On Working at Your Best

Winter                                                                         Waxing Moon

20181214_081606Painting. A long, long ancientrail. Walked by so many. A few well, more journeypersons, and the rest of us.

Mediocre. An interesting idea, mediocre. If you’re working to your best capacity, your work is wonderful. Mediocre arrives on your doorstep when you begin comparing your work to others. I’m a writer of wonderful novels and short stories. I create wonderful paintings. Am I going to be hung in the National Gallery? No. Any gallery? Probably not. Am I going to make the NYT times best seller list? Unlikely. Have I done less than my best? No.

Success, I’m gradually beginning to learn, is not about the other. It is about yourself. If Michelangelo painted like me, he’d be mediocre because he had the skill to paint well. If Tolstoy wrote like me, same. Where do I fit? Hell if I know. I’ve had the chance to work at my best level in two fields where criticism is a given. I’ve learned to quiet my inner critic, to stay away from sweeping generalizations about my books, my paintings. Now you may read them, look at them, and say, “He’s no Song Dynasty landscape artist.” Or, “He’s no Marquez.” And you would be right. I’m just and only me.

breathe thich-nhat-hanh-calligraphyThis does not mean I’m uninterested in the quality of my work. Hardly. I want it to be the best I can do. Do I always work at my best level? Of course not. But I do as often as I can. Which is most of the time. I’ll leave the judging to others. I did write that novel. Several, in fact. I did create that painting. Several, in fact. Enough for me. Could I have done this without Kate? No. But Kate is in my life and I in hers. Both of us have sought the best for each other, have sought to create a home environment that encouraged our best work.

Quilting, making clothing, writing novels, and painting are not the only things we’ve done. Kate healed children. I worked hard at social justice, at following a small r religious path. Both of us have raised kids, learned how to be grandparents. Grew much of our own food, our own flowers, our own fruit, our own honey. There is no accounting, no form of critique that can measure these things. They are past. And we don’t live then. We live forward, on the ancientrail that leads into the time beyond this moment. What we have done is not what matters anymore. What matters now is what we do today, right now. As my buddy Bill Schmidt says, “Show up.”

crane2Life allows no do overs. We can reconsider, reframe, reevaluate, remember, but we cannot change yesterday, or any yesterday. We can make choices right now.

Today I chose to use turpentine to wipe out, literally, work I did yesterday. And, I’ll do new work on that painting today. I’m not doing over what I did yesterday. I’m going in a new direction today.

It feels to me like I’m beginning to get this, to accept the truth of the past, of my intentions, and to find a path with no attention to results. Not sure why but this excites me. A form of liberation, I guess. Not giving up, just going forward. Working at my best. Nothing else is possible, except apathy. And that’s not me.

Dark Vessel Rising

submarineWinter                                                                                    Waxing Moon

Encountered something yesterday, a dark vessel that rose up from 33 years deep. Grief. I’d forgotten. When I lost my hearing in my left ear at the age of 39, it happened suddenly. Over a period of six months it waned, then was gone. At the time I was doing a bible study in Horn Towers, an affordable living senior high rise on the West Bank in Minneapolis. The women there, probably of my age now, helped me through this first mortality signal. That was the first insult. My body, which had worked just fine up until then, could fail. And, not in minor ways, but in ways that effected my life on an ongoing basis. (polio was a memory more than an experience.)

Since then I’ve dealt, sometimes well, sometimes poorly with the disability. Three years ago the hearing in my right ear began to diminish enough that I required a hearing aid. One good thing about that deaf left ear, I only needed one hearing aid. Cheaper! The hearing aid, while light and unobtrusive, is still a foreign object on my ear. It gets in the way of my glasses, sends sharp feedback noises if I put my watchcap on over it, requires batteries and maintenance. It helps. Not as much as I’d like, or need, but it does help. Even so, I don’t like wearing it.

deafWhen I went downstairs yesterday after a hard day at the easel (hah), I had my hearing aid in, but still didn’t hear something Kate said. I asked her to repeat it. She waved me off dismissively. Most of the time, I get it. It’s no fun having to repeat yourself. It can feel like I’m not paying attention or being respectful. Over and over. For some reason though, the dark vessel constructed in those first days of my deafness in my left ear, a vessel built to carry the notice that my body would someday fail me altogether, surfaced.

