Keith Eubanks II

Archive for the ‘Dreams’ Category

A Rush to Stillness

In Androids, Dreams on February 15, 2013 at 7:40 pm

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Lying still
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re going

She’s running to stand . . . Still.

-U2 “Running to Stand Still

the_art_of_prayer__s_hands_by_otaru23-d4lpcg2I wrote a story two years ago about yoga and cancer and anger. A lot of people read it. Manduka, a company that manufactures yoga mats, tweeted an excerpt and link to thousands of people under the caption “The Angry Yoga Guy Catches a Blessing.” The Blog saw a few days of  traffic, and then it was just me again, working on drafts I couldn’t finish. That story came out of my rage -and my wife’s rage- and the serenity and peace I found practicing yoga.

I have had nothing to say since.

I am not as angry now as I was when I wrote that story, which was originally titled, “The Angry Yoga Guy and What Happened Next.”   I  liked the title, but the story wasn’t really about anger, it was about finding some balance in the midst of chaos. So one day I changed it. “Between Rage and Serenity”  is the way I read the story today.

And the way I remember it.

That title – those four words- are all I have had to offer in two years. Sometimes I check the blog, just to see that it is still there. I feel some pressure to come up with something new-I want to- but the words don’t come.

This, too, is part of my yoga practice. I’m not rushing anything. The words will come when it is time for words. Billy, my yoga instructor, often says, “Don’t force anything. Let your practice come to you.”

I’m not sure Billy realizes the impact he has had on my thinking. How these little comments expand in my awareness, my life, my practice.

My wife’s cancer -and the fear and disfunction it brought- focused my yoga practice that first year. It motivated me and I was energized, but in the wrong way. Looking back, I realize I was panicked. A basic fight or flight reflex. I was afraid I was losing my wife, and I channeled that fear. I turned it into physical energy. I wanted to be present in my children’s lives for a long, long time, but that was a focus on the future. I needed to find myself in the present, first. I like to say that there is no time travel on a yoga mat.

Atha yoga anushasanam. “Now this is yoga as I have perceived it in the natural world.”

Now.

Yoga keeps me in the present.

My practice began as exercise and little more, but it very quickly renewed me spiritually. I was praying and seeking God. I prayed in ways I had never prayed before. Looked for God in places I had never looked before. The anniversary of my first year on the mat felt like a great accomplishment, and my wife was getting better, the chemotherapy finished, and a sense of normalcy had returned all us all to routines safe and familiar.

And then I lost my voice – figuratively.

I quit looking at the blog and the titles of unfinished drafts for which I had no more words.

The yoga practice continued, the fear of cancer retreating, but never really gone.  I lost my focus. Sometimes, I told myself I didn’t really need this. That I never stuck too long with anything, and yoga would be no different. I didn’t feel like I had the physical strength, the flexibility, or the discipline to keep this up – especially as a daily practice. I told myself that I was too old. The mind . . . it can be harsh, critical, and filled with contempt.

And none of it was real.

My instructors, Billy and Shosh, Barb, they were guiding us into a deeper, more disciplined practice.  The classes were demanding. The poses, intermediate to advanced. The mat below me covered in sweat. At least that hadn’t changed.

And the voice in my head said, “I can’t.” And sometimes I believed it. I spent so much time in my head I couldn’t focus on what was happening on the mat.

And time moved so slowly.

My watch and phone were in my yoga bag, pushed against a wall of the studio not three feet away, and every day I stood on that mat I was tempted to check the time, count the minutes, though I never did. It seemed sometimes like practice would never end. I imagined myself driving home, taking a shower. I thought about dinner.  I thought about work. Ideas and thoughts bounced around in my head like someone dumped a basket of ping pong balls on a floor.

It wasn’t until I started meditating that I realized all of this was natural. It is called “the monkey mind.” Yoga is a moving, breathing meditation, and the mind has to learn to settle down, work through the noise.  Let go.

It sounds easy.

It isn’t.

Thoughts come rushing into my mind, some demanding. Some float gently, tempting. The ether of dreams and the past forgotten. There are worries, anxiety, doubt. The mind struggles, demands.

The Self observes.

I learned a form of meditation at the Chopra Center in Southern California called primordial sound meditation. Mantras are sound vibrations that can help divert the mind from the  incessant barrage of thoughts that come before the stillness. Mantras help us focus . . . and more.  Sutras are mantras with meanings and those meanings can be simple or complex. In the book, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, Deepak Chopra explains that “every time a mantra or sutra is used, it helps increase the probability that a similar outcome will result from a later use of the same mantra or sutra . . . every time a [sound] wave particle collapses as a particular wave pattern, it increases the likelihood that it will collapse as that same pattern of wave again in the future. Sutras are actually intentions that increase the statistical likelihood of the collapse of a wave function along predictable probability amplitudes. This means that the more a sutra is used, the greater the likelihood that its chosen intention will be fulfilled. Therefore, it is better to use an old, well-used sutra than a new sutra.”

These sutras – these prayers – they are imbued with power through centuries of mindful intention and repetition.

Practice.

I am reminded of a particularly powerful sutra. It begins with the words . . .

“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”

I realize now that my practice that first year was almost entirely physical, though I did enjoy many insights and benefits. I also realize that my true practice didn’t really begin until that second year, when the chaos let loose in my mind.

That’s when I became a yogi.

And I am sitting on my mat, legs crossed, knees resting on the floor. When I began my practice, I couldn’t sit cross-legged. Now I am in half lotus, one foot resting on top of my thigh. My posture has improved and I am sitting tall. Billy is talking, a quiet, peaceful voice in the stillness of this beautiful yoga studio. “Yoga,” he says, “is a guided meditation. Settle in. Observe your breathing. You know how to do this. Sometimes it takes half an hour to find that place. Sometimes . . . three breaths is all it takes and you’re there.”

Tonight, I am there.

Our hands are pressed together in the prayer position –namaskar- and we begin with a single chant of OM.

The air is vibrating with energy.

It is now well over two years since I first entered this studio.

We stretch, arms up to the ceiling, palms come together, and back down to heart center, breathing, hands pressed in prayer position. This is a posture, a practice itself. Once more and the left hand lowers, arm straight, and finds the floor, the right arm curved gracefully over the head, stretching the length of the right side body. Billy is talking, “Breathe into this posture. Maybe the elbow is available.” And after two years of dedicated practice, it is today available. I look up to the ceiling, past the curving arch of my arm. Finding new depth in a pose changes every aspect of my practice. It renews it. The body has changed, the mind has changed, and the energy moves differently, aligned through chakras and the sacred architecture of the body. There is a subtle change in alignment, orientation, that is mental, spiritual, and physical. The balance between the elbow and sit bones is new, and feels good.

The universe is open for business.

Shosh tells me one day after class that yoga doesn’t give us anything, it simply reveals what is already there. I have been learning this for myself. My first year of practice, I was surprised at how inflexible my body was. I was frustrated at my lack of balance, falling out of postures or never really finding my way into them. But I was inflexible in other ways, and my life was far out of balance. What was happening on my mat was just a reflection of what was happening in my life. I lacked humility, so I had to learn to bend. To kneel. It has taken two years for my body and mind to find their way into humble warrior pose, and I think about this every time I lower myself down, and still struggle a little with that second elbow. That pose still isn’t where it should be, and I am mindful of this every time I kneel down, and I am mindful of it in my work, in my home, and every other aspect of my life.

Practice humility. You will see the light, the Spirit, in others.

I remind myself that ego has no place here. That all these things we think we are, they are transient. Illusion. None of it remains when we pass into the next life so what, then, are we?

That’s the big question, and I think it is one we naturally seek to answer in a number of ways, some of them misdirected, though well intended.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It is an early lesson on the importance of self-reflection. And Shakespeare wrote, “This above all else: To thine own self be true,” which more than implies that we must know the Self in order to be true to it. This is no small thing, and there are too many that never find it. They mistake the mind, for the Self. Desires for actual needs.

How do I know this?

I see people working in jobs and following paths that are not suited to them. They are in relationships that are not healthy for them. The divorce rate is above fifty percent. There are wars, and rumors of wars. People are unhealthy mentally, physically, and spiritually – buying and eating and drinking and demanding more in order to fill needs that remain unfulfilled.

They don’t know what those needs are because they don’t know who they are. For this reason, they don’t know what they want, or what their true purpose is – their dharma.

They are running to stand still.

A year ago we had another cancer scare. There was a PET scan, and a growth on a bone, and we were in a storm that came so suddenly there was no time to prepare. Brooke and I lost our way for a time. She had radiation treatments, her medication was changed, and we kept it pretty quiet.

We never did tell the kids.

I sat on my mat wondering if somebody up there was trying to tell me something.

And I remembered a story from the Bible. Jesus is with his disciples -his friends- in a small boat out on the water. He has been teaching all day and is sleeping on the boat, and a storm comes from out of nowhere.

That’s the way they always come.

This is no small storm, though. It is a tempest, and the boat is taking on water. It is on the verge of sinking, and the men aboard are panicked. Except Jesus. Desperate, they wake him up and ask, “Don’t you care that we are sinking?”

He gets up, and speaking to the storm says, “Be still.”

And the storm is no more.

As an English Professor, it is difficult not to read this as a metaphor. The storm that comes so quickly, put your own name on it. Bankruptcy, death, infidelity . . . cancer. And the panic? We know that all too well.

I like to think that after Jesus says, “Be still,” he gives a quick look at his frightened friends on the boat. A nod and a wink. Watch and learn.

We can calm storms, too. And in much the same way.

Be still.

And see the path before you.

Be still.

And know your heart’s desire.

Be still.

And find your Self – your dharma – your purpose.

And I am standing on my mat – around me a storm is raging, beyond this space, these walls, this life.

And I am at the center, untouched, balanced on one leg, my arm stretched out toward the mirror, the other gripping my other foot, pulling, the leg bent in a graceful arch – Dancing Shiva, or Standing Bow Pose.

I feel light – almost weightless.

Over these past months, I have found my balance, both inside and outside the studio. Shosh walks by and says, “steadiness and grace.” I am beginning to understand this word, samadhi – a state of perfected concentration. And yoga? It is a union of those things that were never separated in the first place. A union of breath, body, mind and movement. It’s written right across the door – at Yoga Deva.

Samadhi is the realization of who we are – at the deepest level.

And we are not fear. We are born of light and promise. We are steadiness and grace.

“Yoga,” Billy says, “is just a rush to stillness.”

And tonight, I am there.

My practice is three years old.

And it has been three years since Brooke’s original diagnosis. There have been two more PET scans since the last scare – both of them clear.

I have no sense of time passing. And I do not dwell on the past, nor do I worry about the future.

There will be other storms, no doubt.

Yoga doesn’t give us anything. It simply reveals what is already there.

And I am sitting on my mat . . . still.

Billy enters the room and says, “Everyone is here, that’s supposed to be here.”

I take three breaths, and settle in.

And today, I am 51 years old. It is my birthday, and I am good with that.

Everyone is here that is supposed to be here.

I am here. Present, in this moment.

Atha yoga.

Somewhere, a bell chimes three times.

Om shanti shanti shanti Om

It is an invocation of peace.

Om shanti shanti shanti Om

On Earth as it is in Heaven . . .

Be still.

Namaste.

Between Rage and Serenity

In Dreams on March 4, 2012 at 9:19 am

“Six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.” – U2

It has been months now since I have written a word.

I am siting on the floor in a small yoga studio, my body bent double over my right leg, arms stretched out, hands gripping my foot. My forehead is only an inch from my knee and I am willing it lower. It has taken months to get here. Sweat is dripping off my brow and onto the mat beneath me, forming a small puddle. My instructor this evening, Shosh, is on the ground talking to me. “Look at you,” she says softly. “Remember your first day? You’re getting better.”

I think about this. Am I better? I came here in desperation. I had asked a question of the Universe -of God- but could not hear the answer. There was a noise in my head – a constant, chaotic drumming that was poisoning my mind, stealing my breath, and I was afraid.

The future I had once seen so vividly was now hidden, obscured in a new reality. It had come like a dark, shifty shadow from beyond my dreams.

Her dreams.

These things, we say, happen to other people – not to us.

But it happened.

To us.

