Writing and the Narrative of Suffering

I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.

Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?

But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”

Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.

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Pema Chodron in 2007 (Credit: flicker.com on Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.

The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.

I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.

We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.

Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.

In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.

Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.

But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.

There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.

Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.

The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.

Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.

Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?

I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”

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A Man of Second Chances

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton included the following confession in one of his famous prayers:

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .

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Optimism

Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.

At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.

Before my twenty minutes of prayer, I listened to The Writer’s Almanac podcast, which concluded with a poem by Rita Dove entitled “Dawn Revisited.” The first lines had me:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance

Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page. Come on,

shake a leg!

Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”

The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”

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Cold, bright day. A new blue page ready for words.

Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.

Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior

that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.

So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.

The Wisdom of Fetch

The Coleman family’s black Lab-terrier mix Watson is getting to be more of a jalopy every day. It’s hard to believe he showed up at our house twelve years ago in the arms of a neighbor and slept peacefully and without piddles between wife Kathy and me his first night with us. Now he has fatty tumors everywhere (one the size of a Florida orange morphing into Nebraska on his flank), a gnarly-pink-jelly-beanish growth on his gums, arthritic shoulders and hips, two blown ACLs, and a metal rod in one leg.

He may also have hearing loss. He has never been tested, but he talks as though we can’t hear him. A noise outside or anybody’s arrival warrants hoops and hollers ascending in pitch and volume. His request for Senior Milk Bones is a single, soul-piercing bark. Most of the colorful language in the house is in response to Watson’s loud barking.

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Watson is convinced that every sound in and out of the house is one of this guy’s cousins. (Credit: John Coleman, taken at L. L. Bean’s big store in Maine)

I ought to be more disciplined about giving the old boy treats, for three reasons: 1.) More treats lead only to more barking. 2.) He is gaining weight. And 3.) Senior Milk Bones give him gas, which he most often shares during our afternoon nap.

We have a ritual. Watson hobbles after me to the bedroom, his nails dragging across the wooden part of the steps. I set my alarm for one hour in the future, put my head on the pillow, and he plops on the floor. After five or ten minutes, he walks around to the other side of the bed and stands there as if to say, “This is going to hurt.”

I say, “Come on up, Watty. Get your spot.” Kathy and I love him so much we removed the bed frame to make it easier for him to get up. “Come on,” I usually have to nudge. “You can do it.”

He hops up, presses his nose against mine, and looks me in the eye—no kidding.

I scratch his jowls, receive a lick on my snout, and tell him, “Okay, buddy, it’s nap time. Lie down.”

He spins twice or thrice and lands in a heap, usually with his bum inches from my face. Twice a week, I’d say, the fun begins right here. I’m not sure what it was about yesterday’s treat allotment, but that mutt stung my nostrils.

For fifteen minutes afterwards, Watson’s flatus molecules clung to my cilia. His oblivion spoke like film’s Rain Man to his brother in the phone booth: “I don’t mind it.”

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An old dog thing: a two-inch tuft of gray hair sprouting from Watson’s chest–a sequoia among saplings.

 

This coming Saturday morning, Kathy and I are taking our pal to Union City, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Erie. We hear a veterinarian there has unorthodox methods that restore broken-down pups. All Watty’s barks, infirmities, and air bagels aside, his death will knock the wind out of us. He is unconditional love in a loud, lumpy, smelly package.

A couple months ago Kathy and I closed on a house less than half the size of our current place. We want to hose the material excess and crud from our lives, but a benefit to having everything on one floor is that our gimp won’t have to climb stairs. We’ll move soon, but I looked at Watson the other day and thought, “Oh, buddy, I hope you get to spend some good time with us there.” You never know when.

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A small house will be home with beautiful Kathy, son Micah, the cats, and monarchs. Please let Watson enjoy it, too.

