We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Monthly archives for September, 2017

Oh, No

Fall                                                                        Harvest Moon

Gabe yesterday hunting for bones on Black Mountain

Gabe yesterday hunting for bones on Black Mountain

Gabe came in yesterday afternoon (He’s with us due to no school on Friday.) and said, “Grandpop, there’s birds in the sewing room.” Huh? Kate’s sewing room, the old garage remodeled by the last owner, opens to the outside and due to the bug free environment here–at least relative to Minnesota–we often keep the door open so the dogs can go in and out. Easier on all of us.

Sure enough, there were two small sparrow sized birds in the sewing room, fluttering and searching for places where they could see light, unfortunately mostly through windows. I opened windows, left the door open and began to talk to them gently, encouraging them to find their way outside. Gabe, unbeknownst to me at the time, had named them Jerry and Billy.

Jerry and Billy somehow found the window above Kate’s sewing machine a possible escape portal. Nope. Closed. Billy fluttered up by the top of the moveable bottom half of the window; Jerry chose the window sill, trying to push through the unexpected and unseen barrier with no luck.

Then. Rigel, who had come in the open door, looked over, saw the poor fluttering bird, ran over there and grabbed Jerry in her mouth.

Gabe, “Oh, no.”

Jerry seemed lifeless after Rigel took him in her mouth, not gently at all, and bit down. She took Jerry outside, finished him, then ate him, most of him. Gabe later buried the one wing and mostly empty body cavity in the front yard. He said, “I had fun burying Jerry.”

Hobbes said, “Life is mean, nasty, brutish and short.” I’m sure Jerry would agree.


Awesome. Awefull. Godsmacked. Ancora Imparo.

Fall                                                                               Harvest Moon

Goya, Ancora Imparo, I am still learning

Goya, Ancora Imparo, I am still learning

A couple of months ago I joined a new group at Beth Evergreen, one designed to provide leadership for continuing to integrate mussar (Jewish ethics and an approach to spirituality) into synagogue life. The group’s work involves deepening our own practice of mussar and through that enhancing the practice of others.

In the first month we focused on-hmmm, I don’t recall, which is telling. I felt embarrassed when we got together to discuss our practice because mine had not gone well. The next month, I resolved, would go better. That month, the month of Elul, ended on September 20th, the day before erev Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s eve, or the first of Tishrei. We meet again next next Wednesday.

Mussar identifies soul traits that come from within the Jewish tradition, but have universal application. That is, though mussar is a particularly Jewish approach to ethics, it can have application for anyone. According to Mesillat Yesharim, the medieval text we’ve been studying for the past year plus, these traits develop in a particular seder, or order.

The first trait, according to this book, is watchfulness. The subtle permutations of each soul or character trait get a good deal of attention in Mesillat Yesharim (The way of the righteous) but the first task is to get a grasp of the trait. Watchfulness correlates to mindfulness, to self-awareness, and I relate it most to the Greek know thyself.

aweAwe, or hitlamdut* in Hebrew, being a learner, being in a constant state of curiosity/awe, was the middah (soul trait) for last month, Elul. This month, Tishrei begins with Rosh Hashanah, and its tenth day is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The period from Rosh Hashanah are collectively the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical year. Awe is central to the experience of the most sacred days of the Jewish year.

In my mussar practice for the month of Elul, I committed, once again, to journaling and to using a focus phrase. Mine was, Say Awe, a yellow post-it note is on my computer tower. Over the month I have noted moments of awe using Keep, a note-taking app on my smartphone.

The first morning of this new practice I got up at 4:45, fed the dogs as usual, then went outside to walk up the stairs to the loft. On clear nights, most nights here on Shadow Mountain, the starry sky is a wonder all on its own. This night though had something special to kick off my days of awe: Orion had risen. Readers of this blog may recall my special relationship with Orion, one begun on lonely nights in the guard shack where I worked during my senior year of college.

