Not Scared, Just Different

the-dark-tunnelA few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.

Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.

For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.

A few weeks ago Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up  until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.

After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.

“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”

A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”

“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”

Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”

When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.

I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.

Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

Shoes

I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

The River in Our Eyes

Last weekend I attended a beautiful wedding at a farm near the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As the crowd quieted and the groom and wedding party looked out from under the chuppah, our friend waltzed down the cottage steps in her flowing white dress. At the bottom of the stairs, her father waited for her in his wheelchair. As they began their walk down the aisle, I felt the familiar gush of warm tears falling slowly from my eyes and down my cheeks. Simultaneously, I felt an opening in my heart that rose like warm air through my chest and up my throat until it met those tears in some sort of emotional thunderstorm.

At the reception later, in two separate conversations with female friends about our favorite parts of the wedding, I mentioned how affected I was by our friend’s grand entrance, how quickly it brought me to tears. One of the friends responded, “Wow, Tim, I didn’t know about that side of you.” The other said, “It’s refreshing to hear a man talk about crying.”

All I can say is: What’s up with that? It’s not that I judge the women I was talking to; it’s just alarming that male tears are so rare that women take such note of them. I say this because crying, to me, is something I am infinitely grateful for. When I cry, I feel gratitude that I am touch enough with my heart that it can supply water. When I cry, I feel gratitude for feeling, because my mind can so readily chase away my heart’s evocations.

When did crying become something to be ashamed of for men? When Rio cries, I hold him to give him a safe container to let them flow, as opposed to hastening him to halt them. I know a mother who chastises her son when he cries — toughen up, dude — and I can’t help but imagine those stifled tears coming out later as angry outbursts, or at best reclaimed sadness on a therapist’s couch. The truth is that when I cry, I tend to walk away from whoever is around because I have internalized this association of male tears with weakness, but in secret I cherish each and every one. In fact, I’d say that crying for me is one of the most exquisite feelings in the world; it means I’m in touch with life’s shadow, which let’s face it deserves to be in the light. I don’t want a merit badge for crying: I just want it to be as common as a smile, for the world, and the human condition, is a trying place.

Sometimes when Rio and I watch videos, he takes a look back from his perch on my lap and takes note of my tears. At first he seems confused, because he associates water from the eyes with sadness. “Why are you sad?” he often asks. I tell him it is because I am happy. He has noted this apparent contradiction. We have usually watched something that bolsters my faith in the human potential. I am crying in part because goodness is not more of a norm, just as shedding tears isn’t. Tears come because I taste what could be; there is a hope and bitterness to that. A friend of Allen Ginsberg’s once described him as a “man with leaky eyes.” A mentor of mine once copped to a similar tendency, admitting to me that he is often “that guy in the car you see crying.” Damn I love a man’s tears.

May my destiny, and all my brothers, be so bold and  real.

At the Keys

Eyes closed, fingers on the board, Letting what is around me and inside me come through me. Warm house. Sleeping son. Sleeping partner. Dog sits on the rug by the fire. Dryer turning, offering its warm sound. Inside: also a pearl. Not sure from where; why I found it today. Why now but not always? What is covering it when I feel a void instead? I remember reading how Eckhart Tolle just sat on a park bench one day, spending the entire time watching the people pass in front of him and the leaves shimmer in the wind, and how he just smiled, suddenly aware of life’s bounty. He said he stayed there all day and was never the same after.

And so my eyes are still closed now, because somehow I worry that if I open them the pearl will go away. I’ll look at what I’ve written, critique it, erase it, doubt it, and then the long line of anxierty that stretches toward uncertain futures will light up, and the thick roots of regret and pain that go into the past will surge again. No, I want to compose from this open place, where more truth than I can edit in or out resides.

What is it that I did today that brought me this gift? Nothing unusual. Perhaps just a bit more patience, a bit more restraint, a bit more kindness than was necessary. I apologized to someone today for saying something cold and mean. I listened to my son’s complaint instead of dictating it away. I kissed a dog. I wrote a friend and told her I needed her help. I sat down here, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say and believed I’d find something waiting to come out. I believed in my mind, and in my fingers, and in my knowledge of these imperfect vessels called words. I believed I could keep the barking voice … no, now I want to open my eyes to erase that, but I won’t.