My wife, Brooke, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and each test brought worse news. Finally, the verdict came and it was every bad thing that we had hoped to avoid. Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. A future of endless doctor’s appointments, each a reminder that this might not be finished – might never be finished.

There is a kind of fear  particular to life and death situations. You feel it the body. It makes your mouth go dry.

Insanity in our home. A living nightmare of running but going nowhere. I kept saying to her, to myself, “I thought things like this brought people closer together. Made them stronger.”

But we were coming undone.

And I was angry. Angry at this intrusion so ill-timed, unwanted, unnecessary, unfair. Angry at her for getting sick.  It isn’t right, but it’s true.   And I was angry at my sudden dependence on people I never wanted to know for her health and well-being.

I couldn’t sleep – for weeks. I sat in my office with the blinds closed, avoiding friends and colleagues. My lectures became simple recitations. I had said it all before and I grew tired of the sound of my own voice. At night I stared into the dark trying to pray. I knelt by the bed, trying to pray. I lay face down on the ground . . . trying to pray.

Eventually, I ran out of things to say. I have said them all before. Forgive me. Help me. Are you really out there?

I don’t know what I expected. That everything would be better tomorrow? A voice in the heavy darkness? A white light?

Inner peace.

I don’t know.

So I start at the beginning. I breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. “If you get lost,” Billy says, “you can always come back to your breathing.” I have taken many classes from Billy over the months and when I think about yoga, and what I have learned from my practice, it is his voice I hear. I take a deep breath and try to add some intention – some awareness- to this most basic reflex.

And it’s about time. I have been holding my breath – for a long time now.

I just didn’t know it.


I am standing in mountain pose. My feet are planted firmly into the ground beneath me. My hands extend a short distance beside my hips, hands open, palms facing forward, forming a triangle from the top of my head down the length of my arms. Billy says this is a powerful pose – a receiving pose. The universe is open for business.

And I am trying to catch a blessing.

But first I have to catch my breath. These simple poses – they aren’t so simple. About forty-five minutes into my first class I nearly fall down onto the floor laughing at my lack of conditioning and discipline. I have learned that this is a common response. People laugh when they’ve had enough, and it occurs to me as I write these words that this reflex is really the correct response to so many of our problems. Ideally, we should meet the end of our lives with laughter. But it is early in my practice and I haven’t learned this lesson yet, and there is no humor in this laugh. It is some other version of me laughing, mocking my own inadequacy. I try to shut it down but I am so tired. Dripping sweat, struggling to breathe, I begin to doubt all of this – my being here. Yoga. And I haven’t moved my body further than the dimensions of my yoga mat – twelve square feet.

But I stay.

“Honor your practice,” Shosh says early one Sunday morning and I try, but my ego is with me on that mat, and there is very little room left for me. I want everything to be perfect and frustration creeps in. In the studio around me are beautiful girls with lithe yoga physiques moving through the asanas with such grace and focus that I feel big and inflexible. Sometimes I cheat, bending a knee, sliping down to the ground for a moment of rest. Sometimes I stand on my mat with my hands on my hips and shake my head, trying to breathe. The voice in my head says I’ll never be able to do this. It isn’t what I want to hear. This isn’t the answer I was looking for.

But I stay. I don’t know why. I just do.

When I first walked into Yoga Deva I felt an intuitive connection to the place – like finding a sacred space I had once visited in a dream and then found again a world away. The place seemed to say, Welcome back. What took you so long? And I knew I would explore this empty space in my heart and my mind in this place that seemed like it had been prepared for me.

I can breathe here.

Preparing for practice on a beautiful Fall evening, two girls walk into the studio chatting. One is a member and she has brought her friend. They roll their mats onto the floor indifferently as they continue their conversation – a he said she said recitation of some date that didn’t seem to go to well. They finally sit on their mats as Billy enters the room. The blonde girl sitting closest to me has placed her iPhone on a folded towel next to her. She tells Billy, “I just want you to know,” pointing to the phone, “I don’t plan on answering it. It’s just . . . my kids are with the babysitter.”

Billy smiles and says quietly, “We built this place so you wouldn’t have to worry about those,” indicating the phone, and begins practice.


And my feet are planted under me, wider than my hips, heels out, toes in. My hands are gripping my ankles and I am pulling myself into a deep forward fold, my head between my knees. I release the grip and we rise up, as a class, backs straight and stop halfway in a table top position, arms stretched out like the wings of an airplane. We hold this position and Billy is talking about a song he heard this morning. It has been with him all day. “It’s six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.”

Achtung Baby. I love this music.

“Reach out with your arms,” he says. Extend. “Past Pecos Road and Chandler Boulevard. Extend. Past the 202. Try and throw your arms around the world.”

And I reach. I stretch. I think about my wife and my kids. I think about this life we have. And I try in that moment to embrace it all for what it is right now.

I came here because I was afraid I was going to lose Brooke. That’s the truth. I imagined waking up with these young girls -my children- and she wouldn’t be there. I was over-weight. My blood pressure was creeping up. My face was red.

“Have you been in the sun?” people would ask of my ruddy complexion.

I hadn’t.

So I thought I better get healthy. I felt, for the first time, that it might all come down to me – alone. My neighbor kept talking about this yoga studio where she had practiced so I walked across the street and asked her, “What was the name of the place you told me about? That yoga studio?”

I had reached a tipping point.

Those physical changes I wanted came, but something else happened, too. The practice became something else, very quickly. I was working for the yoga body. What I found was the yoga mind.

I started with a nine dollar mat from Target. This was to appease my wife, since the classes were significantly more expensive than the twenty dollars I was currently paying for the gym I wasn’t using. I cut the sleeves off a t-shirt and wore a pair of old sweat pants that hadn’t seen much sweat. My round stomach protruded under my shirt and I think I looked like a middle-aged guy that would use his twenty-nine dollar two week introductory lessons, never to return.

But I stayed. I think the psychological trauma I was experiencing in every other part of my life was balanced by the physical practice. It made sense in a way. Billy would remind the class to leave everything at the door.

I left everything on the mat.

“If you are too much in the mind,” Billy says, “pay more attention to the body. If you are too much in the body, bring more awareness to the mind.”

And two weeks turned to twelve and before I knew it, I was developing a disciplined yoga practice.

I am sitting in the the studio, my legs crossed, listening to the sound of my own breathing. When I began this practice, I could barely sit this way. Now, my knees are an inch from the floor. My eyes are closed, my arms resting on my thighs, and Billy is talking. These are the moments we take to center ourselves before we begin the asanas, the movement or flow of yoga poses. Billy says, “If you take one step towards a disciplined yoga practice, that yoga practice takes ten steps towards you.”

The nine dollar mat got me this far, but even my wife can see that I am serious about this. I buy a new mat. I research and read reviews and finally decide on a Manduka mat and a mat bag. I trade the baggy sweats and old t-shirts for some workout clothes that are more suited to the practice. I feel like I have earned these things.

The mat is a sacred space. A platform that allows me to temporarily stop traveling to the past or some unrealized future. There is no time traveling on a yoga mat. It’s all about the present.

And I am drenched in sweat. “Bring your hands to heart-center,” Billy says, “In honor of your standing series.” I press the palms of my hands together and bow my head. “Now shake that out,” he says. “Whatever happened, or didn’t happen. No judgements. Let it go. It’s in the past.”

My wife’s hair has fallen out from the chemotherapy. I sit with her for every treatment. There are lots of needles, and I see what all of this is doing to her. I am watching her carefully. Every moment. Nothing is lost. I keep much to myself. I am holding her in my mind. I am covering her in light.

And I pray – but not at home. And not in church.

I pray in the yoga studio. The serenity of the place quiets my mind and I begin, in this place, to hear the answers to the questions I asked, and I realize they are all within me. But it takes a quiet mind to hear them. It is the small still voice I have heard so much about – no thunder, no flashes of cosmic light- and hearing it requires patience and practice.

Everything is practice, and in yoga I found a metaphor for all of it.

My body is straining, my clothes wet from the exertion, and Billy reminds me to set an intention for “someone going through a difficult time or illness.” He knows the story. So when my arms are shaking or my mind starts to wander I think of Brooke. I think of needles and toxic chemicals. I think of the scars and the fears and the incredible beauty that shines through all of it. I think of how privileged I am to be her witness. To sit with her, to pray for her.

And I breathe.

My left knee is bent into a deep lunge and the palm of my left hand is pressed into the mat, close to the arch of my foot. My right arm is stretching straight up to the ceiling. Billy is talking. “Press that hand into the mat. Push. Everything that doesn’t serve you. Push it away.”

And I am suddenly surrounded in a ball of white light radiating out from the palm of my hand, pressed into the floor, to the tips of my fingers stretching upward. For a moment, my mind is clear and I feel light radiating from within and around me.

And for a moment, I feel safe.

The universe is open for business.

When we got the cancer diagnosis Brooke put a few holes in the walls of our home. She was upstairs – raging. In truth, I didn’t think our marriage was ready for this. She didn’t either. What I have learned over the past several months of practice is that our marriage needed this.

Really.

We had come to a place where we both needed to grow. It sounds good – but the journey is a real bitch. We turned on each other and for a while we both thought cancer would be the thing to break us. We were facing our worst fears and we had those conversations. Brooke, by her own admission, had been arrogant in her health and physical ability. I was afraid of doctors and despised the impersonal intrusions and violations of the medical practice.

So Brooke lost what she prized most, and I faced what I feared most.

One afternoon, after a fight that might have been a deal-breaker for our marriage, I called my cousin, David. I said, “I thought these kinds of things brought people closer together.”

“Cindy and I have some experience with this sort of thing,” he replied, “and I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.”

So this, too, is a disciplined practice.

While I was working it out in the yoga studio, Brooke was fueling her rage. She needed it. She was channeling it – with intention. She was angry about the cancer. She was going to fight it, and she is a fighter. Her anger was a form of energy channeled -barely- toward the cancer.

And I was raging too. Unpredictably.

Early one morning I am driving to work listening to Buddist Lamas chanting in my headphones over a soundtrack of rhythmic, spacial sounds. The sun is about to rise and I am lost in thought. But something slowly brings my awareness back to the car. The truck ahead of me is driving at least ten miles under the speed limit. There is oncoming traffic and I can’t get around him. He has many chances to pull over, but he doesn’t and I am now close to him, moving my car into the next lane and back again, signally that I am trying to pass. He knows I am there. He sees me. Another place to move aside – he should move aside- and he doesn’t. Finally, there is a break in the traffic and I pull up next to him pressing my middle finger into the glass of the passenger window. He sees me and I look pointedly into his eyes as I press the gas pedal to the floor. And as I pass the car, indulging in all of these angry and triumphant feelings I remember that I am not driving my car. I am in my wife’s car, and there is a sticker on the back window of Jesus, a crown of thorns on his head. It was there when we bought the car and it was left there in silent agreement – a superstitious impulse about God and cancer.

I took a deep breath and realized instantly that all of this had been a test, and I had failed it miserably. I thought of the driver I had just passed, probably wondering why Jesus had just flipped him off, and I laughed out loud. “Let that all go,” I heard Billy say. “What happened or didn’t happen. It’s all in the past.”

I’d like to say that these are isolated outbursts, but they aren’t.  Brooke calls me the “angry yoga guy.” I am trying to find balance, but I am living in moments that are all extremes. And just when I think I am beginning to master my impulses I fail. Mary, another instructor at Yoga Deva, reminds me that our practice doesn’t only happen on the mat. In fact, we need to find ways to take it off the mat – with intention. Two days after Thanksgiving I had an accident riding my bike and seriously sprained my hand. I couldn’t practice for two weeks and had to change the way I did things when I could practice. I was frustrated – and angry. “That’s your practice.” Mary told me, smiling. She seemed happy for me. In her Yin class nothing is forced. The body finds its way over time, and it is a slow process that requires patience, but builds incredible strength. We find our way – over time.

And that’s your practice.

I am standing on one leg, trying to find my balance. Shosh sits on the floor, her back against a wall of mirrors, watching a timer as we try to hold this pose for at least a minute. I am reaching back and holding onto my left foot, which is pushing back against the pull of my hand. My leg is bent like a bow. I am leaning forward, by body parallel to the floor, my right arm reaching straight out in front of me like I am flying. I am looking for a dristi – a focal point that will center the awareness and help me find balance. I do find balance, and for a moment I begin to think that I can hold this pose for that minute. And then I fall. You can’t over think it. My leg drops to the floor reflexively and I stand there, head down, my hands on my hips, catching my breath.