20170821_113505Orion returns as the Great Wheel turns into fall, the beginning of my favorite half of the year, reaching its high point (low point?) on the Winter Solstice. Each year since 1968 Orion has returned as a friend, a companion during lonely, dark nights. It gladdens my heart to see him since he only visits during this time. His return on this particular night was awe-some. Orion got me started on a month of awe.

As the month has progressed, I have encountered many moments of awe: realizing the heat on my face had traveled 93 million miles through empty space, being aware that each night I go unconscious, taking myself out of the much more familiar waking world, Black Mountain appearing in the morning as the sun burned off its misty shroud, experiencing sonder-the realization that each person you pass has a rich, full life and that you will never know it. At the dentist’s office for a teeth cleaning, alone in the chair and waiting for the hygienist I went into a revery about light, light bulbs, electricity, the wonder of human invention, the evolution of teeth, the astounding reality that each of us are the current instances of an unbroken line of successful procreation, a line of procreation that began with the very first one-celled organism.

As I followed this practice, this mussar practice, deeper into awe, I discovered I could summon an experience of awe at will. And, that I’d been doing something like this for a long time.

whitefishHere’s an example. Kate and I enjoy eating at the New York Deli, an authentic Jewish deli that happens to be on our route into Jon’s house. We went there a couple of weeks ago and I ordered a white fish platter. It was huge. There was white fish, dollops of cream cheese, capers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce. On the side were two bagels, sesame seed as I had requested. Awe was on my mind so I looked at the platter. This meat came from a white fish that swam in some lake, it’s a freshwater fish, not too long ago. It had to be caught, selected, preserved (probably through refrigeration), processed, packed, stored and shipped. Then it had to be opened, divided and placed on my plate. Imagine all the individual people involved, all the different modes of transportation: boat, truck, maybe rail, maybe airplane. The cream cheese: specific cows were milked, the milk pasteurized (Louis Pasteur), chilled, then sent to a dairy somewhere and used to create the cheese which likewise had to be transported here to end up on the plate. You can see how this goes. The wheat in the bagel: sowen somewhere, cultivated over a growing season, combines in formation harvesting it, more transportation, milling, mixing the flour with eggs and yeast, baking. Growing the sesame seeds. The tomatoes. The onions. The lettuce. Do you see what an amazing, awe-some thing that white fish platter was?

My conclusion, right now anyhow, is that awe, far from being an irregular, occasional moment of OMG, is a matter of the perspective we bring to each life moment. If we choose to probe deeper, we can find the awe in the awedinary.

So, as I learned at the dentist’s, say awe.


Hitlamdut/התלמדות – being a learner. Hitlamdut is central to R. Shlomo Wolbe’s mussar. Practicing Hitlamdut means adopting the perspective of being a constant learner. We are always just practicing and we never actually reach perfection in this life. A perspective of hitlamdut protects against arrogance and destructive self-criticism. With the perspective of hitlamdut, we try to see every experience from the 30,000-foot view. Rather than just being in the experience, or responding to it in negative ways, we recognize that we can learn from it.

On Daily Rhythms

Fall                                                                                 Harvest Moon

20170615_075422_001A peculiar sequelae of my new schedule, afternoons remain inchoate. After the nap and before supper. Not sure yet what to do with that. Might be good for games and puzzles? I want to read then, too, and do Latin (or, Hebrew). Perhaps once kabbalah and Hebrew classes get cooking I’ll find this the natural time for that work. The issue is peculiar because once I’ve fed the dogs, gotten my writing done, finished items off my to do list and completed my workout, I’ve already had 7 plus active hours.

So after the nap there’s this, ok, you’ve done enough, kick back, relax feeling, yet it feels off since it’s still the middle of the day. Weird. These matters do have a way of resolving themselves over time, so we’ll see.

Kate was in fine fettle yesterday. [fettle, what is that? state or condition of health says the online dictionary. Makes sense. Also, oddly, as a verb: trim or clean the rough edges of (a metal casting or a piece of pottery) before firing]. Anyhow she felt good and I felt good seeing her feel good. She’s done a great job of adjusting to Sjogren’s, not easy at all, and days like yesterday are the reward. May she string many of them together.