I remember that on the first day of ninth grade, I learned that an eleventh grader had killed himself the day before. The whole school was shocked, and for first period I had an English class with a funny, charming man named Mr. Vedro. He told us to pull out ten sheets of paper, a pen, and to just write. To not hold back. And I filled those pages with my confusion, not caring about traditions or arcs or lessons. I wrote the pain. It was not pretty. But I still have those pages in a box under my bed called “memorabilia.”

There is so much talk in writing about editing, about revisions, about going over and over something until every word sings. I believe in that. I often help writers with my pencil when they haven’t done enough with their own. I cudgel my words into neater packages. But sometimes I just want to let the first truths drip onto the page, to believe that their crude essence holds something worth their unwieldy weight. That sometimes a pure chunk unfettered can do the job of fifty leaner phrases. (Already, I want to modify that: I’ve already thought of a better way to say it. But I’m keeping my eyes closed, and the delete key is too risky up there in the corner. So I need to write myself out of it. Kerouac once said that On the Road was so multilayered because he was writing it on a typewriter and therefore couldn’t erase anything. If he lost track of his narrative he had to write his way back to it. That’s how his trip had so many turns. Some Asian cultures call this “fish soup,” telling stories in wide, roundabout ways, all the ingredients thrown in.)

This is not my preferred way of being; I like order, tidy lines, doing one thing at a time, well. But tonight, I didn’t know what to say yet wanted to write. If I didn’t let myself go completely I wouldn’t even turn on the machine. And so I will open my eyes in a few moments with a promise to correct only misplaced keys and stray punctuation but nothing else. To have faith that sometimes the channel is opening, and delivering words that don’t need distillation.

Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.’” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  – I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.

Deep in the Batch

With Annie and Rio in California for two weeks, I’ve been submerged in what a friend of mine once referred to as “Deep Batch.” It’s what happens to a man when his partner and kids are gone.

Deep Batch usually begins with a sweet honeymoon period where I am absolutely delighted to have no one to answer to. I get to do exactly what I want to do! What a change from the compromise inherent to cohabitation and parenting, blessed beings that they are. For days I lounged around, proudly not checking items off my overly long to-do list (I’ll have so much time on my hands, I’d thought during a pious moment days prior,  I’ll be able to accomplish so much! Ha.) I was messier than usual, resorting to my childhood ways of not really cleaning up after myself in the moment and instead leaving it for a furious cleaning session later on. I…sunk…into…shit.

There’s something to be said for this. I am dutiful, functional, and organized normally, so there’s a profound release in lying back deep into the sofa and doing absolutely nothing constructive. I started contemplating sloths.

Just then I heard a loud knock and opened the door to find two friends who visit sometimes: Stimulation and Anesthesia. You may have met them. I knew they’d come.

“What the hell are you doing on the couch?” they sneered. “You look terrible. Get something decent on and join us: we’re going to a fantastic party.”

Off we went.

It was truly fun for a while. But then the rush of the ride started to wear off. As much as indulgence can sound like “Me! Me! Me!” ultimately it’s not self-serving. And so I returned to where I was when I first touched down solo in Raleigh days before: the black hole of me. I’m not comfortable there! Never have been. It’s easier to check out or run away.

The next night I watched the film Another Year, which has a scene where a family is burying a mother. Only a handful of people are there, and a stranger presides over the short ceremony. The mother’s only son comes late and misses the service. Suddenly I started thinking of my own father, how alone he is, and I began to worry that his end might be like this. I felt my breath catch and I immediately recoiled, as though touching the fear that was coming up in my solitude would injure me. That night (and the subsequent two) I dreamed that I was tripping over monstrous snakes that appeared out of nowhere. In one, I jumped back in terror as a monstrous copperhead slithered in front of me, only to watch Annie and our good friend Kate swoop in calmly, put the snake in a bag, and take it away. What am I so scared of?

Pema Chödrön has referred to the art of finding “cool loneliness”: those sublime moments when we grab a flashlight and crawl into the hole of ourselves and accept what we find scrawled on the walls. I believe the term was first coined by D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in Women in Love, “What did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored….Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.”

Why was this kind of loneliness so elusive and fleeting? I’ve had moments of deep union with myself when I have stuck with my fear and traveled alone into my own abyss. Why could I not choose that again more readily?

I do not know. I do know that if I am patient I usually find my way there. If I overact to the times I fail, or run, then I get stuck on recrimination and am therefore closed to the moments when I do stand my ground, dig in, and come out holding the slippery light. And so I decided to surrender to my own vagaries and imperfections — if you are on a roller coaster, enjoy the damn ride. It was then that those slivers of light began to come in through the cracks: watching live music and feeling joy swell inside me from the sheer talent of the performers on stage, that warmth finally released in slow tears I didn’t bother to wipe away. Later that same night, an impromptu dance with a stranger: lively, daring, sensual. And the day I helped a friend; the gazpacho I made for my own delight; the many dips in the river to wipe off all the grime from the fight.