“If you fall,” Shosh says, “good for you. It’s called yoga practice, not yoga perfect.”

She seems happy for me, too.

One evening I took Brooke to the movies. She was having Chemo treatments, so we went to a weeknight show where there would be fewer people around. Her immune system was seriously compromised. We were watching X-Men: First Class. In the middle of the film, Xavier is trying to teach Eric how to channel his powers. Eric can telepathically move anything that is metal with his mind, but Eric has had a hard life – and he is angry.

Eric can stop a bullet with his mind, but Xavier wants him to really test himself. He wants Eric to move a radar dish that is easily five miles away, something Eric does not believe he can do. He tries, looking strained both physically and mentally, but the dish is unmoved.

I know exactly how he feels.

But Xavier isn’t ready to quit. He says, very calmly, “I find that true focus lies somewhere between rage, and serenity.”

I knew the truth of it immediately. I had gone to the yoga studio seeking serenity in the midst of chaos. And Brooke was fighting breast cancer with her rage.

Even in this struggle, we are balanced between the yin and yang of peace and chaos, and balance is a finite point between them. I realized that despite everything, we are balanced, the two of us, in a struggle that is moving us forward. Bringing us closer.

But it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.

I am standing in my warrior pose, my dristi  is over the tips of my fingers. There is a series of warrior poses, elegant and physically demanding. The body reaches, stretches, strong in both sides, balanced.  My knee is in a lunge, and right over my ankle. My right leg stretched straight out behind me, pressing into the outer edge of my foot. There is energy in this room. It’s a slow hum, and you can feel it. This space is where I fight against the rage that could easily take me, and this battle is intensely personal.

I am a warrior.

And while I have never been much good at mastering myself, I have noticed that things are changing. I am changing.

And Billy is sitting on his mat, legs crossed, the back of his hands are resting on his knees. He is talking, and I can sense frustration in him. He is telling a story. Billy is a carpenter by trade, and he is telling the class about a conversation that happened over lunch earlier that day. He was talking to some coworkers and Billy shared that he was also a yoga instructor. “Yoga?” they asked? “Yoga? What has yoga ever done for you?” I could hear their distain creep into his voice. I could feel it.

“If you know anything about guys that work in construction,” Billy says, “they can be kind of rough around the edges.” I know this. I worked for a while in cement when I was much younger.

I think it was the disrespect that was bothering him, but I think he was also troubled because he didn’t have a ready answer for them.

“What has yoga ever done for you?” he repeated.

Billy is an intuitive teacher. I see it in him. He uses what’s  real -the everyday experience- to illustrate his lessons, and this is one of the reasons I connected with him. It’s how I know I came to the right place. I’m an intuitive teacher, too.

I wanted to help him. To tell him to just look around. “What has yoga done for you?”

“Me,” I wanted to say. “Me – and everyone else that is sitting in this room. That’s what yoga has done for you.”

It’s an incredible gift, being a teacher. But you never really fully know the effect you have had on your students, or where those lessons will take them. You aren’t always meant to know.

And that’s your practice.

It is a Wednesday evening and I am sitting comfortably on my mat, my legs crossed and eyes closed, listening as the instructor, Barb, relates a parable to the class. She is an energetic woman with short, yellow-blonde hair. She speaks in a fast, rhythmic cadence, but the effect is calming and almost hypnotic. Ordinary people do amazing things in Barb’s class.

Tonight she is talking about a man looking for God.

I can relate.

He has climbed a high mountain in search of a Holy man, and when he reaches the small house at the mountaintop he is greeted at the door by a man who, after hearing the purpose of the journey, invites the traveller into the house and then quickly out the backdoor. Confused,the traveler tries to explain again why he has come. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I have journeyed all this way to see the Holy man.”

“And you have just met him,” the man replies, closing the door.

Barb explains the lesson saying, “If you cannot see the face of God in the next person you meet, stop looking.”

And we begin to practice.

That weekend I am buying tires at a small shop in Chandler, Arizona. The place is full of noisy, masculine energy. I have been coming  here for years, and the owner, Jose, is now my friend. The previous owner sold the business to Jose, who still works in his shop as the only mechanic. He greets all of his customers like old friends. He calls me “rich man” because I am there so much getting my old cars fixed on a teacher’s salary. He likes this joke. I found him by accident, which is often how we find the best things.

The universe is open for business.

This day I am watching a man try to hustle a deal on some tires. He bought a used pair from the previous owner and he is trying to tell Jose that the tires weren’t any good. That he got a bad deal. He is clearly waiting for Jose to offer him something, but Jose has his head under the hood of a car trying to ignore him. Everyone is trying to ignore him. I am reading the sign on the wall behind the man which states in big red letters that there is no warranty on used tires. I think about pointing this out to the man, who is clearly bothering Jose. I look at him thinking I will catch his eye – that I can give a knowing nod to the sign hanging almost over his head.

The cool morning light is filling the station and I am pleased with myself. I am not here to hustle tires, I have real business. And then I look at the man again, and I begin to see him. He is short with black, wavy hair, unkempt. His hands are pushed deep into the pockets of his pants that seem to have no color of their own. His clothes are worn, shabby. He is smiling uncomfortably, used to going unnoticed, to being ignored. And somehow I know that it isn’t really the tires that brought him here. He is looking for someone to acknowledge him – to see him- to hear his storyThe man catches my eye and I save the clever nod towards the sign that I had practiced in my mind. I smile back and the noisy clanking of metal and machinery seem to fade away and I can see the motes of dust in the air hanging between the two of us. I see him and nothing else, and I catch my breath, amazed. I hear Barb saying, “If you cannot see God in the face of the next person you meet, stop looking.”

I am standing in a used tire shop trying not to be noticed. There are tears welling up in my eyes and I look away, ashamed. I see myself in this man. I am this man, and I am wondering if anyone will ever see God in me.

And finally I am able to understand and embrace this word that ends our yoga practice – namaste. It means I see and acknowledge the light – the Spirit- within you.

We begin and end our practice with a chant of Om. It is the sound of the universe. You can hear it under the tumult that drowns out the simple awareness that we are spiritual beings in a world that is not material, but an expansive act of creation manifested first in the mind of God. I believe that when He first breathed life into man, the sound of that first breath was Om. And we have been breathing ever since, each breath flowing divinely from the first.

Yoga is breathing. Every movement flows from the mindful inhalation and expulsion of breath.

And I have been holding mine for a long time.

But not today.

Billy is talking, inviting us. “Yoga is a guided meditation.”

And my practice is one year old.

One year.

I look different. I feel different. And though I still lose my temper, I am not ever completely lost in it. I am always aware, at the very least, that I am failing a test, missing an opportunity. That I am still the angry yoga guy, but this, too, is only a transition into something else.

And I am in mountain pose – not asking this time, but counting blessings. Brooke is getting better. I see the old strength in her returning. Her PET Scan is clear. And while her cancer will always be a part of my practice – the place it all began- it no longer defines it. My son, who I haven’t spoken to in years sends me a letter through Facebook -an amazing gesture- and we begin to talk. My beautiful daughters are growing and changing before me and they fill my life with Hope. I was there at the birth of each of my children and saw each of them take their first breath – and the sound was a resonant Om.

I am seated on my mat, a sacred space, legs crossed, palms pressed to heart-center in prayer. My shirt is wet from sweat. The lights are lowered and Billy is talking.

“Together we can sit at the top of the mountain, until only the mountain remains.”

And I am breathing.

I pray here, in this time and space. I thank God for my life. For my family. My practice. I pray a blessing for Billy and Shosh, that this place will prosper.

The universe is open for business.

And in my mind I am stretching my arms across the room, past Williams Field Road, past Pecos Road and the 202.

Trying to throw my arms around the world.

Looking for God, in the next face I see.

Balanced between rage . . . and Serenity.

And that is my practice.

Namaste.

In the Farmer’s Garden

In Dreams on April 8, 2011 at 4:08 am

“The best place to seek God is in a garden.  You can dig for him there.”  ~George Bernard Shaw

I like pulling weeds. I like to get my hands close to the earth and work the roots out of the ground. My knees creak and complain and my back stiffens. But this isn’t pain. It’s discomfort – and there is a difference. The mind can move beyond discomfort, and if it does, it can achieve a focused state of awareness – a lightness of being. It is a metaphor for life.

The mind wants this – but it fights it.

I focus, not on the number of weeds that seem to have invaded my backyard, but on the one in front of me. And then the next – and the next. Each one becomes, for a moment, the focus of  my intent. My body complains as I shift my weight to the other knee. I work through the discomfort. Discomfort is noise. Distraction. It says, “Enough already. You don’t really have to do this. Not now. You can always do it tomorrow.”

But there is no tomorrow.  And I don’t like the noise. So I push through it.

I smell the dirt and feel it under the nails of my hands. The weeds smell bright and fecund. The sun warms my skin, and the sweat on the back of my neck cools me.  I am for a long time alone, and the pile of weeds I have pulled grows larger.

And then my daughter, Madeline, joins me.

“What are you doing, Dad?” she asks, though what I am doing is obvious. It is a child’s way of beginning a conversation. They state the obvious. We lose the ability to do this over time. We even avoid it.

“Pulling weeds,” I say as I pull another  from the hard ground.

“Can I help?”

I show her how to grab the stem of the weed and gently test its depth. She twists and tugs and there is an audible pop as the roots come out of the ground.

“Very good, Maddy. That’s it. Perfect.”

And we pull the weeds in silence.

After a time she stands, stretching her body. “That’s hard work,” she says. I nod my head and laugh.

And I am back in Tranquillity, on my grandfather’s farm. We are standing in a cotton field in front of the house – perfect rows of young cotton plants stretch across the fertile farmland.  I am a boy, not much older than Maddy is now. The sun is about to set. There is a burnt and golden rim of color working its way across the wisps of cloud overhead. A beautiful painting on a magnificent stretch of canvas. I am holding a hoe in my hand, its handle polished smooth from years of use. I press my hand into my lower back and stretch.

“This is back breaking work,” I say.  My parents and grandparents laugh. We are glowing, all of us, in the evening light. I have been chopping cotton, my grandfather teaching me how to use the garden hoe to move the earth beneath the roots of the weeds, and pull them from the ground. I had worked my way down a row and back, my body bent uncomfortably as I worked the hoe into the ground. My grandfather had made it look easy – effortless. I was enthusiastic. There was money to be made, and as I made my way down the row I began to think of how I might spend it. As I made my way back up the other side the novelty had worn off.

It was back-breaking work.

Painful blisters were already forming on my soft hands. My grandfather looks at them intently, mildly amused. They will harden into callouses, he tells me. And then he shows me his hands. They are like thick tanned saddle leather, smooth and strong and hard. I have never seen hands like them since, and when I think of him, I see his hands first, then his broad nose set firmly into his sun weathered face.

I look at my daughter, who has now occupied herself with a short shovel she found leaning against the wall. She thinks she has found a better, easier way to take the weeds down, but I stop her.

“You have to get them by the roots,” I tell her. “If you don’t, they’ll grow back.”  She doesn’t seem interested in the weeds anymore and I don’t blame her. Not one bit. But she wants to help, so I tell her she can use the shovel to refill a hole she dug in the ground a few weeks earlier. This is more to her liking and she begins to shove dry earth into the hole.

I watch her for a moment, intent in her work. I think my grandfather would have really liked her.

I worked that field in front of my grandfather’s house, earning some money as I cleared the weeds row by row. The blisters on my hands broke and dried, forming the promised callouses. I was proud of them. And my grandfather was proud of me. I could see his approval in the way he looked at me, talked with me, but it was my grandmother that told me how he had bragged about the work I was doing. I had surprised him, I think.

I didn’t finish the field, though, and I guess it still bothers me. I made it around the backside, near the fort my uncle built in a large tree at the edge of the canal bank. I remember that it was time to run the water and it was my uncle that finished the field. Something of my accomplishment, I think, was tarnished – at least in my mind.