Gertie In Her Pink T-Shirt

Fall                                                                             Harvest Moon


Conifer Journal

Fall                                                                              Harvest Moon



scootersKate and I go to see Jackie at Aspen Roots. After growing my wizard beard and having it often end up it in my mouth after a night’s sleep, I decided to get it shaped. I like Jackie and the time out is another thing Kate and I can do together. I’m better groomed now than I’ve been in years. Change up. After my haircut and beard trim and Kate’s coloring and cut, we went over to Scooter’s, a relatively new restaurant here in Conifer. A down south style barbecue joint-they cook up the meat in a huge metal barbecue that sits outside-their food is good. St. Louis ribs, macaroni, onion and cucumber salad with cornbread and pinto beans and Texas Toast. Hmmm.

We stayed out so Sandy could get the downstairs done before we came back home. Nap time. After the nap Kate drove into Lakewood, about 30 minutes away, to Swedish Hospital for her regular Remicade infusion. Her right shoulder, which has been wonky for some time, osteoarthritis probably, has passed her-high-pain threshold and become a daily and more significantly a nightly nuisance. A new shoulder may be in her future. We do our part to support the medical-pharmaceutical complex.

20170902_163055Gertie has recovered well from the removal of her lesion last Friday. Instead of the cone of shame we now put t-shirts on our wounded dogs, so she’s been wandering around with Kate’s pink Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. It gives Gertie, hardly a well-behaved female, a certain panache. Rigel continues her reignited predator ways, sniffing the deck and barking under the shed. Kep’s a sweet boy, eager and happy. With Vega dead he’s much less volatile in pack dynamics. No idea how that works.

I’m looking forward to talking with Joe and SeoAh about North Korea, get the perspective of a native South Korean and a USAF Weapon’s Officer. Germane points of view.



Who is God’s Rothko?

Fall                                                                     Harvest Moon

Been thinking about a new analogy for reimagining/reconstructing faith: the transition from representational to abstract art. I like the analogy because it reaches deep into prehistory to the cave art of Lascaux and Chauvet of 40,000 years ago. This tradition developed so powerfully that its underlying assumptions were simply not questioned.  What would art be about but the reproduction of the human world in two-dimensions? Then, in 3, but still a man, or a god, or an animal. The introduction of perspective reinforced the representational, but did, I imagine, to the sensitive eye, give an inkling of the manipulation of space and color that really underlay art making.

No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko

No. 118 1961 by Mark Rothko

So called modern art was a radical break with this tradition. It happened as artists in many places looked at painting and sculpture with fresh eyes. They asked about the purpose of art, the purpose of paint on canvas, the purpose of reshaping wood and stone. What are the primary elements of the work? Color. Paint. Form. Space. Negative space. And perspective, did it have to be mathematical? Was there a perspective that developed simply through the use of color? (Cezanne) Did perspective have to be singular? (Picasso) Could a painting be nothing but color? (Morris Louis, Rothko, Kandinsky) What about painting or sculpting things that could not exist? (Man Ray, Dali, DuChamp)

mao trach dong

mao trach dong

As artists began to consider the fundamentals, the unexamined assumptions of making art that had shaped its global expression since humans began making marks, though, that other tradition, the old representational one, did not die out. There were still portraits, still landscapes, still still lifes, sculpted men and women and animals and mythical beings of all sorts. This reimagining, reconstructing of art itself seemed to displace the older way, but only because museums became so dominant. There were modern art museums like the Walker and the Guggenheim and the Modern and the Tate which seemed to position the older, encyclopedic museums like the MIA, the Metropolitan, the Kunsthistorisches, the Louvre as showplaces of what used to be. Even the development of ateliers, who imagine themselves as the heirs to the older tradition, seemed to be an admission that the reimaginers had swept the field.

danceSo what I’m proposing is not another religion with a different origin story, a different set of scriptures, different roots from, say, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam. And what I’m definitely not proposing is a reductionistic attempt to find out what all religions have in common, nor am I proposing a sort of tolerance for all faiths, an attempt to learn from each of them (though this is a good thing to do) and out of that shape a new faith.

