I’ve known (and the relatives I wish I had known) whose lives got all screwed up because of booze, but it would put you to sleep and I don’t have enough time today to go there. I know I’m not supposed to hate anything in this life, but I hate booze. I hate the way it smells, especially on someone’s breath, most especially the day after they’ve had too much to drink. I hate how it turns a perfectly nice evening into an unbearable shitshow when two nice drinks becomes five and someone I would like to have a conversation with can barely stand up. I hate what it does to the kids of drinkers; I hate how it erodes relationships and snakes through families with an insidious tenacity. I hate that it kills people when it’s in a person who chooses to drink and drive. I hate how we have made it so fancy and sexy in our culture, how seductive the bottles and cans are; how marketers want us to believe that the drinking lifestyle is so awesome, so cool, so important.

It’s not. Your life is short and there are lots of people (I hope) in it who love you and deserve the best of you. When you drink, especially when you drink too much, which for most people is a lot of the time, you’re not the best of you. I would argue that even when you drink a little you’re not the best of you. Because you’re not drinking because it tastes so dang good, you’re drinking to fill some emptiness or longing or fear inside yourself that you don’t want to feel.

The hardest thing about not drinking anymore isn’t the not drinking part—you just stop buying the stuff. The hardest part is what to do with the void, the emptiness, the space where drinking used to be. Chances are pretty good that you and the story of your life are somewhat of a hard pill to swallow and there’s nothing we hate more than being left alone with ourselves. Looking in the mirror and seeing everything just as it is is hard, hard work that most of us avoid with all our might and many of us try to avoid with a glass of pinot noir.

It’s the only path to growth, though, and that’s why I spend time each year shouting from my soapbox about this. It turns out that pretty much all spiritual development is about giving something up in this life. And if you’re not here for the spiritual growth workshop then you probably took a wrong turn back there somewhere. You might want to revisit the map.

Eight years ago an old friend came to me in a dream and then he returned to me in real life. In the days when I was a daily-drinking lousy mom, crappy (soon to be ex-) wife, generally an all-around lost-in-space jackass, my friend came to me and handed me a little bell. He told me to ring it when I needed him, said he would be there for me, and with compassion and love (and almost twenty years of sobriety in his satchel) led me to the trough of sobriety.

I drank it all in. Every fucking drop. Bitter, bitter, bitter was the truth. Delicious, sweet and everlasting were the rewards, though I can’t say they came quickly. It took time, patience, fortitude, courage, but I did it. We did it. It takes a village to keep a sober person on the train; there’s no way I could have done it without the love and support of every single person who has walked with me these past years, most especially my kids. Turns out kids really like it when their parents don’t drink. Who knew?

It has not been easy. The hangover that comes with sobriety is the worst one of all, it’s the one where you meet yourself naked and real for perhaps the first time. No aspirin on the shelf can mask that discomfort. You live through it, though. You do. You more than live through it. You expand. You expand in your capacity to love, you expand in your ability to empathize, you grow in your dedication to growing. The more willing you are to face the world just as you are and the world just as it is, the better your life will be. I promise, promise, promise this to be true.

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What do I do now with all that time, those long and sometimes tricky evening hours when I once plied my trade as a professional wine drinker? I write, I read, walk Daisy dog, hang out with the only remaining kid at home. I drink tea, swim, talk with people I care about. I go to the farm in town to eat some woodfired pizza with friends and hear Jack’s awesome band. That’s what I’m doing now, today. Come on down, I’d love to see you!

Tomorrow? I don’t know; I’ll see when I get there. I do know what I won’t be doing, though; I have had eight good years of practice.