I’ve always said that Watson is as dumb as a turnip, but as I make my way toward needing senior biscuits, I’m learning that intelligence isn’t all about brain cells. In fact, I would argue that wisdom generally has to overcome gray matter. My dog taught me this a couple days ago. Here’s the chronology:

  • I got home from work, put down my satchel, slung my coat over a dining room chair, held a couple of Senior Milk Bones out to Watson, and put little kitty treats on the counter for Shadow Cat and Baby Crash, who were trying to hypnotize me with their stare.
  • I made a quick visit to the bathroom. As is his custom, Watson heard the flush and remembered where the coldest, most refreshing water bowl in the house was. Ugh.
  • I sat down in the living room for twenty minutes of prayer-meditation. My Zen bell had just sounded when I heard Watson labor upstairs. A few seconds later he thumped back down. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his doggy presence beside me.
  • He had retrieved his biscuit ball, a heavy rubber toy with holes on each end that you stuff broken bits of Milk Bones into to occupy your dog. For once he didn’t care about treats. He wanted to play fetch.

I’m not a fetch kind of guy. I enjoy a good laugh; beyond this I’m not much fun. Occasionally I’ve explained this to Watson: “Now look, you know I don’t play. I cuddle. Your mother plays, right?”

Two brown eyes can teach a lot, even if there’s not much between them. “Hey, Dad,” my dog said, “what’s your life worth if you can’t spare enough time to throw a ball ten times? You know that’s as much as I can handle these days.” Seriously, that moment with Watson, his eyes pup-clear and that purple toy sticking out of his dopey mouth, goes into my spirit’s photo album. My brain cells are always crowding out wisdom. My old friend clarified a lot for me.

Pray or play? A whisper came from inside: “Why not both, busy, neurotic, fragile man?”

“Okay,” I said and sat at the end of the dining room table. I threw the ball all the way to the kitchen counter, fifteen feet, if that—field enough for a twelve-year-old. He rumbled to fetch it and limped back. On maybe the fourth toss, he turned the wrong way and walloped his head against the refrigerator. After recalibrating, he got the ball and sat down beside me as if to say, “What the hey? What just happened?” Thankfully, his head is mostly bone.

But he was right. After a few more trips, he was done.

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Watson after fetch, catching his breath and getting his bearings

Replaying fetch in my head right now, I think, “Watson, who will remind to play when you’re gone? Who will look at me in love and help me say to myself, ‘John, stop living in compartments. Always pray. Always play’”? Maybe he’ll stick around long enough to teach me a few more times.

This morning Kathy got up before I did, so Watson took her place. For once getting out of bed wasn’t a chore, but I stayed a couple of minutes. I rested my face on his side and talked to him: “You know I love you, right? You know you’re a good boy? You know I love you?”

He stretched his head back, put his cheek against mine, and snorted—just the answer I was hoping for.

An Understanding of Prayer

7:39 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. 7° with a wind chill factor of misery. A burly guy I’ll call Constance lumbered in ten minutes ago carrying his taut duffle bag. It looks like he’s lugging around a four-foot section of big telephone pole. Who knows what’s in there? The pockets of his fisherman’s vest are tumors of valuables.

After a trip to the restroom, Constance resumes his animated discussion with State Street, jabbing the table with his pointer finger and staring down the swirls of snow. His negotiations are urgent, relentless.

I see Constance a couple times a month. My daughter said years ago that he goes by a woman’s name and sometimes dresses in drag. I’ve only seen him dressed for weather, even in summer, but his name is none of my business. Only death will end his wandering and lonely arguments.

What locks await the cluster of keys hanging around his neck and resting on his gut? Mirage homes? And now, he is pissed: “No! No! You will not!” Silence, then, “I . . . didn’t . . . know! Why are we talking about this?”

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Oh, Constance, may one of those keys open up a home of warm color, a cat waiting for you, and loved ones who agree with your argument.

I pray for Constance. I also pray for the guy who picks up garbage and shovels snow outside my primary Starbucks haunt near the Millcreek Mall. Yesterday was nearly as severe as today. He was bundled beyond recognition when I drove by him on my way to work. I could make out a slit of flesh from his eyebrows to the bridge of his nose. That was it.

“God,” I said. More and more I’m finding that is prayer enough.

I pray all the time, and I mean all the time. This statement is frankly uncomfortable, not because I’m ashamed of prayer. As Constance just said, “No, no, no, no, no!” My squirming comes because I suspect folks would find my practice of prayer weird and pointless.