No, I want to play with the fundamentals of religion, those things that underlay the tradition of religious thought and practice. I say play advisedly because I think it was the playful aspect of the artists who questioned their tradition that made their work bearable. And, in making it bearable, made it accessible enough to thrive.

Criteria by Bruce LeeSo, what are some of those fundamentals? Prayer, worship, gods, ritual, art, revelation, congregations, sacred space, the notion of sacred, divinity, after life, morality and ethics. How might a radical approach take the long history of prayer, for example, and reshape it, reconfigure it, reuse it for the person who chooses to stand outside particular traditions, but still wants to paint? Or, what about gods? How does the notion of powerful, unseen entities with various agendas fit into the life of persons no longer monotheists, no longer willing or able to see many gods?

I don’t even want to do what Emerson proposed. That is, have a religion of revelation to us rather than the dry bones of theirs. I want to examine revelation itself. What is revealed? Why is hiddenness so important to religion? What is revelation in a quantum mechanical world? Where is revelation? How are things revealed? How have things been revealed all along, but we didn’t notice? And why do we care about a world beyond the one we experience effortlessly?



Life’s Rhythms

Fall                                                                                 Harvest Moon

April, 2016, Songtan, Korea

April 2016, Songtan, Korea

Road trip! I’m planning a visit to see Joseph and SeoAh over his birthday weekend in late October. Since they’re living on base, I’ll get a chance to see Robins AFB from the inside. I saw Joseph on Shavuot, June 1st, when he came on a sudden trip to Colorado Springs, but I’ve not seen SeoAh since the wedding, now a year and a half ago. I’m excited.

Yesterday was a rest day from working out, so I used the morning to pick up and rearrange. My work habits leave papers and books scattered in many places, for many different reasons and every once in awhile restoration is in order. I got most of that cleared away yesterday, leaving now the more demanding tasks of moving a whole shelving unit and changing the location of certain books, especially those relevant to reimagining/reconstructing faith. It took a couple of years to find an arrangement of furniture up here that suits me and the books got shelved before I found it. A process.

Kate and I had our business meeting at 3 Margaritas. Though somewhat strained the last year by Jon and the grandkids, our finances are in good order. That makes life easier. We look out ahead at upcoming expenses like the Georgia trip, that quarter of beef from Carmichael Cattle Company, a boiler inspection, Jon’s work on the bench. We talk about matters that need attention at home like sealing the bathroom’s stone work, moving the Arcosanti bell, yard work. Cooking. We also talk about how we’re feeling, physically and emotionally.

for example

for example

Kate’s various ailments make keeping her energy up a challenge, but she’s developed routines that mitigate the worst effects of Sjogren’s Syndrome, has the Remicade infusions for rheumatoid arthritis and manages her lower o2 saturation at night with the oxygen concentrator. She’s gained weight, which is a big positive, though the irony of having to gain weight is never lost on her.

Jon’s working on his new house. He has the kid’s beds set up and spent the weekend painting. He says painting here can produce an intermediate phase where the low humidity causes the paint to dry prematurely, making it sometimes strip off in panels when he goes back to touch up. Frustrating. His kitchen and bathrooms will require more work than he initially imagined, but he’s skilled in these matters.

He came up last night. We had chili from the last of last year’s quarter beef’s hamburger. He’s adjusting to the new schedule, but discovering what all divorced people do. That is, all the responsibilities you used to share are now your’s alone. That can be overwhelming, but he’s handling it by choosing where he spends his energy, the only real solution.

plutarch-quote-there-are-two-sentences-inscribed-upon-the-delphic-oracWe’re in the middle of the days of awe, between new years and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement when the book of life is sealed for the last year. Life demands examination; the ancient Greeks had it written over the Delphic oracle’s doorway in Apollo’s temple: gnothi seauton, know thyself. This annual juxtaposition of the new year and a time of seeking forgiveness for wrongs committed in the past year, both from others and from the sacred Self which links us to the whole, is in a sense a reminder of a rhythm that examination requires.