My other daughters have joined me in the backyard now. Abby is almost five years old and Katie is almost three. Maddy is pulling weeds again and the little girls are helping – pulling the leafy tops off  with their little hands and throwing them into the pile that is growing larger still. They have found the shovel and are trying to dig a hole, without much success. Some sparrows fly onto the fence, curious.They move to the roof  of the house, and finally into the air. The girls love the birds. They point and call out to me, needing me to share this wonder with them.

And I do.

But I am a hunter on a great adventure. My air rifle is loose in my hands as I move slowly down the length of fence that covers our approach to the apricot tree. My cousin, Greg, is leading the way. He is a hunter, too. And he shoots with deadly accuracy. We are paid by my grandmother to keep the sparrows and blackbirds out of her fruit trees – especially the apricot tree. She makes the best pies and cobblers from these apricots, but the birds are relentless. Greg and I kneel in the dirt and pump our guns. We peer down the sights of the gun barrels, looking.

But there is nothing. Either we have killed every bird in Tranquillity, or they are feeding off someone else’s trees. We move across the farm, checking each tree, each fence post.

Nothing.

And then close to the house a sound. There is a large tree in the center of a garden near the house and in this tree there is a bird. One bird.

A mockingbird.

There is a pause, a hesitation. We had been told by our grandmother that we could kill any bird on the farm, but not the mockingbird. She loved them. I can still hear her singing, “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t fly . . . ”

The summer sun was bright and hot and heavy. Our guns potent in our hands. And there was competition, and a desire to kill. The bird moved from branch to branch, singing. We both aimed our guns and we both fired, and after a short pause, the mockingbird fell from the tree.  Dead. We both called the shot, we both fired our guns. And I’m pretty sure Greg still thinks, to this day, that he killed that bird. I was just as certain that I had killed it.

But it doesn’t matter. The intent was plain and it was in us both.

The bird was there on the ground, its song silenced. And there was the realization that we had gone too far.

There was a garden, and in that garden there was a tree. And in that tree, the only thing forbidden to us. And we had taken it, of our own free will. So we hid our sin, burying it deep in the ditch beneath the tree house where it could never be found.

It is an old and familiar story.

And the days passed by, and with each day it seemed that we had hidden well enough this thing we had done.

We walked and hunted and played in the farmer’s garden.

One afternoon he found me alone with my gun, sitting on a low fence. I hadn’t heard him approach and his strong leathery hand on my shoulder frightened me.  He asked me about the mockingbird – what had happened to it- as if I were its keeper.

How could he know, I wondered? Who is this man that knows the number of every bird that falls in his garden?

And at first I lied, as if I had never seen a mockingbird.  But he obviously knew the truth. I might even have blamed Greg, freely giving him the credit he had once demanded. My grandfather looked at me, not unkindly, but in a very direct way, and said, “I won’t tell your grandmother -it would break her heart- but don’t you boys ever kill another mockingbird.”

And he walked away.

I asked him, some time later -long after my grandmother had passed away- how he had known. And he told me, with a gleam in his eye how they had flooded the canals to irrigate the cotton and the bird, perhaps not buried as well as we had hoped, floated to the top of the water. Like a witness to the crime against it, the bird and become entangled in the brush along the edge of the canal where it was eventually discovered – its wound an obvious, though silent, indictment.

I pull the weeds and the girls watch the birds and dig holes in the ground. I don’t kill the birds anymore. I like to watch them. There’s one bird that sings to me every morning, and it is this song that brings me to consciousness as the sky slowly lightens. It is the same song every morning, but it makes me happy. It reminds me that I am a part of nature, and that we all have something important to do.

This bird? He gets to sing. I get to teach.

My hands are getting sore, but I keep pulling. There is cold beer in the refrigerator. I start to think about how it will taste. How easy it would be to just call it a day.  But the temptation reminds me of a story my grandmother told me. It has become “the family story” for me.

A story of origin. Mythology.

There once was, in my grandparents home, a formal portrait hanging in the hallway. They are both seated and smiling in front of a pale blue background, my grandmother’s hair puffed up tall on top of her head in the style that older ladies seem to favor. I don’t know why it is that picture, that image, that I see when I think of them. It is so contrived. The picture, in many ways, could be of anyone’s grandparents.

Maybe the picture is stuck there in my mind because it is so far removed from the people I really knew.

It was my grandmother that told me that she and my grandfather had eloped. I remember being surprised, even as a young boy. This was the woman that gave me Lifesavers in church to keep me awake, or when I could no longer keep my eyes open, she would rub my head gently in her hands. My grandmother would not tolerate foul language and rewarded my cousins and me with money for accurately quoting scripture from the Bible. Even the simplest verses like – “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible – was good for some pocket change, though that verse usually indicated that we had exhausted our reservoir of scripture.

But she did elope.

She ran off one day with Alex Eubanks and didn’t return home for two days. When she finally came back she told her mother in way of explanation, “Momma, I got married.”

“Well, you better have, staying out all night with that man,” her mother replied. And that was the humor I came to know so well  in my grandmother’s house.

They didn’t actually live together for a while, my grandfather working at various jobs on a number of farms. I have heard stories of him cooking beans over a fire and eating them right out of the can.

Sometime later, they were working together at a roadside gas station and diner. I don’t remember where, but it was probably Texas. They didn’t have a lot of money and they had no car. Most of the family had already made their way to California. One day a couple of traveling salesmen stopped at the diner. They were on their way to California and my grandmother had an idea. “Al,” she said later that night, “go ask those salesmen if we can get a ride with them to El Centro.”

The salesman said yes.

So they quit their jobs and left that next day for California taking only what they could carry with them.  I think of my grandparents and those two traveling salesmen like they are characters out of a Steinbeck novel-  chasing the dream and promise of a state where ripe fruit falls from over-laden trees.

A land of milk and honey.

My grandmother told me that Pabst beer was popular back then and that “every time those salesmen passed a billboard that said ‘Time for a Pabst’ they would stop and have a beer. It’s a wonder we made it to California.”

So it was a leap of faith and two traveling salesmen  that brought my grandparents -and all of us that would follow- to El Centro, California. My grandfather picked fruit, plowed fields, and worked until he could one day buy his own place, which he found in Tranquillity – a small farming community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

I know he loved my grandmother – more so now that I am a man looking back on them as they once were. We had frequent family dinners at my grandmother’s house, and my grandfather -usually out on the tractor- was often late since he worked through the last light of the day.

Grandpa would come through the door like John Wayne – bigger than life – his face covered in dirt. I remember him grabbing my grandmother and forcing his kisses on her as she struggled, laughing, trying to keep the dirt off her face. There were stories and laughter, and I can’t remember a single argument at that table.

But I do remember tears.

I was there, sitting at that same table with my father as grandpa signed the papers that leased his land to another farmer. He couldn’t do it anymore, and after he signed those papers I saw him wipe the tears out of his eyes. He still looked the same to me, but he wasn’t. My grandmother’s death had aged him, and made him sentimental in a way particular to old men.

My own marriage -my first marriage- was unravelling around me. I remember sitting on the couch in his living room with my first wife as my grandfather talked about the many wonderful years he had shared with my grandmother. He hoped the same for us, he said, but I knew that was never going to happen. That kind of marriage requires certain qualities neither of us had.

He died returning from an elk hunting trip in Montana. Even at his age he had managed to kill an elk. My grandfather had a heart attack in a parking lot in Salt Lake City as he was leaving a grocery store. I came to the hospital and sat with him. I told him what he meant to me, I prayed for him, kissed his forehead, and I don’t know if he heard a word I said, but he squeezed my hand. His were still strong and smooth as tanned leather. I wept at his funeral. My father, sitting in front of me, reached his hand back and patted my leg.

“This isn’t a tragedy,” I told my sisters, trying to lend some kind of perspective to our grief. He had a long life, and died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. Grandpa loved those hunting trips and I admired him for that last elk. But the man in box, at the center of all this attention, that wasn’t him. Not the way I remembered him, and I saw the entire funeral as a last and final indignity.

That is why I cried.

I would have rather seen him atop a large funeral pyre, his body consumed by fire. His ashes forever a part of the land he so lovingly worked. I imagined a tall sentinel of smoke rising into the sky far above the San Joaquin Valley – anouncing the death of a great man. Truly, one of the last of his kind.

He talked to me about farming once. He said, “there is no greater life.” But he also said that the industry had changed, and the small farm was dying. He was nostalgic, and a little sad. But I keep thinking about what he said. For him, there was no greater life. That’s how he appraised his time here and that is how he lived it.

And he lived it.

My daughter, Abby, is telling me she is dirty and that she needs a bath. I could use a shower myself. I stand up and stretch my back and remember an old feeling I haven’t felt in a long while – the pleasure of physical work. A happy kind of exhaustion.

The kids are running around the yard. Abby is dancing to a song only she can hear, and Katie is adding sticks and rocks to the pile of weeds happy in her work. And my grandfather is standing there in the middle of all of this looking at me.

“I like pulling weeds,” I say out loud.

And I hear him say, “you can take the boy away from the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

Madeline grabs my hand looking at the large pile of weeds we have pulled together. “Is it enough, Dad?” she asks.

I look at my grandfather. He is smiling.

Yeah, Maddy,” I say, “it’s enough.”

And it is.

A Boy With Wings

In Dreams on March 5, 2011 at 6:11 am

“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.”

-Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife



A few moments ago I sat at my desk, pencil in hand, and wrote the following words: “For many years now, I have had a recurring dream.” I look at the yellow notepad for several moments and then erase what I have just written. It isn’t true. I don’t have a recurring dream. I have a continuing dream. A dream that remembers the dreams that have come before it. In this dream I am learning to fly. It is an art I have practiced since childhood, and am only now beginning to master.

We spend about a third of our lives asleep and up to two hours of that time dreaming, so time spent in the dream world is not irrelevant, it is just another form of experience. Dreams, then, are another way of finding and understanding meaning in our lives, and when the mind is actively avoiding something, they may be the only way to confront those issues. Never tell yourself, “It was only a dream.”

It rarely is.

In dreams we can more creatively negotiate the realities of the physical world, free from its physical limitations. In the dream world time passes differently. In our dreams, we are all mind. I am not sure, then, how long it took me to learn to fly. Minutes? Hours? Years?

I sometimes think that I am losing track of time.

Or perhaps I don’t believe in it anymore. It occurs to me that while mankind spins on this great cosmic clock, we are the only one’s counting the minutes. The stars, the rising and the setting of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides, all parts of a complex continuity defined as Time.

The rest of the universe doesn’t even notice. Nor does any other life form on this world. And should we suddenly find ourselves standing on another planet our understanding of time would be meaningless. The distance from the sun, the size of the planet, the path of its rotation, all this a reminder that our place in time and space is limited – and quite specific.

That other world? – It’s a completely different clock.

And yet lives are measured in Time. And while we are told that time is infinite -a concept that cannot possibly be understood by the human mind- the human experience is unquestionably finite. There is a clock -an internal clock- and it is ticking – a program functioning deep within the mind, working on a far deeper level of consciousness.

You know it’s true.

A sleeper will awaken, reaching for the alarm clock an instant before it rings, the subconscious mind always keeping count.

It is this ability that permits us to track temporal distortions – and they occur regularly.

A person waking from a coma or state of unconsciousness will invariably ask the same question: How long have I been out? Their first impulse to reset the internal clock, and then consider to what degree the world might have changed while they were away.

Friends, talking over plates of food and drink will lose themselves in memory. Watch them as they look to their watches or cell phones – aware, in startled acuity, that they have lost their sense of time. There is a bliss in that kind of elevated state of consciousness, but it can also be uncomfortably disorientating.

Every time traveller knows this.

Many years ago -according to the calendar, anyway- I woke to the sound of running water. Outside, quiet and a dark night sky. I left the warm, comfortable bed and found my girlfriend, Shelly, in the shower. “Why are you in the shower?” I asked her, concerned.

“I’m getting ready for work.”

She didn’t know it was 2:30 in the morning. When I told her, she burst into tears, her body shaking. The feeling – temporal disorientation. She believed it was 6 AM – and in her mind? – It was. The rush back to the present was like traveling backward in time. I handed her a towel and walked her back to bed. She was disoriented and fell quickly back to sleep.

Every time traveler will experience this.

Spend any significant amount of time away from a place or person – a childhood home, a friend from a distant past- and you will feel a little of this disorientation. It is fixed in your mind -this place, this person- in time and space. But see how things have changed. And the mind can’t help but inventory the differences as it brings the past uncomfortably into the present. To find something completely gone, when the memory or reality of it rests so implacably in the mind, is to feel the sensation of the finite as it travels down powerful currents of infinite time.