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The point of prayer: to be spirit still, to let light shine into and through me? (Balcony of chapel at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

In The New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes my context for prayer:

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance.

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Thomas Merton (Father Louis) (Credit: Wikipedia)

As a spiritual master, Merton dares speak of mysteries with certainty. I avoid that. Who am I? But Father Louis, as he was known at the Abbey of Gethsemani, comes up with words that work for me—as much as language can take hold of the Ultimate, anyway.

If “the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness,” then prayer is my daring to join in. I’ve spent years “analyzing the phenomena of life out into strange finalities and complex purposes of [my] own” and have had enough of that absurdity. The best prayer I can offer, then, is impoverished and goes like this: “I don’t know anything. But please fill me. I’m here.”

Intercessions are important, of course, but I hold an unconventional view of them. My prayer for the garbage-snow removal guy was monosyllabic because of what I believe about God. Of course the Creator wants everybody to be sane, healthy, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. So saying anything more than the Sacred Name isn’t essential—like asking snow to make its way to the ground. It’s what snow wants to do!

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Dear Snow, Almighty and Everlasting, fall to earth, cover our cars and houses. Amen. (Credit: Barasoaindarra on Wikimedia Commons)

If God wants the whole world taken care of, then why the hell doesn’t God do it? We’re heading for the good old theodicy conundrum: If God is infinitely good, where does evil come from and why does it exist? My answer is the spiritual foundation of my prayer life: “I don’t know anything.”

Some believers might tap me on the shoulder with familiar answers: “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Or “God knows what’s best for you, even when what’s happening is terrible.” Or “God is testing you.” Or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, the one I find most irksome: “God never gives you more than you can bear.”

Tell that to the man I hugged whose father died a few months ago and whose mother was going into surgery—anesthesia when you’re sneaking up on ninety is sketchy. Imagine losing both your parents four months apart. Serving up a platitude might get you a well-deserved knuckle sandwich.

After a few thousand hugs like this, I refuse to reduce prayer to a crapshoot. “Dear Lord, please bring So and So through this surgery and grant a speedy recovery.” I might actually say something like this, but I would never do so with a what-the-heck-it-can’t-hurt attitude. And I would never think to myself, “Well, gosh, I’ve prayed like this over and over. Maybe God will hear me this time.” And I won’t try to explain the ways of the Eternal Mystery. The presumption!

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Prayer: whatever I am, whatever I wish, open and vulnerable with the Ultimate Truth? (Figure at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

But as I wait for my cell phone to ring, I pray for the woman in surgery and her son, not because I expect to influence the outcome. I say “help,” sigh, and look beyond these walls, windows, and patrons because my present reality is this: I wish for a dear old soul’s return to health, if nothing else so her son can catch his breath before adding another layer to his mourning. My prayer is, “Please, Lord, please.” At the moment, I am this prayer.

If I’m to join in the general dance, I can only do so as myself—a duffle bag fat with frailty and fear, longing and gladness.

Not surprisingly, most of my prayers are silent. Abide in what is, John. Swim in grace. Dance in peace. Every now and then, I’m aware that I’m praying for everybody who has ever lived, every creature. And though my hands rest in my lap, my spirit arms are open wide, lifting up all of our laughter and lament—yours, too—as if God doesn’t already see!

I’m quiet. My wordlessness says, “Here we are, God, right here in my arms. Beat in our blood. Fill us. We are yours.”

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“Here we are–the Western Hemisphere, at least. Fill us. We are yours.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Mindfulness: A Christian’s Understanding

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Not as blissful as woman on the cover of Time, but definitely in the zone. (Credit: Ernst Mutchnick / Funk Zone Studios / Corbis)

I should be grateful. The cover of a recent edition of Time Magazine carries the photograph of a lovely woman with closed eyes and a Zen half smile along with this title starting below her throat: “The Mindful Revolution: the science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.” Author Kate Pickert offers an engaging account of Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction (MSBR) and its slow progression into the mental health field’s go-to arsenal of methods for getting or staying sane. MIT-educated scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR in 1979, and today, Pickert writes, “There are nearly 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including meditation), and they are in nearly every state and more than 30 countries.”