33 years I’ve had to contend with an invisible disability, one that manifests, for others, only briefly. A huh? Or, ignoring you if you’re speaking to me from my left. Or, if there’s a lot of people, or waterfall like noises, or a loud air conditioner, a plane overhead. It screams at me occasionally when an unheard or misheard emergency vehicle suddenly appears as if out of nowhere.

Most of the time, as with most disabilities I imagine, it’s background, forgotten for me. Up here in the loft, for example, I rarely wear my hearing aid. No one to listen to, a quiet room. When driving, I often reach up and turn it off because a whooshing noise gets amplified into an annoying cascade of sound.

gods hadesIn the wake of Kate’s dismissal 33 years of grief, of annoyance, of having to explain, of being handicapped-always, broke into consciousness. I felt overwhelmed by the accumulated sadness, anger, discomfort. Didn’t know I carried within me this complex. I’m imagining a black submarine navigating the seas of my inner world. When its bow first broke through the waters of my attention, it stunned me. Knocked me back. I took it out on Kate. Not good.

Calmed down. We talked. Got through that maelstrom. Happens once in a while. Surprised by the freight.

I’m sure we all have our dark vessels, a divorce still knifing away at the gut, a lost job, an embarrassing public moment, a failed opportunity. When they surface, these dark vessels, chthonic gods James Hillman would call them, demand our fealty. Maybe even sacrifice. Taking the Jungian approach these vessels carry gold, keeping it to themselves, for themselves, but when they pierce the barrier of consciousness, that gold can be recovered, reclaimed, salvaged.

Not sure quite yet what’s in the chest I took off the sub, but I suspect it will become clear. Someday.

Hark, The Herald Angels Sang…

Winter                                                                                    Stent Moon


Happily in pain.    2016

ChristmasNot long after my December 1st, 2016, knee surgery, I had an odd moment. It was Hanukkah. Gabe and Ruth were plowing through their presents, and I sat on the couch, my leg up and some combination of pain meds circulating, morphine and oxycontin, I think. Ruth lit the menorah. A sudden, overwhelming (undoubtedly drug accelerated) sense of dislocation came over me. Sadness, too. What was I doing in this house? No Christmas tree. No decorations. This exotic holiday had pushed all that away and left me on the outside.

It was true nostalgia.* And it was painful. I swirled down, feeling a deep longing to get back to the seasons with which I was familiar. To push away this foreign intervention. To put myself under the Christmas tree on 419 N. Canal Street. All the way back. Not Colorado. Not Minnesota. Not Wisconsin. Indiana. An old fashioned, true to my culture Christmas.

Meanwhile Gabe was click-clacking a Rubik’s cube. Ruth held a money jar Kate had made for her. A fire crackled in the fire place and the menorah burned quietly on the dining table. No one knew I was somewhere else, sometime else. Here’s something from that day’s post:


The Christmas spirit that still flows around this secular, pagan heart saw them. (Hanukkah presents) And rejected the moment. What followed was a period of dislocation, the closest analogy I can give is culture shock.

What was I doing in this house with this holiday underway? Mom, Dad, Mary and Mark rose up. I missed them all, a lot. Further the friends from Minnesota. Why was I here in cold Colorado, in the mountains, when my family and friends were dead or far away?

Having experience with the not so subtle influence of drugs on the mind, I knew this was both a false response and a true one. It was false in that I loved these kids, Kate, Jews all, and had begun to get more involved at Congregation Beth Evergreen. It was true in that Christmas spirit is a real thing, a tangible and mostly positive emotional state engendered by the church, by family, by memories of Christmas past, and, of course, by your favorite retail establishments. And at that moment I missed it.

Two years later the knee is fine, better than fine actually. I’m not using any drugs. (except at bedtime) And I’m much further along in the assimilation process I mentioned a few posts ago. My peri-Jewish identity has congealed around my membership at CBE. I’m part of a community I love, surrounded by people who love us and have shown that over and over again in the last few months. Love is a verb, after all.