It’s like standing two feet from a train as it is rushing past.

There is a temptation to rationalize all of this as metaphorical, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

The state of being we call reality actually resembles the dream world in many ways. This might be the reason we are frequently unable to tell the difference between the dream world and the physical world – which I resist calling the “real world.” As in dreams, we cannot remember exactly where this physical world began. We just trust the narrative and add to it.

Nor can we remember when it began.

We know the story of our birth, but we cannot remember it. We are aware of a history – a narrative associated with this particular reality- but it is fragmentary and unreliable. We do not really know how we got here – just a vague, emerging sense of consciousness. We are told that the universe we live in is still expanding. Toward what? We don’t know. Through what? We don’t know.

Where are we, really, in this vast, infinite expanse of Space and Time?  We don’t know.

We spend our lives trying to interpret the experience and learn its mysteries. There is joy, horror, revelation . . . and magic.

Once upon a time, when I was just a boy, there was trouble in our home, and I began to look for a way out. One night I hid in a closet as my parents fought – their war shaking the foundations of our house, our family. The arguments were muffled against the coats hanging on the rack, a line of light at the edge of the door making its way through the cool darkness of the closet. There was a crisp, clean, earthy smell in there. I remember the closet was lined with cedar.

To this day, the smell of cedar reminds me of violence.

At night I dreamed. And in my dreams I realized I could rise above all of this. I was walking on a long stretch of beach. Then running. Some how I knew I could do more and pushed myself into the air in a long exaggerated jump, floating gently back into the soft white sand. I jumped – or floated- higher and higher until I felt the fear of being up so high. The fear turned quickly to panic and then I lost control. I crashed, rolling across the beach and certain that I would die. But I didn’t, and for years I did this in my dreams – pushing earthly limits, floating higher and higher into the sky and then crying out in fear as I hit the ground.

But I kept trying. Again and again.

Over the years I tried to control my body as I moved through the sky, as I tried to bring myself back to the Earth, always failing. For years I failed.I loved to fly, but I feared the end of these dreams. And it was only these dreams, the flying dreams, where I remembered the successes and failures of the past. Flying was so much different than the way I had thought it would be. Influenced, I’m sure, by Superman comic books, I imagined flying through the air at incredible speeds, my arms stretched out in front of me. But it isn’t like that at all. I will myself into the air. It has nothing to do with physics.

It is an exercise of the mind. A suppression of everything we believe to be true – or possible- and then letting it all go.

Sometimes I float above my bed, and I see myself sleeping. Sometimes I am looking down on my house. Sometimes I travel further – much further.

One afternoon, years ago, I was napping at home in Livermore, California, dreaming. In the dream I was standing in the same room where I was sleeping. The door was closed. There was some kind of commotion – a fight- in the hallway outside the door. I had a sense of immediate danger. The voices were louder. This time, instead of light, blood began seeping under the door, across the hardwood floor, and into the room, moving toward me.

In my dreams, there is always something trying to slip under the door and find its way in. Something undefined, dangerous . . . and waiting.

And then they were coming – trying to break through. I crossed the room and opened the window, remembering I could fly. I told myself, before I jumped, “Today I will fly better than I have ever flown before.” And I shot out of the window at lightning speed – just like Superman. I had never flown this way before, and haven’t since. And in a moment I had returned home, flying over Tranquillity and the field across from the house where my grandfather once lived.

He could also fly – airplanes.

I landed gently in the middle of a cotton field, wondering why I had come here. There were no people. No cars moving on the roads. Just a place waiting for me. The air was still. The cotton turned from green to brown and then burst in soft white blooms. It fell into the dry Earth as new green shoots sprung from the ground. And this repeated itself again and again as clouds formed and dissipated over my head with unnatural speed. And then my feet were sinking into the Earth and part of me wanted to let it cover me. At the last moment I rose up into the air and left that place – and I have never returned to it – in my dreams.

But I have been other places.

Last year I dreamt of an old and dear friend who is struggling with an addiction. He is not what he once was, and I am worried about him. I was flying through an old bazaar, or market. There were smells of middle eastern foods in the air and long sheets of fabric hanging like tapestries from the ceiling. The fabric was rough and rustic. They were woven in many beautiful colors, and moved gently in a breeze. The building was two stories tall with small businesses not much larger than closets selling foods and jewelry and bolts of fabric. There was music. I was near the ceiling, my hands at my side, moving slowly through the air, parallel to the ground, turning my body as the thin sheets of fabric brushed against me. I was in perfect control as I moved through the length of the building.

And then I was outside on the street talking to my friend. I was explaining to him that if he could just get his feet off the ground he would master his addiction. There was a tall street light next to us, and I began to demonstrate, floating slowly into the air and balancing my feet gently across the arc of steel that held the light – just close enough to give the illusion that I was actually standing on it.

And then I floated down to the ground.

I repeated this demonstration several times, but my friend was not willing to try. He shook his head, and explained that what I was doing wasn’t possible. He was visibly agitated. I was upsetting him.

I realized that he could not fly while he was wrestling with his beast.

I gave up and we walked together down a long alley littered with trash. I was tired. I looked at my feet and noticed for the first time the tall, thick leather boots I was wearing. They were heavy and I felt my energy leaving me. “No wonder more people don’t fly,” I thought looking at the heavy black leather. I wanted to take them off and rise up into the sky, but I didn’t want to leave my friend alone in the alley.

The cares of this world, I think, weigh us down. We accept the rules. We live in them. We believe we can’t – so we don’t. I think, somehow, that in the next life we are restored in spirit and remember the gifts we have spent an earthly lifetime forgetting. Perhaps we get the chance to really indulge ourselves.

I think one of the first things we do is fly.

Today is my birthday. I am forty-eight years old – or sixteen. It’s easy to lose track. I am a time traveller, and I can fly. Both of these abilities often transition into the physical world in ways that might surprise you. As a teacher, I see a lot of heavy leather boots. I see people that believe what they have been told about themselves. And every good thing is obscured behind that one time they were told they weren’t good enough, or that they didn’t matter. Not all of them, but more than you might guess.

I know how it is.

If I begin my class by telling them they can fly I will lose them all. So I start slow. They will figure it out on their own – eventually.

It’s funny what success will do for a person’s self-esteem. Sometimes, I can almost see their feet leave the ground. And the rush? It’s in the way they walk, and the look in their eyes.

And then they begin to time travel. Back to the past, to find out exactly where they lost themselves. It’s a tough way to start. The future is usually hostage to the past, so most time travelers begin there. It’s important to understand the past – and that’s the best you can ever do: understand and accept. We cannot change the past – despite what you might have read.

If you decide to try this remember one thing: Time is not linear. The Earth is curved – so is Time. And you never know what is just over that horizon, around that corner – or seeping under the door.

Today, I sat in a doctor’s office and listened to a man tell my wife that she has breast cancer. The past, the present, the future – all came together and for a moment we stopped moving. It was a hell of a birthday. As I sat there in that office I felt the need to move back into the past – away from this. I was standing in my apartment with Brooke. She was telling me she loved me – that she thought that I might be the one. That guy. Her guy. I said I wasn’t ready to hear that. She was crying. She is crying, pulling tissue out of a box sitting on the doctor’s desk. And I am that guy. Her guy. She listens to this man, trying to appear calm, and I go away for a while, moving through the years, realizing again how brief it all is. Wondering how we got here. I can’t quite remember.

It’s like standing two feet from a train that is rushing past.

How long have I been out?

My friend -my wife- she needs me, and she is in the present. And now I am in the present, afraid to miss a moment. This doctor, he has pulled us out of time and into this world, this specific place, and here there is a clock, and it is ticking.

How long have I been out?

I write a letter and put it into a bottle. It is for you, the others, traveling through time. All of you. You have loved. You love. You will love. The past, present and future in single syllables – and you are all moving through it. We are such complex beings, living in the past, holding onto the things we cannot or will not leave behind – defining ourselves through experience. We struggle to live in the present – perhaps the most elusive state of being. And we look to the future, usually with optimism, but often with fear. We live in a collection of moments – a tempest of time- the stuff dreams are made on.

And I am standing in the current. The force of it hits me like a great wind, pushing against my face, my skin. It roars like a waterfall. My eyes squint as I stare into it, and lines are etched permanently into my face. My hair thins. My body bends into the force of the current and never fully straightens. There is a bright light -growing brighter, just beyond my reach. Pieces of me fly off into the torrent like shingles off the roof of a house – and I am diminished. I try to catch them, but I cannot move my hands fast enough. I cannot hold on to them. There are more layers than I could have ever imagined. And then the glow is coming out of me, brighter and brighter. I stare into the light, and then I become the light.

I know that I will have to fly again – for her- and better than I have ever flown before.

There is a temptation to rationalize all of this as metaphorical, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

Auld Lang Syne

In Dreams on January 2, 2011 at 4:37 am

I’m not superstitious. I understand the impulse, but I consciously resist it. I once heard superstition called “the religion of the ignorant” and I immediately accepted the statement as an axiom. But there is a compulsion towards ritual – even among those that do not believe.  I think this is why people look to the new year with the best of hopes and intentions – and great care. Three hundred and sixty-five days can be a very long time. Best to start it right.

So the parties are well planned.

For many years the party was my business and I had a unique view from behind the three feet of mahogany that kept me professionally distanced from the happy chaos beyond. My friends and fellow bartenders, Bill Hill, Steve Nicoli, Roland Lopez and Jimmy Costa would mix drinks as fast as we could make them, sneaking a few for ourselves as the night wore on. The room was crowded, the men and women beautiful in their finery and drunk and happy. As the last few seconds of the year slipped by I always felt profoundly the passing of time. Across the bar, frenetic energy and noise as the horns were blown and the voices cheered the coming of another year. Another start, another chance at a dream, a life, a love – another beginning- kisses and hugs and the best of hopes and intentions.

And as those last few moments slip past, no one shouts their orders across the bar. The bartenders and waitresses are forgotten in the din of celebration and  revelry. Roland or Steve pours a round for the bar staff, and we drink to each other and a job well done. For us there is a moment of calm, and we see clearly the one year end, and the other begin. The balloons fall from the ceiling, the confetti and streamers fill the air, and I  look across the dance floor at the happy chaos, breathing in the first few moments of the new year. The nostalgia heavy upon me.

It is like standing in the middle of a snow globe, as the balloons drop and the confetti flies, and the thunderous sound shakes the air.  But as the last seconds pass into midnight, I always feel very much alone. And then the music begins. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?” The words “auld lang syne” mean “old long since” in the Scottish dialect and refer to the passage of time – or time long since past.

The song asks us to remember as we stand in a moment of time swirling in memories.

Last night I celebrated the new year with Steve Nicoli at one of my favorite restaurants, The Sardine Factory, in Monterey, California. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the new year. It was the first time Steve and I had spent the new year’s celebration together – on the other side of the bar. I enjoyed sitting across the table from Steve remembering old times and absent friends. I ordered a bottle of fine wine and we dined on filet mignon and oysters on the half shell. Steve was in my wedding – and he is one of my dearest friends. One of the few people that knows me well, and his wit and humor and honest conversation has not diminished over the years.

As we ate and drank and talked into the night, we very nearly missed the countdown to the new year. With five minutes to spare, we abandoned our table and moved into the bar which was in a familiar state of anticipation -if not hysteria. The room was more elegant, formal, and smaller than the nightclub we once commanded, but I felt the familiar, intense energy as we began to count down the last seconds of 2010.

And as the small crowd cheers and the balloons fall to the floor, I kiss my wife and feel strangely alone. Time is passing by and I can feel it moving around me. I am in a snow globe swirling with memories, hopes, and the best of intentions. The present merges with times long since past. The familiar song is played, and I think some people sing the words, but I am remembering.

I remember my Grandmother, Bea Eubanks, baking a pie in her kitchen – an apricot cobbler- and  we are sitting on the front lawn watching the sun set over Tranquillity, California. The sky is a fiery red. We are singing an old gospel hymn: “Sunlight, sunlight, in my soul today . . .” There are soft drinks in the back room and candy in the cupboard. Years later she is sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace at my Grandmother Sue’s house in Fremont. Her legs are curled underneath her and she is afraid. She looks vulnerable, distracted. The doctors have found a spot on her lung -she doesn’t smoke- and is having surgery at Stanford in a few days.