Mindfulness is even “gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation—Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more.” Fantastic! Some wealthy and powerful people are in favor of stopping, dwelling in the present moment, paying attention, and reflecting. This is a good thing. But my soul is uncomfortable—my skeptical soul. Why?

Pickert’s take on our society’s need for mindfulness is insightful and accurate. She admits her own struggle: “I am hyper-connected. I have a personal iPhone and a BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home. It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen.” I’m writing from Starbucks on a Monday morning, and seven of the fifteen patrons are screen-fixed. A couple are simultaneously conversing and texting. The Time author is on the right track.

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Multitasking (Credit: Arman Zhenikeyev / Corbis)

Imagine Jeopardy, “Modern Words for $1000″: “Attempting to perform two or three or eight tasks at the same time.” Beep. “What is multitasking?” Attempting is the key word. As Pickert points out, “Researchers have found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity.” Elders have known this for years and have been shaking their heads.

So mindful folks everywhere should Buddha-laugh and embrace MBSR, mindfulness, or any practice that helps us to slow down and be where we are. There’s evidence as well that “meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression.” So much promise!

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Private First Class Russell R. Widdifield in Vietnam, 1969. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As I thought my way through this fair and balanced Time article, I bickered in my head. I had questions and suspicions. Finally, Pickert’s explanation of a particular use of mindfulness training forced me to confront my bias. Elizabeth Stanley, an associate professor at Georgetown, collaborated with Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, to launch “a pilot study with private funding that investigated whether a mindfulness program could make Marines more resilient in stressful combat situations.” Stanley went on to develop an MBSR-based curriculum called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training.”

When those words punched my face, I put words to my discomfort. An hour ago I asked Zen-dude Alan the question: “Is it possible to kill another human being mindfully?” He didn’t think long before answering, “Yes.” I wasn’t talking about euthanasia or any other taking of life motivated by compassion, and I think he knew that. He brought up other good qualifications. Somebody’s going to shoot you; you shoot first. For Alan, mindfulness is simply being fully present to what you are and what you are doing and accepting the consequences. Shooting in self-defense, he admits, means killing part of himself. Alan is a good, thoughtful guy, but I want to push him on the nature of mindfulness. Next time he bows to me at Starbucks I might ask him if he thinks you could mindfully strangle a healthy black lab puppy for no reason. He’d probably draw the line there.

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Statue of Christ of the Abyss. Loving the world, longing for the Creator?  (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

I draw the line somewhere else. For good or ill, my understanding of mindfulness is informed by Christianity. Any of my friends will tell you I’m about the weirdest, most open-minded Jesus follower on the block, but some actions strike me as so troubling and hurtful that I regard them as morally insane; that is to say, the opposite of mindful.

Mindless? Mindful? Any distinctions are riddled with semantics, but I’m fond of mindfulness and object to the word being deployed to certain theaters. Here’s where I imagine I’ll get myself into trouble:

  • Pickert mentions “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more” embracing mindfulness. A mindful titan? Sounds like an oxymoron. I don’t believe you can mindfully enjoy extravagant wealth, be content with earning 400 times the wage of anybody who works for you, or profit from the exploitation of fellow human beings.
  • Now my skepticism appears. Given the way the financial world operates, I don’t believe corporations provide mindfulness training and/or MBSR to ease anybody’s stress. The motivation is profit, with healthier, saner employees being a glad byproduct. If businesses didn’t see a return on nurturing a peaceful, happy workforce, they wouldn’t spend the money. Are there numerous exceptions? Sure.
  • One Sunday afternoon before a nap, I lay in bed head-wrestling with the idea of a mindful military. Son Micah came up to kibitz as he sometimes does. I explained Pickert’s article and asked what mindfulness would tell him if he had another man in his crosshairs. “Don’t shoot that guy,” he answered. Even though Micah is an atheist, he’s been contaminated by his Jesus-loving father. He perfectly summarizes my conclusion about mindfulness and war. Mindfulness as I try to practice it can’t be applied to any action not grounded in compassion.