We fall short of our best selves, both in our relationships with others and in our own inner life, but Judaism and its liturgical calendar reminds us that this is neither extraordinary nor indelible. We seek repentance, then move on, being trapped neither by the past nor by anxiety about how that past will determine our future. That’s the human message of the days of awe. And it’s a good one, one from which us non-Jews can learn.




Let It Snow

Fall                                                          Harvest Moon

Vega in the snow

Vega in the snow

Weather forecast says snow beginning at 5:30 a.m. It’s 5:10 right now. The first snowfall is still magical to me, after all these years. Snow is gentle, quiet, transformative. Its return ushers in the fallow season, the time of holidays, of holiseason. The forests become different places, too. Streams will run under ice. Tree branches will have loads of snow ready to drop on unwary hikers. Snowshoeing and skiing. Then there’s the feeling of sitting in a warm house, watching snow accumulate, not having to be anywhere-thank you, retirement-maybe some hot chocolate and a good book, a movie.

Third Phase Thoughts. Again.

Fall                                                              Harvest Moon

birthday dinner at 65

birthday dinner at 65

We had a soaking, all day rain yesterday. Very humid east, not so much arid west. Temperatures were cool during the day and down to 35 degrees last night. After a busy week, having Saturday as a quiet day was good.

The now not as new work schedule has taken hold, at least the before lunch part: Ancientrails, Jennie’s Dead, breakfast, news and e-mails, workout, lunch, nap. The after nap portion, which was to be Latin and reading until 5:00 or so, has still not solidified.

Any schedule has its rhythm broken by errands, medical appointments, maintenance matters like oil changes for the Rav4, scheduling folks to handle things like boiler inspections, circuit breaker fixes, but over time I’ve learned that simply returning to the pattern usually keeps me moving me forward.

caterpillarThat’s especially important for workouts, which are easy to forego. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I do 20 minutes of cardio, then resistance work, then 20 more minutes of cardio. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I do the high intensity cardio plus 50 minutes or so slower cardio. If I miss a Monday, I go on to the high intensity, slow cardio day. If I miss a Monday and a Tuesday, I still go to the 40 minutes of cardio, resistance work day. For me, keeping the same workouts on the same days of the week keeps me from feeling guilty (I’ve missed so many workouts, it doesn’t make sense to even try and get back to my schedule.)  and guilt stops the process altogether.

Of course, there is the question of why keep at it? At 70 it would be possible to argue that the pace of life should slow down. Why keep pushing, especially if self-esteem doesn’t demand it. And mine doesn’t.

retirementThe third phase is new. It used to be that 65 or so meant the end of a working life, retirement happened, then death, often before 70. Those that made it into their seventies were often burdened with serious medical problems that drained energy and created obstacles to doing much else.

In 1960, when I was 13, U.S. life expectancy was 69.7 years. In 2015 it was 79 years. Our perception of age is not shaped so much by our experience of age itself, but by our attitude towards age created when we were not aware they were forming. In the working class community where I grew up until age 17 65 was retirement and death, at least for men, who were the primary workers then, followed 18 months or so later.

In other words, when I learned what being old meant, it was basically work, stop work, die, and the ages around which those latter punctuations occurred were before seventy. Life after seventy had no shape, no coherence, except frailty, nursing homes, dotage. (for, as Kim Jong Un says, dotards.) Though is no longer true, and has not been for some time, by 1990 the average life expectancy had risen to 75 years, my inner image of aging was shaped in the 1960’s world of Alexandria, Indiana.