It is her last Christmas.

I remember my cousin, David Brown, straddling a teeter-totter across from me, a farmer’s cap on his head. A skinny boy in a tee shirt, his cheeks and ears red and burnt from the summer sun. He is smiling. We are boys, trying to set the world record for the longest time on a teeter-totter. And for a while, we believe we can do it, but before we can finish, crayfish are raining down from the sky. A cosmic event ending an epic dream.

When I think of balance, I think of David.

I remember my Grandmother Sue as she once sat at our kitchen table in Tranquillity, spearing the green beans off of my plate when my parents weren’t looking. And we are sitting in her home in Niles Canyon sipping coffee. I have moved to the Bay Area, in part I think, to be near her, and I feel like I have her all to myself for a while. She is wise, her home a sanctuary I come to as often as I can. She knows me, and loves me anyway. And then my head is in her lap as she sits years later, greatly diminished, her arm around my shoulders. I am crying – sobbing- and she is saying “One day you will get a call, and they will tell you I am gone. Just say ‘Hallelujah!” You know where I will be.”

And I am upstairs in my home in Arizona. I have forgotten for a moment that such a call could ever come, but  the phone rings.

Hallelujiah.

And I am with Clifford Norton in a townhouse apartment in Fresno, California in the early 1980’s.

Apartment C.

And Danny Garcia and Jean Pierre Ardans and Butch Pritchett are there and we are laughing and young and immortal. We lived for a time in a mythology of our own making and we were strong together, sharing time. We pushed the limits – forgot there were such things- and Jean Pierre is gone. Time passes – so much time- and they are in my mind and heart as they once were, but Cliff is on the phone telling me he is in a wheelchair. “It’s terminal.” I don’t know what to say. But we are telling stories and laughing. His laugh is just as I remembered it.

I never really said goodbye, just a vague promise of a meeting sometime in the future. The things we tell ourselves . . . pleasant fictions.

And only days ago a text from Danny: “Cliff passed last night.” I read Cliff’s Facebook page. In his profile he writes: “After high school I spent some really good times as a member of Apt. C.”

You were Apartment C.

He told me once about a night, long after we had all moved away, when he had returned to our old apartment. It was empty, between tenants, and he had gone inside. “There are ghosts there,” he told me.

I’ve been there, too. And he is right.

And I am laughing with Misty Silva, caught somewhere between the moon and New York City.

And I am thinking of Nadia – who made me feel it. She is in a long black dress at the end of the bar pulling me toward her – whispering things in my ear.  We are in a park, and she is babysitting two young children who are playing nearby. She is dressed comfortably in an over-sized sweatshirt, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. She isn’t wearing any make-up. She is so much like the version of herself I first met years before. She is a girl, and I comprehend and feel the vast distance of experience between us. And she is in my apartment and  I am telling her to go to him if you must and I feel like an adult saying it – perhaps for the first time in my life. I am determined to do this well.

But I don’t really want to.

And Brooke Eisan is cutting limes at the bar at Maestro’s. It is her first day of work and I ask her if she likes to read. I have offended her. She is applying to graduate school. I notice her legs as she takes the fresh cut limes to the other end of the bar. And she is gripping my hand, trembling as she says “I do” in a church in Danville, California.  I see her beautiful face through the veil and time is standing still, collecting itself, before the torrent of joys and despairs and compromises to come. And we are in the hospital and Brooke is reaching out as I place our daughter, Madeline, into her arms. There are tears in her eyes and she is exhausted.

And I am in the surf at Lover’s Point whispering a song. My daughter’s feet glistening in the clear, cold, briney water. And she is older now, and the best of us, and she is holding my hand and leans near to me and says, “I love you, Dad,'” her heart-shaped face looking intently into my own.

And Abby is winking at me – a new trick she has not quite mastered. She is dancing around the room like a sprite, her long blonde hair flying around her head, reflecting the light. And she is not of this world, but I knew her the moment she was born.

And Katie is walking through the house, laughing, two years old already. I ask her: “Are you a monkey?” and she smiles at me and says, earnestly, “No, I am the baby.”

And we are laughing, and time is moving so slowly, we hardly notice at all.

And I am kissing my wife as the balloons drop from the ceiling. The long since past is swirling gently around the room with the best of our hopes and intentions.

Should they ever be forgot . . .

It’s a good start.

The Wine-Dark Sea

In Dreams on September 14, 2010 at 2:45 am


” Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea.” – Homer, The Odyssey

In the opening lines of Moby Dick, Melville describes the compulsion that drives men (and women) to the sea.  We lean on the weathered wooden rails of wharfs and launches, or walk the smooth sandy beaches and stare as the world turns and the tides change. Children will run and play in the sand, but adults become introspective. You can see it in their wistful expressions and longing eyes. Even lovers, holding hands, will withdraw into their own thoughts, their own private spaces, lost in the sensual whispering hiss of water advancing and retreating across the sand, breathing the fresh, clean, saline air. I can sit on a rock, and gazing out to sea, lose all track of time. Staring at the light reflecting on the water  I imagine that I will glance at my watch only to find that it is not hours, but years, that have passed me by. A beach-combing Rip Van Winkle, unable now to move his aged body from the high rocky perch on which he sits, yet content to spend his remaining days there in forgetful, meaningless contemplation.

Melville’s novel spends little time on land, with those that only stand watching. He goes to sea. And he wasn’t writing about a whale. He was thinking about God -which the great white whale represents- moving through the seemingly infinite seas. Little is known about Melville’s true religious beliefs, but Starbuck and Ahab are Quakers. The first, traditional in his beliefs and faithful. The other, a blasphemer. A man that has had a brush with a powerful force he cannot completely understand, and it has maddened him. Ahab is described as monomanical, I think, because one loses the self when it confronts the infinite. He is scarred by the experience both physically and spiritually holding with finality to one idea, unwilling to relent, even to the point of madness and damnation- for Ahab, in the end, is lost, stabbing at the whale “from Hell’s heart.”

Yet, this loss of self, the viseral confrontation with something greater than ourselves is, for many, why we are drawn to the sea. We see something so complex it is hardly fathomable, yet are able to recognize within this vast eminence of creation a place and purpose. And we are included in it.

But Ahab rejects the diminished image of himself when confronted with the infinite.  To illustrate the crippling effect of Ahab’s spiritual condition, Melville dimishes him physically.  Ahab labors across the deck of the Pequod with an artificial leg carved from whale bone. His life -and ultimately his death- determined by the whale. A philosophical and spiritual foundation has been compromised and Ahab rails against it, attacking what he believes to be the source of this existential dilemma – the white whale. All that remains of Ahab, confronted with this greater, incomprehensible truth, exists in this struggle. And it consumes him.

The whale moves purpusefully through the dark waters -as He always has-  for the Spirit of God “moved across the waters” before the act of creation. Human beings, cognizant of time, cannot truly comprehend this. We think we can, but we can’t. We are the only creatures on the Earth bound by time, existing in moments, trying to understand something infinite, immovable, unpredictable. And some, like Ahab, fight what they cannot understand – to the death.

The Greeks worshipped the ocean personified in the form of Poseidon, the god of seas and earthquakes. It isn’t hard to imagine a God throwing thunderbolts from the heavens, or some majestic power roiling the wine-dark seas. And even though the Greeks were pagan, worshipping many gods, they did recognize, or witness, the divine that is in creation. I gave little thought to all of this, until I began to explore the world under the surface. I was no longer drawn to the sea to stand and observe. I wanted to go further, deeper, beneath the waves. In the beginning, I went seeking adventure.

I found something else.

As a young boy, I liked watching Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt. Unlike the science fiction shows I loved, Bridges, as Mike Nelson, showed me a world of adventure underneath the waves that was actually accessible. Many years later, and a long way from home, I heard a commercial on the radio advertising Scuba lessons at a local dive shop. It was Bridges that came to mind, and the thrill of those early adventures that had so excited my imagination. I mentioned all of this to my roommate, Matt, a big crazy guy who jumped at the idea of getting certified. Together, we worked through a fun and demanding week of textbooks, tests, and pool dives that ended with a weekend in Monterey, California, where we would repeat every skill we had just learned in the ocean. The reward: a lifetime certification to explore the world’s oceans.

Danger. Adventure. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Giant squid . . . white whales.

Some divers are superstitious and our instructor, Roy, revealed his particular beliefs about the sea in subtle ways. I think it was Roy that first personified the ocean for me and I was a good student, so some of his beliefs slowly became my own. What Roy didn’t teach me, the ocean eventually would.

I was certified on Breakwater Beach, and there is no other place on Earth that has certified more divers. Matt and I waded into the gentle surf with Roy and the rest of the class. The cold water made its way into our wetsuits where the temperature of our bodies immediately began to warm it. Roy pulled off his mask and stuck his face into the bracing, briney water. He said, “You have to kiss the ocean.” And we did. All of us. There is a practical reason for doing this. He was acclimating us to the water’s temperature. The Pacific is very, very cold and cold water diving requires more protection. I wear a vest with an attached hood under my wetsuit which is a two-piece ensemble that covers the entire body. I also wear boots and gloves. The face, however, is still exposed to the cold water. Roy was getting the class past that first cold shock by getting us to stick our faces into it. But I have always believed there was more to it than that. Some element of ritual.

Roy also told us to never turn our backs on the sea. This is common-sense safety, but I began to think that if I turned my back, the sea would strike me down, perhaps for some unknown breach of oceanic etiquette. And so I always “kissed” the ocean as I entered it, and I never showed it my back.

Until one day at Salt Point in Northern California. Matt and I were abalone diving in  our “secret” spot – a cove another diver had told us about- when I forgot that important lesson. And the ocean did rise up to remind me.  I saw Posideon that day thrashing about the surf and I will never forget it.

I love Salt Point. If I could retire and live anywhere in the world, I would settle for a small house up on some cliff over-looking the Northern California ocean.  Driving up the winding coastal roads, Matt and I would watch carefully for a break in a certain fence and some other local indicators that told us we had reached the spot, which seemed unremarkable from the road. We parked the car close to the fence -the roads are narrow- and hiked a mile across a beautiful grassy meadow and down to the cove. There was an easy entry, though it was filled with spiny purple and pink and blue sea urchins. Out at the mouth of the cove, about twenty to twenty-five feet down, depending on the tide, was a reef and a ledge rich in abalone. The waters are rough and shark infested. Nearly every time we dove that spot there was a warning or sighting. Salt Point is at the northern end of the red triangle – an area that stretches from the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco all the way down to Santa Cruz. It is a known breeding ground for Great White sharks.

The water that day was rough, surging and churning a frothy white. I thought about not going in, but it’s a three hour drive to the cove and I wasn’t about to go home empty-handed – and I had seen this before. If you want abalone, it’s going to cost you in either money or effort. Matt used to say, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” And he’s right. We entered the water and sailed across the urchin bed stretching out before us, like a colorful path into the heart of the cove. It is illegal to hunt abalone with scuba gear in Northern California so we were lighter and quicker in the water, using only our masks, snorkels, wetsuits, and some light weights. We began to dive, and in the deeper water, the visibility is always difficult. Sometimes you can’t see an arms length in front of you. Once, on another dive, I couldn’t see my hand.

I dove to the bottom feeling for the rim at the base of the reef and this day it took several tries to find it. It took everything I had to swim in those waters. Holding tight, peering upside-down under the ledge, I saw three or four abalone gripping the rocky rim. Choosing the largest, I slid my bar quickly under the flesh before it could latch down. If they latch down before you can slide the bar underneath them, forget it and move on. They aren’t coming off. I was practiced, quick and efficient, and the abalone was soon free of the ledge. I stuck it into my wetsuit jacket darting for the surface, my heart thumping in my ears as the blood pulled the last of the oxygen from my lungs. I broke through the surface and took several quick breaths placing the abalone into the float. I didn’t really need it, but a float is a good place to keep abalone and fish in case the sharks come looking.