Some distinctions are important here. I’m not arguing that military force is immoral; that’s a separate discussion. I’m not saying that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be a land of focused, driven world-beaters who lick the multitasking addiction. And I’m not against using mindful strategies to help soldiers endure combat and heal when they come back home. I vote for all these.

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What would mindfulness have me do? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What I confess to is a highly subjective understanding of mindfulness. It’s not a method, but a way that leads to kindness, mercy, and justice. In the end my point is embarrassingly minor: if you’re using mindfulness to increase profits or take life without reckoning the personal soul-strangling consequences, then you’re not grasping mindfulness. You don’t use mindfulness; mindfulness helps you to discover how to use yourself.

As far as I’m concerned objectivity doesn’t exist, so I feel free to paint mindfulness with Jesus colors. Nobody owns exclusive rights to a word. Still, I can speak my truth: mindfulness leads nowhere other than love.

A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

An Embarrassing Measure of Blessing

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Baby Crash, who must be fed.

A Saturday morning routine has taken hold by surprise. As Kathy and I wake up at leisure—the one day that doesn’t begin with the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set as the alarm on my snotty iPhone—we stay in bed, talking, breathing, warming to the hours ahead. “What do you have up for today?” We have friendly negotiations, then when she heads downstairs to feed dog Watson and cats Baby Crash and Shadow, I pray/meditate for half an hour. After paying bills, we run on separate rails until suppertime. It’s a calm, sane arrangement.

Yesterday I had a shamatha moment—calm abiding, clear awareness—before Kathy got out of bed. As she lay against me, her hair was all over my face. I breathed in its scent—a glad habit—and looked out through its wild lattice at the turning trees on the Shenley Drive boulevard. Sun and fall leaves behind my wife’s brown hair—a double blessing.

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When I woke up, the storm had passed, leaving the Coleman family with firewood.

Another day last week as I settled into my nap, I watched those same beloved trees get thrashed by wind and rain. Though the temperature was in the forties, I opened one window about a foot so the hiss and deep ah of the weather could sing me to my rest beneath a feather quilt. Before sleep came, inhaling and exhaling the joyous riot outside, I remembered the fortunate position I’m in.

Each day I can take the Siesta Exit off of Interstate Absurdity and rest for an hour. Even during hectic stretches, I can usually pull to the berm for a twenty-minute power nap. The world is catching on to the restorative benefits of midday oblivion, but most people I know don’t have the liberty to do what has become central to my spiritual practice—stop, halt, cease and desist, for just a little while. The twenty to sixty minutes of repose isn’t counted as company time—as my brilliant grad school professor John Barth was fond of saying. When I add up work hours to make sure I’m earning my pay, nap isn’t part of the tally. Folding sleep minutes into compensated minutes would be sane, but at this point in our assumed societal covenant, it would be unethical. (Google and the Huffington Post provide napping pods, but I don’t know if they actually pay employees to nap. After a cluster of near misses, baggy-eyed air traffic controllers are cleared to close their eyes as long as the friendly skies are adequately monitored.)

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Even Thomas Edison napped in his midday valley.

No, my blessing is a flexible schedule. I regularly work from 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. shaping programming for the church, then go back to sleep. Or I catch up on e-mails between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. In a certain respect I’m always working, praying/meditating without ceasing, dreaming about what’s possible, opening myself to the Spirit’s leading. So at 2:30 p.m., when my forehead gets heavy, I surrender.

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The Shenley Drive maples that bless my siestas.

If I’m at church, the siesta kit finds its place on the floor of the pastor’s study, and I set my alarm for an hour ahead. At home, I lie on my left side in bed, look out the window at the Shenley Drive maples, and remember Kathy, who nurses cancer patients all day long and can’t stop to rest, son-in-law Matt, who nurses machines and has to slog through his midday valley, or son Micah, who paints with minimal breaks and comes home sweaty. I watch the maples from the barren branches of February to the swollen greens of July to the fiery leaves of October and reverence people who have no beloved brown hair to kiss or no bed at all. Then, especially when the weather plays against the trees, I nod off, embraced by an embarrassing measure of blessing.