We try to adjust to changes like these, but the patterns of our childhood often shape our beliefs about what’s possible. If work stops at 65, what comes after that? No work? No ability to work? Or, relief that work is over, so the 1950’s model of an ideal retirement, gold or canasta or bingo or photography. Life after 65 meant hobbies, doing things you’d put off doing, then dying. But in fact life after 65 was so short for most people that getting traction for some new phase of life, a phase with no work and the responsibilities of in-home child rearing completed, didn’t seem to make much sense.

growing-whole-molly-young-brown-219pxw-330pxh70 is not the new sixty. It’s the new 70. What 70 is the new sixty really means is that for those raised in the 50’s, 70 now appears like age 60 did when we were kids. Big difference though…we’re in that sixties range of health, but we’re 70 and work has fallen away, the kids are gone. What do we do?

So far my response has been to do what keeps me physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaged. Why? Because the alternative is the Barcalounger, favorite tv programs, the occasional extended family meal, then the funeral home. The old model of retirement, what our financial consultant Ruth Hayden called the finish line model of retirement, was sort of like forever recess, a surcease from the demands of the boss and the day-to-day demanded non-work like activity, otherwise what was the point of retirement?

Now, though, retirement really means (for those of us financially secure anyhow) a change in who determines how we spend our time during the day. We do, not the workplace. If we take on that responsibility with the image of the 1960’s in mind, we take a breath and try to imagine what we always wanted to do when weren’t working. The more pertinent question, it seems to me, is really who do I want to be?

retirementYes, retirement and the life following it, the third phase as I call it, is just that, a new and different time of life, one in which the question of how do I live can have a radically different answer than in the first two phases. Who are you? Who do you want to be? If you want to be a person whose constant focus is recreation, who gets up in the morning for another day of adult recess, you can. If you want to be a dress designer after years as a forensic engineer, you can. Or, as in my case, the work before retirement age was satisfying, self-directed, so there’s little reason to change just because some age-related cultural turning point has been reached.

What this means for me is that as long as I am able, I’ll continue to write, to read, to research, to stay engaged in current happenings. I’ll keep at my spiritual growth, stay connected to friends and family. I’ll work out and do what I can around the house. When I can no longer do these things, if that time comes, I’ll reassess. Death is always ready to greet us, we don’t have to accelerate the process.


Fall                                                                      Harvest Moon

Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

A couple of weeks ago I went in for cataract and glaucoma exams. Then, Wednesday, my hearing aid stopped working. I’ve also been a little short of breath, not unusual up here at 8,800 feet and my oxygen saturation is ok. The good news is that neither my cataracts nor my glaucoma have worsened and my hearing aid got unblocked by the folks at Hearing Rehab. And the shortness of breath does seem to be a response to altitude and not a failing heart.

These are what I call mortality signals. None of them, in themselves, are fatal; but, like my sudden hearing loss at 38 in my left ear, they are blinking yellow lights, caution, fatal error ahead. Birth is a mortality signal, too, of course.

Instead of pushing these signals into the background of my mind I like to embrace them, take the hint of life’s progress towards its entropic end. Nope, not gloomy or depressive, in fact, the opposite. Energizing, gratitude producing. I’m still here and functioning. Happy to have awakened this morning, happy to have a day ahead with Kate and the dogs, happy to have my loft, happy to be in the mountains. Joyful, even.

There’s a message about prayer here though I’m not clear yet on what it is. In response to Rabbi Jamie’s focus on prayer for the High Holy Days, I’m trying to reimagine prayer from a spot outside the Jewish tradition, reconstruct the concept of prayer without the Talmud, the Torah, the long history of Jewish prayer books.


Here’s where I am so far. Prayer is, at its most basic, communication. Important communication, significant to the prayer on the most critical matters in the life of the spirit. Prayer is also, at its most basic, the creation and sustaining of a relationship.

There are many sorts of prayer: supplication, petition, praise, anguished, thankful, angry, loving, contemplative, meditative, even constant. There are also communal and intercessory prayers, prayers of commitment and prayers of repentance.

So the question is prayer from whom to whom? Or, from whom to what? What is the relationship that prayer nurtures, why do I want to sustain it? Why is that relationship important? How is prayer different from other forms of communication, of other ways of creating and sustaining relationships? Or, is it different?

A work in progress.


September 2017
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