I had caught my limit in less than twenty minutes swimming that cove, but this day was different. The water seemed to be fighting me personally, with intention, and the cold was sapping my strength. The surge was strong and the waters rough. I lost track of time and at some point I realized that I was too tired to swim for the shore. I swam, instead, for the rocks that made up the outer wall of the cove. I just needed a few minutes to gather my strength. I was dangerously tired as I pulled myself up onto the rocky ledge and out of the water. There was a long flat space just above me that seemed made  for the purpose and I pulled myself onto it. I sat for a few minutes gathering my strength as the sea pounded the other side of the rock wall. I felt safe, and I was getting warm. I studied the cove, looking for Matt who was not far from me, diving for abalone.

And then I sensed that something was wrong.

There was a momentary stillness – a quiet. I could no longer hear the surf crashing against the rocks and I realized, with an almost prescient sense of dread, that I had my back to the sea. I looked over my shoulder and saw a massive wall of water at least twenty feet high clearing the natural rocky barrier of the cove. I remember how fast the water moved, rolling upwards, into the sky. It muted every other sound. I remember how green it was -like looking through an emerald- and beautiful and mesmerizing. And how angry, I thought, this god of the sea.

Before I could take a breath, the wave plucked me off the ledge and threw me high into the air. And then I was falling – fast. The sea pulled back exposing the rocks beneath me and I landed with a rubbery thud, feeling something pop in the middle of my back – breathless. The seas surged again, and I was swept back into the churning waters of the cove. Desperate, I called for Matt as the wave carried me off the rock, and he was there in the surf when the sea finally released me. Wrapping his arm around my chest Matt pulled me through the churning waters, out of the cove.

As we approached the shore he asked if I could move my legs. Wiggle my toes. Move my arms.  I could. Matt moved his hand down my back looking for damage, finding none. Minutes later, I sat on a rock near the shore, stunned. I saw something in the sea I had never seen before – an almost whimsical force that tossed me around like I was nothing. I saw the thing that I had been warned about. The thing that Roy, and so many others, revered. The salt water dried as the sea wind caressed me, soothed me, and I felt the brine beneath my fingers as I rubbed it into my skin. I breathed the ocean air, deeply, consciously trying to restore calm. The happy exhaustion, reflection, and peace that normally followed a dive was gone. I felt small and insignificant.

And I was afraid.

The fear was healthy, I think. Maybe I had become too comfortable. Perhaps I had become dangerously over-confident. My instinct to not go into the water was, probably, correct. I had been looking at the water long enough to know. It is easy to look into the ocean and see something staring back at you. But maybe what was staring back was my own recklessness, not the god of the sea. Maybe.

I don’t turn my back on the ocean, but when my back hurts, it’s in that particular place, and I think, “Yes, don’t worry, I remember.” And I do.

What no one else knows, not even my wife, is that I’ve started talking to the ocean.

And I talk out loud.

I’m not exactly sure when I started doing it. Sometimes, when I do this, I am talking to God. Sometimes that god becomes the god I saw in the waves. Sometimes I confuse the two, but then remember that they are the same. But then, sometimes, they are not. Sometimes I talk to the one moving underneath the wine-dark sea.

I think it began with a song. My oldest daughter, Maddy, was not quite two years old. We were in Monterey for some quiet time, our usual stop after a visit with my wife’s family. Maddy and I walked into the shallow surf at Lover’s Beach looking for sea shells. They have to be small, colorful, and have a small hole in the center. “One day,” we say,  “we will make a necklace.” The ebb and gentle swell of the surf turns the sand revealing tiny treasures and then sweeps them quickly away. We gaze carefully into the sparking water and pluck these prizes from the sand before the ocean can reclaim them. Time stands still and the sun shines down on my back and shoulders as I wade deeper into the surf, the water lapping at the hem of my cargo shorts. I lean deeper into the water and scoop a handful of shells from the shifting sand. I am farther now from the beach and the sounds of surf. I am rocking with the tide, singing, though no one on shore can hear me.

That night as I walked in my slumberI waded into the sea strand
And I swam with the moon and her lover
Until I lost sight of the land

I swam till the night became morning
Black sea in the reddening sky
Found myself on the deck on a rolling ship
So far where no grey gulls fly

All around me was silence
As if mocking my frail human hopes
And a question mark hung in the canvas
For the wind that had died in the ropes

I may have slept for an hour
I may have slept for a day
For I woke in a bed of white linen
And the sky was the colour of clay

The song, The Wild Wild Sea, is from Sting’s album, The Soul Cages. I’ve been listening to it for years. It sounds like the ocean, at least to me. And as the swells gently pushed and pulled me in their ancient organic rhythm, I felt a deep love for this place in particular. I felt calm. I felt the relevance and the irrelevance of my life in one moment of perfect clarity, and my spirit reached out beyond myself and across the rising and falling sea. I sang this song again and again, losing the words and their meaning, communicating with something both inside me, and surrounding me.

I was singing to the sea.

Later, I emerged from the ocean burnt and bleached, the dried salt dusting my skin, my clothes, my hair.  As I  stepped past the gentle surf my daughter met me at the point where sea and sand meet. It’s a line of demarkation between those who stand watching, and those who, like Melville’s Ishmael, are drawn into “the watery part of the world.” I picked Maddy up, impulsively, and waded back into the sea strand. Waist deep, I held her in my strong arms, swaying in the surf to this world’s endless song.

And then I began to speak.

I said, “You know me. And I know you. I have kissed your face a thousand times. But this is my daughter, Maddy.” The swell rose around us and I dipped her tiny little feet reverently into the sparkling water. A kind of spontaneous baptism. “She is strong and smart. She is loved, and she will love you as I have loved you. Let no harm come to her here. No harm. Watch her, keep her, and protect her.”

I walked out of the surf thinking, “What was that?” and wondering at what I had just done. I didn’t tell my wife, because I didn’t know how to explain it. I felt strange, like maybe I had crossed some line. But I didn’t regret it, either. I sang, and I prayed, to the God that I could see. The God of the waves and the lightening; the God of the trees, and rivers, and wind. The God of all creation.

Years later I found myself standing in the surf again. There had been an addition to the family, Abby, who was not yet one year old. I had returned to Lover’s Point. The day was much like any other day there. Abby walked in the sand. My wife sat on the beach. Maddy played in the surf. I waded into the waters, calm and still on this particular day. I scooped shells from the sand, stuffing them into the pockets of my cargo shorts, humming a tune that became a song, a song that became a prayer, and before I knew it I was holding my daughter, dipping her feet into the sea. “You know me,” I said. “And I know you. I have kissed your face a thousand times. But this is my daughter, Abby.”

I couldn’t deny that this was becoming some kind of ritual. And I still struggled, all these years later, with its meaning. I told myself that one day they would know all of this, and they would come here with their children and know that we shared this place together. They might dive this beach, as I once did. They might look for, and find, what I once looked for . . . and found.

And time moved so gently that we hardly noticed at all.

And I am standing in the surf at Lover’s Point. In my arms, a darling little girl with bright blue eyes, blonde hair, and dimples set deep into her plump rosy cheeks. A favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, sings across the wine-dark sea.

This is my daughter . . . Katie.

Some Change

In Dreams, Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I was driving home from work a couple of weeks ago with the top down on the convertible. It was a cool Spring day in the desert and the wild flowers were blooming, but I hardly noticed. My mind was in another place, dwelling on other problems.

Driving into town I caught a compelling whiff of In-N-Out hamburgers and pulled in for a late afternoon lunch. The drive-thru line was long, but the parking lot was empty, so I parked the car and walked toward the entrance getting hungrier by the second. I had a book with me and I imagined a few quiet minutes alone, reading.  But before I could reach the door, a man sitting on one of the patio tables nearby asked me for a couple dollars so he could buy a hamburger.

I looked him over, skeptically. He was over-weight, his clothes were in relatively good condition and his tennis shoes were in better shape than my own. He had a small backpack sitting on the table next to him, the kind students carry around campus.

I was irritated that he had asked me. I just wanted a quick bite to eat and I began to imagine all of the other people he had harassed on their way into the restaurant. “It’s probably why the parking lot is empty,” I thought.

I told him I didn’t have any cash and walked briskly through the doors. I wasn’t in a very good mood. It seems like every time my wife and I get some money, some small catastrophe occurs that takes all of it – and more. Who was he, sitting there in his nice tennis shoes, to ask me for money?

My conscience -unasked and unwanted- was prickling, though. The better part of myself was telling me to help him. In retaliation, I told the cashier that he was bothering people for money.

By the time I left he was gone.

And then I was even angrier – and not just angry at him. I was angry at myself. The little voice in my head said that what I had done was mean. “You aren’t the person you think you are,” it said, “at least not today, anyway.”

I thought of an impossible number of excuses for not giving  him the money. “He’s probably a drug addict or an alcoholic,” I thought, or “He does this for a living. Do you know how much money a professional panhandler makesHe should get a job, like the rest of us.”

But the deeper, quieter voice was speaking the Truth: “He asked you for a hamburger.”  And it isn’t like In-N-Out burgers are expensive.

I thought about that guy for days, and I didn’t tell anyone what I had done.  I remembered, many years back, when I lived in California.  The son of the irrigator who worked for on father’s small ranch was found dead near one of the canals in Tranquillity.  I think the accident had something to do with alcohol. My dad doesn’t drink, but it was he that paid for the body to be shipped back to Mexico and gave the father what he needed to get back home.  He is always doing that kind of thing. He doesn’t judge people.

And then I went to church.

During the sermon, the minister gave an analogy of the church and its mission. Up on the screen, above the stage, were two images. One was of a battleship -a destroyer- firing all of its guns at once in a blaze of golden fire. The other was an an aircraft carrier with helicopters lifting off from its decks. He said that the church is too often seen as a destroyer. Everyone is on board, safe, firing their guns at some perceived evil – and he admitted that there was a time and place for that – but this pastor argued that the church needs to be more like the aircraft carrier. Planes and helicopters leave the decks and take the mission out into the world. They do the hard stuff, the heavy lifting.

They buy hamburgers for the hungry, if that is what the job requires.

I thought about the reasons –the excuses– for not helping that guy out. It’s true that there is no real way to know what he would do with the money, but that isn’t really the point. The willingness to give is far more important, for it speaks to who we really are. I imagined myself in prayer, asking God for all of the things we bring to Him in the last critical moments as some disaster strikes, or reeling from the aftermath.

Help. Healing. Money. Forgiveness.

What if He responded, I thought, as I had to the man seeking a meal? He might say,“Why are you asking me? Why now? If you had just done what I told you to do in the first place, you wouldn’t be in this situation. You’ve done little enough with what I have already given you, and I’m busy.  It isn’t easy being God you know.”

And sometimes it isn’t easy, or convenient, to do the right thing. To leave the deck. But there really is no greater manifestation of God than when we act as we have been instructed to act towards each other. It is, in fact, a divine imperative.

I’m thinking of loaves and fishes. Of good Samaritans and talents multiplied.

I left this morning in a hurry, thinking of all the things I wanted to accomplish in this day. I retrieved my wallet from the pants laying on the bedroom floor along with a large handfull of loose change. I dropped my daughter off at the school -kisses and wishes- and drove to the Starbuck’s at the San Marcos Hotel – a place my parents like to stay when they visit us here in Arizona. It has tables around a beautiful garden and as I stood in line, waiting for my coffee, I thought about getting the much neglected book from the car and maybe taking a few quiet moments to read.

As I started to cross the street I heard a voice asking me if I could spare some change. It was quiet and unassuming. Maybe only the right ears were meant to hear it. I turned and said, “Excuse me?”

The man, sitting near the curb, asked again. “Can you spare seventy-five cents?”

I thought of the change I hastily grabbed earlier that morning.  I only brought it with me because, the truth is, I never carry cash and I like to have a little money in my pockets. It makes me feel good.

I looked at the man, and it is difficult to explain, but I acted on impulse. I said, “Yes, I can. Let me see what I have,”  knowing it was more than the seventy-five cents he asked for.

And I gave him everything I had in my pocket.

He thanked me with a smile and I walked back to the car deciding I’d skip the reading this morning and just go to work. I felt good, so good I noticed it. And then I remembered the man at In-N-Out Burger.

I felt like I had corrected a wrong. I felt forgiven. I don’t know if it came from God, but I felt like I had forgiven myself.

I remembered a time when I had less, and I gave more. That seems to be the way of it. And I remembered a verse from the Bible that says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

I don’t know if that man was an angel. It doesn’t really matter. But I felt like one.