The Day My Bones Turned to Dark Emeralds

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This morning at 3:50 my body woke up with the off-kilter assumption that the routine was underway. Years ago I responded to such circadian hiccups by trying to will myself back to sleep. Now I prop myself up in bed and practice my trippy marriage of Christian prayer and Zen meditation for as long as it feels right. If my head gets heavy, I lie down and let go. If I’m fresh, as was the case before dawn, I keep going–in this case for sixty minutes.

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“Make mine a San Pellegrino water, if you please.” (Szenenbilder aus dem Stück “Der Snob” von Carl Sternheim. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For another hour I pecked out notes on my iPhone, planning church work and making a shopping list: pistachios, avocados, San Pellegrino water (aren’t I refined?), pinto beans, soy hot dogs, etc. Thinking at 5:00 a.m. about anything positive or even mundane has a spacious quality. The mind drinks cool draughts of sanity. Wonderful!

At 6:00, as the maples on Shenley Drive took shape in the first light and the neighborhood cardinal chanted his dawn mantra, I took an hour’s siesta. Yes, siestas are by definition an afternoon activity, but I’m taking a semantic liberty. After two hours of healthy wakefulness, lying down again and drifting off with a lovely breeze on my face and arms and a lovely wife beside me seemed more like a nap than a resumption of night sleep. A little after 7:00 I dressed and creaked downstairs to discover a small envelope on the dining room table.

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If I weren’t already light and refreshed, the contents would have washed any sludge off my spirit. Son Micah had written me a belated Father’s Day note, full of love and gratitude, and enclosed a Starbucks gift card. Had I not been under the emotional surveillance of Zoloft, I’d have cried. As it was, I rubbed the gift between my fingertips like a feather found on a beach, like a leaf of the lamb’s ear Kathy has growing out front.

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One of Kathy’s lamb’s ear leaves.

Driving to church, I decided to record Happy Birthday and send it as a text message to daughter Elena, who turns twenty-five today. One voice in my bush league vocal repertoire is a schmalzy vibrato, and I laid it on thick for my pregnant girl. For a flourish I scooped the last you note.

Elena’s text response: “Thx daddy! U just made me laugh cry. Damn hormones!” At 2:22, when I would normally take a siesta, Elena texted me a recording of my dancing grandchild’s heartbeat. Woosh, woosh. Sounded herculean to me, but what do I know? I smiled, but again, wasn’t verklempt.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I never did get a nap. Didn’t get a run in either. Obligations took over. I spent half an hour with a parishioner in a soul-strangling situation and drove home gratified that he and I had extracted a couple veins of grace out of a cavern of darkness. In my chest, joy and depression played Twister.

Close to dinnertime, I received another text message from Elena, which I paraphrase: “Daddy, any chance I could use my ‘I’ve had a bummer of a day and need my daddy’ coupon?” A couple Christmases ago I stuffed the family stockings with coupons written on index cards. Ever since, Elena and her husband Matt have been redeeming them. Elena and a co-worker hugged goodbye this afternoon as the latter was moving to Columbus. Seeing a dear friend leave combined with those damn hormones had Elena’s tears splashing out. So off the load of us went to Perkins Restaurant, where wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law had a pancake-waffle frenzy. Thankfully, the carbohydrates and bummer coupon brought Elena’s hormones back into balance.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013: one ambush of blessing after another. I’m constantly aware that my personal healing from living for years under reality’s fist is taking longer than I’d like, so I’d be a fool to rush this day to a conclusion.

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Kathy’s trumpet vine waiting for hummingbirds.

When people I love blossom—even those standing throat-deep in compost—I’m going to stop! Shamatha—calm abiding—in an elementary extravagance: a wife who loves me, though my faults are legion; a daughter and son-in-law in giddy orbit around her belly; a son whose true self emerges more each day after being suffocated so long by addiction; friends and parishioners whose goodness keeps making me pinch myself.

Gladness lives under no obligation to stick around. I remember this constantly. So on days when joy is so thick that no afternoon nap is needed, I wear a wide interior grin of gratefulness. My amen is written by the poet James Wright:

When I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds.

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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)