Angelic host proclaiming the wonder of your birth

               Angelic host proclaiming the wonder of your birth

Last night was the night before Christmas. Today is Christmas day. The festive part of the day will be the big meal at noon and seeing Jon, Ruth, and Gabe at 2 pm. I’m ok with that. It feels like the right amount of celebration for us.

So. Christmas now has two components. One is much more tempered nostalgia than I felt in December, 2016, a warm spot from days now gone by. The second, and more important to me, is as a festival of incarnation, a celebration of the divine and human mixed inextricably together. As the bells ring out this Christmas day and churches the old familiar carols play, I’ll recall the folks I love, the animals I love. I’ll see past the mundane and look into their souls. There is the ohr. There is the divine. There is the sacred. And guess what? When I look in the mirror, I see the same thing.

*”…the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who attributed the fragile mental and physical health of some troops to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and algos, the pain that attended thoughts of it.” The Guardian, Nov. 9, 2014

Ensouled or Disenchanted or…?

Samain                                                                           Stent Moon

astrology3Astrology is a thicket of wild claims, unjustified certainty, and intriguing utility. Sorta like religion. In my reading so far I’ve found sensible, modest intellectuals who lean on the utility, using this ancient discipline (Mesopotamian in origin.) to promote self-knowledge. I’ve also found, as you might expect, a number of at least charlatanesque figures who are only one step away from the traveling potion wagons of the early frontier. OK, maybe not one step away.

Learning how to read a natal chart is the base line of astrology and I’m working on how to do it for myself. It’s not easy. Many symbols to learn, planets, houses, signs, aspects. Also, for understanding it in a way that makes sense to me, I’m still pursuing the nature of archetypes. That requires a lot of refreshing from my Jungian salad days. Still not sure it will be worth it in the end, but I’m committed to giving it a fair look. I had a similar fascination for a time with psychometrics like the MMPI, the Big Five, Meyers-Briggs, Eneagram, and career choosing tests. Fiddling with the dials of the self, trying to tune in, see inside. All part of the journey of self-discovery. I’ve learned something from each of them, but I found the psychometric approach judgemental in its attempt to sort the normal from the abnormal.

The evolutionary and psychological astrologists have the most potential for utility and explicitly eschew judgement. In the older, predictive style of astrology, still common, there are, for example, malefic and benefic planets, aspects, even charts. Malefic = bad and benefic = good. Mars and Saturn, malefic. Jupiter and Venus, benefic, for example. These two schools see instead psychic forces, archetypal influences that can create, say, energy for transformation in the case of Mars and Saturn. Or, misapplied, the beneficial aspects Jupiter and Venus can impede personal growth.

mmpiIn the later days of my interest in psychometrics there was a similar change from seeing certain personality characteristics as bad or good, especially those characterized as abnormal. Two instances from my own testing. I spiked both the 4 and 5 scales* of the MMPI when tested in the mid-1970’s in seminary. In the original uses of the MMPI these two scales supposedly determined whether you were a psychopath, 4, or a homosexual, 5. The new (then) understanding became: 4 spike = non-conforming, rebellious, angry, creative, family problems, impulsive and 5 spike =  lacks traditional masculine interests. This testing was also done while I was still drinking and some of those 4 scale attributes reinforced my addiction. Though I may have lacked masculine interests (not quite sure what that means), I did have one clear masculine interest. Women.

I suppose you could frame this like Tarnas frames the major problem of our time: an ensouled primal universe and a disenchanted enlightenment universe in conflict, needing, very much needing a synthesis. On my mind all the time these days. Imagining ways through this conflict, ways to reconcile, to use the tension as a creative force for a new metaphysics. Reimagining. Reconstructing. Reenchanting.


*Scale 4 (AKA the Psychopathic Deviate Scale) Measures a person’s need for control or their rebellion against control.    Scale 5 (AKA the Femininity/Masculinity Scale) Measures a stereotype of a person and how they compare. For men it would be the Marlboro man, for women it would be June Cleaver or Donna Reed.



When the moon is in the 7th house…

Samain                                                                         Stent Moon

astrologyMercury-RetrogradeMercury retrograde. Elisa said this would be a time when I would remember my dreams. I have recalled some, definitely more than usual. I’d also reassess my life, letting new things in, chucking the no longer useful.