And then the sweetest ones came. Alone in the living room, listening to a song Annie and I sing together, and feeling an ache so deep for her I can barely believe it’s real. And then the next day, finding a card Rio made for me, the scrawled letters and the way they spelled “I will owas love you Timuthe.” It is then I truly miss them: not in that needy way of requiring their anchors, but in knowing they are allies and partners on this jagged path we each ultimately face alone.

The Portable Divine

Sunday morning I was enjoying a dip in the river with Rio and two kids from the neighborhood when I suddenly realized that people across the country were settling down into pews for their weekly sermon. In fact, just a stone’s throw away folks were bowing their heads in the Bynum United Methodist Church. For a moment I felt a pang of guilt — if I were really “good” I’d be right there with them.

But then I looked out at what was before me: Rio splashed while Glenn laughed. Caroline had just gotten off my back after a “dolphin ride.” The sun was glinting just right off the rippling water, and the trees and bushes beside the river were almost every shade of green. I took it in and felt it ping off the chunk of coal in my chest that sometimes glows amber.

My church is right here.

Later that day, I stopped by a friend’s house for some solo hang time, and we played a game of channel surf, skipping over the good stuff and alighting momentarily onto various bits of schlock. We stopped for a few minutes on a man who was sermonizing very unconvincingly from a thick and dog-eared Bible that he held solidly in his hands.

There are so many good books out there, I thought to myself, and that one isn’t bad. But how can anyone decide they have found the one true story?

Because I prefer to find sacred texts in the millions of lives and moments swirling around me. Divinity sure seems a lot more transportable that way: instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time on a Sunday morning, I could be swimming in a stream. Instead of packing the same big book in my suitcase every trip I could bring Baca one day and Rumi the next, maybe no words the time after that, just the earth’s topography from thirty thousand feet my holy map.

I was once trying to help a man who had lost his way. I told him that the next time he felt really good, I mean really good, he should pay attention to where he felt it in his body. “In my chest,” he told me a few days later. “It feels like I’ve got a little bouncing ball in there.” Next I asked him to observe and jot down over the course of a week every time he felt that feeling: what had happened that had brought it on? A few days later he had a long list: sitting in church listening to a good sermon; helping a friend in straights; going bowling with his son; cooking a meal from scratch.

“Keep that list in your wallet,” I suggested. “When you find yourself sinking, do something on the list.”

The psychologist Dacher Keltner has spoken about the physiological roots of this feeling; he points that our body actually has a neural map to feel divine, alive, and joyous: the sensation travels largely by way of the vagus nerve, moving from medulla to chest (expansive feeling, slowed heartbeat) to throat (it often catches for a moment) to the eyes where tears often form the final gush of the rush. Each person’s specific response to joy has its own quirks, but Keltner’s point is that we are built to feel this feeling; our body knows what to do with it.

I felt the sensation strongly a few weekends ago at a retreat center where 100 people gathered to write and and share their truths. Prompted by good teachers, safe space, and mutual support, we wrote what came forth and read aloud what we’d written. This act was alchemical, and I got so used to my body’s joy-delivery system working that I felt a nasty comedown after I left that spot in the woods and entered my first florescent convenience store. I found myself chatting up the cashier as though he would be game for the same unveiling. He just raised an eyebrow.

This brought to mind leaving Burning Man one year; after spending eight days enmeshed in that carnival of free souls, where the supreme commandment is to be your true self, I burst into hot tears and irrepressible sobs the moment  our car left the playa [desert] and hit the pavement. The challenge is, as one saying goes, to “keep the playa alive 365.”

But as I’ve reminded myself incessantly after such peak experiences: I vow to not reenter old parodies. Those moments of joy and transcendence stretch me to new places, and there’s no reason I need to return to the humdrum after my true drum has been struck with an invigorated rhythm. If the ecstatic moment lives and dies in the churches that evoke it, then I must return to those particular pews to taste it again. This can lead to an overdependence on the source of joy, be it an event, a substance, a lover, or a place — just because I felt divine at the river on Sunday doesn’t mean I will feel it so strongly when I return on Friday. The best I can do is find my wells, to visit them regularly with respect but not oversized expectations, and to be open to new ones, which often appear where I might not expect them. I prefer to think of church as a floating palace, one that changes form by the minute and yet is always an open eye away.