And all it cost me was some change.

A Man . . . A Big Man

In Dreams on March 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Daniel Boone was a man. Yes a big man.
With an eye like an eagle and as tall as a mountain was he.

I have been watching reruns of Daniel Boone with my daughter, Maddy, over the past few months. We have all six seasons on DVD and I like to share the old shows with her. I was saddened -incredibly saddened- to see the morning newspaper yesterday and the news of Fess Parker’s death. Before I could read the caption I recognized the familiar coon-skin cap and friendly, wizened smile and I knew he was gone. Sudden and unexpected tears filled my eyes. I never knew him, but like so many others, I felt like I did. For a second, I was a little boy again, and it is the boy that feels the loss most profoundly. He was a childhood hero, an icon, and Daniel Boone was -and still is- great televison. It’s a show that didn’t have to apologize for its lessons in morality or its ideas of entertainment as good clean fun. Families shared time around the television set and Daniel Boone became a role model for little boys like me   . . .  and their fathers I think.

I read an interview not long ago where Fess Parker discussed the show and its popularity. He was proud of Daniel Boone and said that he was constantly approached by people wanting to share their memories with him. He knew what they were going to say, but he listened, and talked, and shook hands and people loved him for it.

He was by all accounts a gracious gentleman.

My father was fortunate enough to have met Fess Parker at his Santa Ynez winery. It was hard to be jealous of dad – though I was. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the meeting and I could understand that excitement.  There’s still a little boy in him, too. I was happy he got to meet him. I always hoped I’d get the chance, someday.

I remember, many years ago, playing at the park across the street from our house in Tranquillity. I was pretending I was Daniel Boone and was whittling a piece of wood with a new pocket knife – a very sharp new pocket knife. I missed the piece of wood and the knife carved a long piece of skin off the top of my hand. The blood and pain came quickly and my first impulse was to run home to my mom – but I was still in character. I decided that Boone would deal with this kind of thing himself so I grabbed a eucalyptus leaf and pressed it over the wound until the bleeding stopped – not very sanitary, but it worked. I still have the scar on my right hand to remind me of the adventure.

Years later, in a college history class, I chose the historical Daniel Boone as a research project. I studied him like a scholar and read several biographies of the man. On a trip across country I stopped in Kentucky and visited the original site of Boonesborough. There is a reproduction of the fort a short distance away, and I toured it, but what I really wanted to do was walk on the grounds of the original site. It didn’t matter to me that there was nothing but a marker to note the history if the place. I wanted to walk in his footsteps, and I did. And it was really cool.

As I walked through the grass near the river I felt both nostalgia for the Boone of my childhood, and the historical reality of the man and the place.  But even then it was Fess Parker’s face I associated with Boone – I couldn’t avoid it.

The old memories were strong.

I’ve always been interested in Daniel Boone. I still am. The true account of his life reads like great fiction, and the word “legend” does not overstate the reality of the man. I am excited to read the latest biography by Robert Morgan, titled  Boone. The book sits on a shelf in my study . . . waiting. I thinks it’s time to pick it up and visit him once again. It was, after all, Fess Parker that introduced me to Daniel Boone so many years ago.

I didn’t learn this until yesterday, but Fess Parker and Ed Ames -the actor that played Mingo on the show- remained good friends throughout their lives. They lived only 15 minutes from each other and Ed would visit Fess on Thursday nights and sing songs around the piano.

Fess Parker was 85 years old -as was the real Daniel Boone- when he died.

I think I’ll wear my coon-skin cap today.

It’s not the years . . .

In Collectibles, Dreams on March 4, 2010 at 6:20 am

A statue of Indiana Jones, as he appears in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, sits atop a bookcase in my study. He stands in the ruins of a Mayan temple, whip in hand. At his feet, the golden mask of Orellana. Indy’s face shows his age, lined and weathered, but his eyes are clear and bright. The famous fedora is pushed casually back on his forehead. He looks a little wiser, a little more content, a little more self-assured.

And it is an excellent likeness of Harrison Ford.

A friend, seeing the statue, asked me recently why I had “old Indy” up on the shelf, not the younger version from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can’t really explain why I like this one so much, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Maybe it’s that another year has past, and another birthday reminds me that I too am getting older.

I guess I like the statue because it reminds me that Indiana Jones is still out there doing what he does best.  And as it turns out,  a full life may not be measured in years after all.

It’s the mileage.

My brother-in-law recently bought a Porsche. It was used, with very low mileage and it was expensive. He explained to me that the value of these cars is based not just on the condition of the car. Cars with fewer miles are worth more, so an older Porsche with lower mileage is actually worth more money than a newer model with higher mileage. I wondered why someone would buy an $80,000 car and then not drive it – or only put a few thousand miles on it and then sell it. The car isn’t really something to enjoy then, it is an artifact sitting in some warehouse – or four car garage.

Maybe I’m missing something, but if I owned a Porsche, I’d drive it until it fell apart.

Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. These unexamined lives, I think, are a lot like Porsches sitting in so many garages. They are meant to be driven. And lives are meant to be lived and living them comes with wear, tear, depreciation, and failure.

Mileage.

I remember a scene in Raiders where the Ark of the Covenant has been secured in the cargo hold of a smuggler’s ship, and Marion Ravenwood says to Indy, affectionately, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago.” He responds with one of the best loved lines in the film, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the milage.”

It’s been repeated many times and in the repeating it has become something of an adage on the inevitability of aging, but I don’t think Indy was complaining. I heard satisfaction, maybe even pride. He earned every bump and bruise and scar and that’s just the way we like him. Maybe Marion likes him better that way too. Maybe Indiana Jones couldn’t really live his own life until he left the shadow of Abner Ravenwood and set out on his own.

“You aren’t the man I knew ten years ago,” she says.

None of us are.

The Indiana Jones films chronicle the evolution of Indy’s obsession with artifacts. In The Last Crusade, a young Indiana idealistically – and relentlessly – pursues the Cross of Coronado, and for a moment he actually holds it in his hands. But only for a moment, and his eyes fill with tears of frustration as the relic is taken from him. In the very next scene, and many years later in Indy’s life, he fights for and finally reclaims the cross. The real point of the scene isn’t revealed, however, until the end of the film when a temple in the canyon of the crescent moon is collapsing, and Indiana Jones is about to fall into the depths of a chasm as he reaches for the Holy Grail.

And for a moment -just a moment- he has his hand on it. He reaches for the cup much like he fought for the cross, obsessed, relentless, unwilling to let it go. It’s a lesson that comes with age, and it is his father’s voice, older and wiser, that cuts through the crashing rock and chaos, speaking calmly, compellingly.

Indiana . . . let it go.

And he does.

And he is never the same.

Mileage.

This is why I like “old Indy.” It’s in the eyes and the set of his mouth. It’s in the tilt of the hat on his head. This is a guy that has learned to let it go. All those things we cannot have, we cannot change, we cannot forget or forgive.

The grail is a metaphor for life – or your Porsche. Either way, it doesn’t matter. You’ll have to let it go, eventually.

So drive the car. And enjoy it.

It’s not the number of years that make a life meaningful. It’s the mileage.

My wife told me a story a few years ago that still makes me smile. Her office at that time was just down the hall from mine and the corridor was filled with students waiting to meet with me. My door was closed -I wasn’t there yet- but the students began to wonder if I was in my office and just not answering. She overheard one of them say, “He’s kind of like Indiana Jones. He probably crawled out the back window to avoid us.” The students laughed.

I liked the comparison. And when you inspire that kind of mythology, you can’t go wrong. But you’d better do your best to live up to it.

I know how I will celebrate my birthday this year. I’ll be working. I could take a personal day, but I love what I do and I feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with such a calling – or quest.

And I know that one day I’ll have to let it go.

But not today.

It’s going to be a long day, this March 4th. I start before the sun comes up, and my kids will be asleep long before I come home. And when my shadow crosses the doorway, I’ll be looking for a good piece of chocolate cake and a glass of wine. Brooke might rub my tired shoulders and ask me where it hurts.

And I will probably fall asleep.

“Well,” she might say, “At least you haven’t forgotten how to show a lady a good time.”

The Barista

In Dreams on February 25, 2010 at 9:20 pm

A ritual has come to an end and I am searching once more for that perfect cup of coffee. For the last couple of years I have been getting up just a little earlier on Sunday mornings and driving to a Starbuck’s twenty minutes down the road. I listen to “Breakfast with the Beatles” – a radio show that features obscure tracks and interviews about -arguably- the world’s most famous and influential band. I make this sojourn on Sundays even though there is a Starbuck’s half that distance from my home. I look forward to my Sundays with John, Paul, George and Ringo. The coffee is nice too. The real treat, though, is Fred -a barista that rarely makes a latte- but has made it his business to know every person that walks through the door, or at least to act like he does.

The barista is in his sixties. Tall, grey-haired and full of wit and charm and wisdom, Fred greets everyone in line like they are old friends, and this personal touch is unique in a world of restaurant clones and corporate coffee houses. And people come to see him. The modern Socrates is not sitting on a rock outside the Acropolis, he is serving up hot coffee and a healthy dose of good will to an over-caffeinated generation of consumers slowly coming to the realization that when everything looks the same, acts the same, and tastes exactly the same – we begin to lose our individualities. Fred has been returning them one order at a time.

Standing in line you can learn a lot about the other people that come to this coffee shop. Fred likes to talk and inquires about family, careers and interests. He remembers a little something about everyone. He looks people in the eyes and his smile is warm and sincere and genuine. Conversations are started, introductions are made, and friendships begin. It takes a little longer to get through the line, but no one seems to mind. This is why they came.

When I make it to the counter Fred will loudly proclaim, “This man is a Saint. He has three girls. Three!!! I tell him, ‘don’t go out to dinner tonight.’ Every time he and his wife go out to dinner they have another baby.” People smile. I smile. His version isn’t that far from the truth. But it isn’t that hard living in a house full of women. I like it.

The barista grabs the black sharpie and carefully inscribes the words “The Saint” on the cup that will hold my lite-whip mocha. He asks about my wife and kids, or how many papers I will be grading this morning -or inquires about the book tucked under my arm. He talks openly about what I do for a living. Questions are asked, conversations started, hands shaken. Frequently, I don’t get anything done, and that’s OK too.

I’m no Saint, but I get to be one Sunday mornings and it feels pretty good. Sometimes Fred walks over to my chair in the corner of the room and shares a few private words and friendship. Sometimes he will offer me a ceramic mug for my coffee. He talks candidly about his wife and children and I like to hear him talk.

Last Sunday began like any other as I made my way down an empty freeway listening to studio out-takes from an early Beatles recording session. I had been in San Francisco for a conference and had missed this Sunday morning ritual the past couple of weeks. When I arrived, I noticed immediately that Fred wasn’t there. “Fred moved to Oregon to be with his family,” I was told as I paid for my coffee. “Friday was his last day.” The girl’s expression indicated quite clearly that this wasn’t the first time she had been asked the question.

The place suddenly seemed different. I took the coffee and left.

I would like to have said goodbye. It seemed important to me and a week later it still does. Fred didn’t change my life – he just made it a little nicer all those Sunday mornings. I wish I could have told him that.

In the land of restaurant chains and corporate coffee houses it is getting increasingly difficult to tell one place or town from another. Everything looks the same and when you see one business on a street corner it isn’t hard to guess which competitor will be camped across the street. This familiarity breeds contempt and this contempt has infected the way see and relate to each other. The unique is overwhelmed by the mundane. It wasn’t always like this and it was Fred the Barista that reminded me of this truth.

This man did something for a lot of people. And when you think about it, it shouldn’t be all that hard to do. Fred took a corporate concept and made it his own. He put the personality back into it. That small town awareness that people need to be seen as individuals – and known for who they really are. We think this is a talent -a gift. It isn’t.  The sad truth is that a guy like Fred should have his own place, but Fred’s Coffee Shop can’t compete in the world today and wouldn’t last very long.

Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am.

I drove home sipping my mocha and listening to the Beatles who, it seems, knew just what I was thinking as they sang:

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to know
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello.

They were singing, nostalgically, about a place and time that may not exist anymore. But now it’s in my ears and in my eyes. Thanks for that, Fred. This cup is for you . . .

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