Well. Over the last month plus I’ve read a lot, and I mean a lot even for me, on astrology. Letting it in. Gradually. Still. Those color field paintings by Rothko that I’ve always admired. Doing it myself, learning oil paints, what to do with oily rags, how to glaze, mixing colors, thinking and seeing in color. Last night I did my first instant pot meal with a rump roast, potatoes and carrots for Jon, Ruth, Gabe, and Kate. I’m also gestating a new style (for me) novel, a novel of ideas that will focus on the great crisis of our age, creating a synthesis between the ensouled primal universe and the disenchanted universe of the enlightenment.

artrothkoYou might say, oh, the power of suggestion. Could be a bit, I suppose. But recalling dreams when I haven’t been is big for me. Years of Jungian analysis, you know. Running toward something like astrology is a definite change in mindset. And, oil painting? I mean, come on.

It’s a fertile time for me in spite of (or, because of?) the upset with Kate. We’ve never been closer. Jon’s shift toward acceptance and moving on makes me glad. Ruth and I have a growing, deepening relationship. We’re going to paint together over her winter break. She comes to me with new books she’s reading, new art she’s making, her life at school. Gabe runs up and gives me a hug right away when he sees me. Rigel runs through the yard like a canine modern dancer, flexing her muscles, a smile on her face.

maslowHoliseason underlies and inflects all of this, creating moments of reflection and quiet, reinforcing attention to the Great Wheel. Feeling as positive about life as I have in a long, long time.

In the conversation last week at mussar vaad practice group, MVP, Tara said to me, “Maybe you’re just self actualized.” Not in jest. And you know, I think she might be right. Not enlightened. Not nirvana bound, not karmaless, but easy with myself, easy with others. Doing those things that make my heart sing. Loving and being loved. Setting aside the past, living today, knowing tomorrow will be as it is. Feels like the journey as destination. Whoa. Can’t believe I wrote that. Still, feels right to me.

Not Getting Easier

Samain                                                                       Thanksgiving Moon

from Bill Schmidt

from Bill Schmidt

Learned from Elisa, my astrologer, that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, like the heart. Lev means heart, not in a physical sense, but as the mind or spirit. Not sure, but kelev might mean something like, a dog embodies the spirit of a human. This came up when Elisa spoke about the very passionate nature of my chart and its unusually strong emphasis on anima/feminine energy. We talked about love and I said the place where I experience love in the most unmediated, unfiltered way is with Gertie, Rigel, and Kepler. And, Murdoch. And, almost any dog I meet.

Bill sent me this picture yesterday. At my best, and I’m there more and more, I’d have the dog’s bubble, too. I admit staying in the moment is not easy right now. Maybe it never is, but I’ve been finding myself able to stay with the troubles of the day, not projecting where they might go, what they might mean beyond what I’m dealing with. This means that though I’ve been under a good deal of stress, I’ve not added a layer of anxiety to it. Which is keeping me sane in a situation that could spin out of control without much effort.

Having said that the stress itself does get to me, creates situations where I overreact, find slights or issues I might otherwise pass by, get distracted. I’ve found it hard to focus on what I consider work over the last couple of months. Yes, we’re approaching the two month mark, the bleed and the emergency room visit happening on Sept. 28th.

One of the benefits of leaning into astrology, even as far as I have, is that it gives me a new conceptual world to visit, a place to learn new things about myself. I need that mirror right now. I did my usual with a new enthusiasm. I found a reading list on Steven Forrest’s website and I purchased a few of them. Tarnas’ book was on there, btw, Tom.

Coming home from Dr. Rhee’s yesterday, Kate asked me if the visit tired me out, too. I’d asked if the visit used up her stamina. Yes, she’d said. I thought a minute, about her question. Yes, I said. It does. Finding no new direction, no new approach deflated me, made me tired. If, I conjectured, we’d found something positive, we’d both be feeling up right now. She nodded.

FortThere is also a more general, vaguer issue for me. As Kate’s life continues to revolve around pain and nausea, weight loss, it restricts her movements. She’s in the house, often in bed or in her chair or on the bench upstairs at the table. This has a centrifugal force for me, too, pulling me in, keeping me here. No, I do not resent it, that’s not my point. I’m speaking now of a more subtle influence, a coloring of the spirit, a darkening of it. I find myself tired, sleepy, more than makes sense to me unless I factor this in.