Wrists

I never would have described myself as someone who worked with his hands until last month when I could barely write due to pain in my wrists.

What happened was: I took a day off from work and did not rest; I worked in the yard doing in one day all the tasks I’d been wanting to do for weeks. I loaded and hauled off yard waste. I weed-whacked. I dug out a bed around the oak tree in our yard and covered it with mulch. I shoveled new gravel onto our driveway. I was manic homeowner determined to get as much done as I could before the sprouting dandelion came home from school.

A week later I woke up with my left forearm and wrist swollen and sore. I didn’t connect it to the day of labor; instead I thought its occurrence was random, mysterious, perhaps the onset of some kind of more serious disorder. What is my body doing? I wondered. Google didn’t help; within minutes of typing in “sore wrist” and “symptoms” I was enmeshed in descriptions of carpal-tunnel syndrome at best and rheumatoid arthritis at worst. The next day I tried to help Rio cast a fishing line into a lake and had to stop because my wrists were burning so bad. I slipped away into the boat house and sat quietly in the dark, shaking my head, rubbing my aching arms.

In a strange and melodramatic way, I wanted a diagnosis — not to earn pity points but rather because otherwise the condition would be deemed lifestyle-related and the remedy would be a long series of small adjustments. Anything but that. I wanted a name for the pain so that I could find a prescription to kill it.

Panicked, I went to my doctor, and she asked me to detail what I’d been doing with my hands and arms recently. I told her of the day in the yard, of the months tapping feverishly at the keyboard. She did a few tests and declared my wrists and arms overworked. Her prescription? A month of wearing wrist braces and keeping yard work and computer use to a minimum.

I am still young, but the burning in my wrists was telling me I could no longer bang my body around and not notice the bruises. I’d had older friends warn me that a day would come when soreness and stiffness would show up like a stray dog at the door and never really leave the yard, despite my foot-stomping and screams to scram. Damn, that fateful day had arrived, I realized, and I had to fight off the feeling that it was all downhill from here.

But I refused to go lightly down that stream. I focused on changing what I could, which in this case was, first off, swearing off the weed-whacker, which from first purchase had felt all wrong; something about its tiny vibrations made my body feel like a tuning fork struck hard against a piano. Who cares if my grandmother whacked her edges without incident until she was 90? That invention and I were not simpatico. Next I took a good look at my work station from an ergonomic perspective and found that I was basically doing the exact opposite of everything I should. Because I had never had any wrist problems before, I had simply never noticed how I sat, how I typed, how I beheld the magic screen. Now: new chair; new keyboard; new monitor height and placement; new keyboard tray. More breaks. More time in chair by window, reading. More editing standing up. Wrists much happier. Have yet to swear off typing and surfing machine though tempted.

To be sure my condition wouldn’t linger, I paid a visit to a physical therapist in town. She asked a lot of questions, took a mess of notes. She told me to take off my shirt and walk around, lift up my arms, twirl about. It felt odd to be so scrutinized, but comforting too; just trust that this person can help you, I kept thinking to myself as she uttered another “hhmm.”  Her diagnosis? That I was farming out too much labor to my wrists and ankles (low-grade soreness) because of problems in my “core.”

“You are not weak,” she said, “You just need more balance.”

Ah, so my metaphysical struggles find their brethren on the physical plain! Evil little creature, existence!

“Well, I’d like to be balanced,” I said, dead scared, knowing that to change I would have to let my entrenched physical patterns die ignoble little deaths. Adios, status quo. It would mean doing daily exercises with balls and rubber straps and working on tiny forgotten muscles who surely would have preferred their slacker existence.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve doing her exercises, unsure of the science but certain of my faith. It helps to remember my old high-school football coach, Mr. Hirsch, one of those elderly gentlemen with enough “core” to knock your seventeen-year-old ass right on the floor. He’d scream at us to hit the blocking sleds and, if we did that with insufficient vigor, he’d order us to “drop and give me fifty!” I’d  just put my head down and do what I was told. Obedience to authority has its place. So when my physical therapist sweetly but firmly tells me to sit on a huge inflatable ball in front of my computer, I’ll do it, even though it violates in all ways my sense of sleek. Pain, in this case, has been the alarm clock that awoke the slumbering man, reminding him to sit up in his chair and pay attention, to not neglect the gifts that help him live out his purpose.