(friend Tom Crane sent me this from 2015 at The Fort, a restaurant near us in Morrison. If I recall correctly, this is just prior to my prostate surgery.)

Being with her on this ancientrail of ill-health is my life now. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love her and am her husband. Even so, there is a real sense of confinement, of loss, of sadness that goes with this pilgrimage.



Samain                                                                         Thanksgiving Moon

15 degrees here on Shadow Mountain with a light, fluffy snow falling. Hard. Could be as much as 8 inches. Let it snow!

20181022_155416First full day yesterday without SeoAh and Murdoch. SeoAh texted last night and said they’d made it back home.

Kate’s feeling a little low. Her stomach has been giving her fits again, not as often, but that it happens at all is dispiriting. Her weight gain is positive; but, it’s hard for her to see from the inside the progress she’s made since September 28th. And, really, from well before that. Her color is better. She’s moving more easily. Her friends are bringing food, reaching out to her. She’s home.

Not sure, but it might be that we’re reaching a psychological trough. Kate’s gains have calmed down the initial shock of her bleed and the long troubles it created. Now life’s about what I anticipate will be a long recovery. Without the urgency of a crisis small problems can loom, low hills can become mountains. A different phase. Weight gain plus stomach calming. Those are the keys to a successful end to this episode.

20181110_164103Kate’s tough, willing. I admire her and her ability to stay with the daily routines eating small meals, more of them. Getting up and moving, doing her exercises. Engaging the tasks that she can. Her mind is sharp, the crosswords still get done, her advice is as sensible and acute as ever.

I’m encouraged by her color, her brightness in the morning, the fact that she’s not outright depressed. My sense is that she will not only recover from this crisis, but that she’ll come out of it better than she went in. Also, she’s not lost her sense of humor. I got her the hat at Krispy Kreme yesterday.


Fall                                                                     Healing Moon

Exhumation of the Mastodon: Peale, Charles Willson, 1741-1827.

Exhumation of the Mastodon: Peale, Charles Willson, 1741-1827.

Another of life’s inflection points. I want to consider it, honor it, respond to it, but I’m having a hard time. Just too tired. And, I feel guilty about that. Like somehow I should be able to just power my way through and get back to the usual. Which is unrealistic. Certainly for the next few weeks, maybe on an ongoing basis. Need to know what the new normal might be like. Too soon. I know it. So I’m trying to hold back, not speculate, not project. The fact of trying though suggests I’m not always successful.

Here’s an analogy I discovered in the High Country News, my favorite source of information about the West. In reviewing a novel called West there’s a quote from a widowed farmer on his way to the land beyond the Mississippi. He says, to a Dutch land agent he encounters on a river boat, “I am seeking a creature entirely unknown, an animal incognitum.” Apparently Thomas Jefferson also sought the animal incognitum, probably a Mastodon.

Humanity has always wondered what's on the far shore -- even if our guesses sometimes miss the mark.

Humanity has always wondered what’s on the far shore

Right now, I’m on the riverboat, looking at the western shore of the Great River, wondering what lies on the land which spreads out from there to the Pacific Ocean. It contains, I know, a life incognitum, a life so far unknown. Not entirely unknown, certainly. There will be familiar elements in familiar places, but the rhythm, the demands, the joys? Will change. That farmer and I share a desire to explore the land, to find the incognitums, to embrace them, and find our way anew.

It’s a source of energy. I love the unknown, the strange. Vive la difference! More news as this pilgrim sets foot on the shore, buys an oxen or two and loads up the Conestoga with supplies.



Fall                                                                              Healing Moon

“Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another. The difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress.”  adaa

stressFinally figured out my life over the last three weeks or so. I’ve been telling people I haven’t been anxious. And, I haven’t been. Thank you, years of Jungian analysis, existentialism, Taoism, the Great Wheel, and each of you out there. But. I have been stressed. Unable to focus. Tired. Responding to new threats. Did I mention tired? In spite of adequate sleep and decent nutrition.

StressCartoonSomehow this makes me feel better, validates learning I hoped had sunk in deep. Reminded me a bit of “living in the move” which Kate and I tried to do while preparing for and executing our move out here to the Rockies, for the most part successfully.

This definition of stress and anxiety is new to me, but I’d grown to suspect the explanation for my inner life in the recent past involved some split like this. Stressed, but not anxious.



Let Down

Fall                                                                                 Healing Moon

I missed seeing Kate yesterday for the first time since that Friday when we went to the Swedish Hospital’s E.R. And, I missed seeing Kate.

20181016_091641Odd experience yesterday. I led an exercise that involved body outlines I made from this template. (they actually looked better than this picture might suggest.) The kids responded to several prompts, among them: first school memory, early friends, where were you born, childhood hobby, childhood dream, then illustrated them on their body outline. The results are beautiful in many cases, revealing in all of them.

They were into it, using markers and crayons and stickers. The latter many of them used to decorate their faces as well. It felt energetic and engaged, the exercise, but I couldn’t get a conversation going about the results, so it felt like a failure to me. Alan, on the other hand, thought it was a great success. So did all the teachers who looked at the results.

The idea was to get the kids thinking about their childhood as they shift from childhood to being a teen. And, in that sense, yes, it worked. Where it failed was in having a discussion about commonalities and differences among the results.

Afterward, like the first two times I taught, all I wanted to do was sit down. Like a hard workout. Exhaustion. Attending to the little sprays of emotion, provocations of other students, even their eagerness and desire to do a wonderful job (which most of them had) was difficult. At least for me. Very difficult.

At the staff meeting afterwards exhaustion and an attendant lability found me looking out at the others: Rabbi Jamie, Alan, Tara, Debra, Karen, Tal from inside. Hard to describe. I was there, listening, understanding, but it was as if there was an invisible barrier of weariness between the watcher within and the physical circumstance he inhabited in that moment. I spoke very little, in spite of a fascinating introduction to the method of studying torah that resulted in the talmud.

In another instance I might have said I was depressed. The physical sensations were very similar: subdued, a feeling of distance, limited affect, low energy. That led me to my refrain over the last almost three weeks. I’m ok. No, I’m not anxious. Yes, I’m in the moment, responding to now, not imagining the future or regretting the past. I have believed that of myself, believed it was my experience, but was it?

As far as anxiety goes, I’m exquisitely sensitive. Generalized anxiety disorder will do that to you. I am, at least I think I am, an expert on my own anxious responses, what they feel like, how they manifest. As long as the ambit was Kate, her medical care, the dogs and their needs, my own needs, I felt fine. No, of course, I wasn’t joyous, nor was I unconcerned, but at no time did the usual stomach flutters, sweaty palms, shallow breathing signal an OMG moment. Was I repressing them? I really don’t think so.

But, there was a high stress level. That’s undeniable. It was a fraught situation, especially the first two weeks with Kate bombarded by tests, procedures, transfusions, and finally the bowel resection. Even so, the stress did not trigger anxiety. It did, however, exact a price and that price was exhaustion, depletion. As long as I was only handling the temporarily  resectioned world I described in an earlier post, I was fine. Being alone with all this was not a difficulty for me, in fact, I prefer it.

When, however, I took this still existing high stress level-Kate’s still gone from home, driving in and out takes a toll, for example-into a social setting, I believe it surfaced the stress in a much different way. I was no longer in my temporarily resectioned world but in that ongoing life that is the world, the ongoingness that seems so strange from within a bubble of stress or grief. Yet, it is not strange, it’s the usual, the normal, the everyday, it was my stress that was unusual.

I was not able to fully enter into the casual flow, the ordinary ongoingness. I wanted to, but the effort required was just beyond me. This doesn’t seem aberrant to me, but it did make me realize the degree of stress, of the energy required to cope that I’ve been experiencing.

Final note here: People want to help and I truly appreciate that. But, I’m not real good at knowing what kind of help I need, what would be useful. I’ve always been a very private person, one inclined to handle my life on my own terms with my own energy. I know the pitfalls in that, but it’s a lifelong habit. And, one I generally admire. Right now I think it might be in my way, but I’m not sure what to do about it.