We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

L’shanah tovah!

Lughnasa                                                          Eclipse Moon

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon (c 1833)

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon (c 1833)

That old moon, the one that occulted our star, has two days left in its cycle. It will give way to the first moon of this new fall, this moon that oversaw the journeys of millions to watch it work in the daylight. It also presided over Hurricane’s Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia, over the 8.1 earthquake in southern Mexico and the fiery end to many forests in the U.S. West. Earth, Air, Fire and Water. What will this next moon bring?

I’m still feeling a sense of exhaustion from Saturday night, not unusual I guess. Seventy after all. The burns I got on my right hand making the sugar cream pies last Tuesday are still healing. Again, seventy year old skin. This exhaustion feels ok, part of the third phase.

Went to bed last night in a mild funk, exhaustion will do that, allow negative moods to take hold, grip me. They’re like infections, sudden and pervasive; but usually, if I can find their source, a triggering event, then I can quiet the infection, let it dissipate. It takes brutal self-honesty.

Abandon all attachment to the results of action and attain supreme peaceYesterday I traced the funk back to an e-mail I sent out late Saturday night thanking all the main participants in the Evergreen Forum. Two folks responded quickly, thanking me, too, and I realized, as I searched for the source of the mood, that I wanted more of those and when they didn’t come, I wondered why not? It was that wondering that created the bad mood. In others words I had poisoned my own well, then drunk from it. Well, I realized, that’s silly. Take the compliments, move on. So, I did.

Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday evening, erev Rosh Hashanah. This is a pensive time in the Jewish calendar. As the old year ends, Tishrei 1 (Sept. 21st) ushers in the Jewish year 5778. Rosh Hashanah, according to Chabad.org, means head of the year and celebrates the birthday of the universe and in that process, the day of the creation of Adam and Eve.

After it there are then 10 days to complete a cycle of seeking forgiveness from others so God can be approached on Yom Kippur for forgiveness. At the end of Yom Kippur the book of life is sealed for 5777 and written in the book will be all those sins for which forgiveness has not been received.

Happy-Rosh-Hashanah-Shofar

This is a wonderful way because it encourages an annual cleaning of the slate, then beginning a new year ready to live fully, unburdened by baggage from the year before. Whether or not you accept the metaphysics, the practice itself is healthy.

Embarrassed

Lughnasa                                                           Eclipse Moon

mussar chartThe mind and heart, so wonderful, so necessary, so amazing, but also so fragile. Take mine for instance. Yesterday was a full day, beginning, as my days do, around 4:45 am. I got the dogs fed, ancientrails written, Jennie’s 750 words written and went downstairs to eat breakfast and make two sugar cream pies.

I met Rabbi Jamie for lunch in Evergreen, drove back to Shadow Mountain and took Kate to Bailey for her Patchworker’s gathering. Stopped by Happy Camper on the way back home. A 30 minute rest, then back to Evergreen for a meeting about the first ever Evergreen Forum.

Here’s the tricky part for me, the tricky part for moving more fully into the space of Beth Evergreen. My responsibility for the meeting was to get the four panelists there. I reminded them all in an e-mail a week plus ago, but only Rabbi Jamie and Rev. Dr. Judy Morley of the Science of Mind church showed up. I was embarrassed. Of course, they’re adults and had plenty of prior notice; still, I felt I failed at part of my task. Not a great feeling. The planning went fine though and we got the work done.

However. This meeting preceded a second meeting, Mussar Vaad Practice leadership, of which I am also a part. (MVP, get it?) At this one I’m part of a group of six taking responsibility for continuing the integration of mussar’s character development work into congregational life. This was the meeting for which I baked the pie.

During this meeting, I fell into a dispirited place. Dispirited is such an interesting and evocative word. Exactly right here. My spirit, my ability to engage as me, waned during the course of the time. Why? Well, MVP intends to lead by deepening our own personal practice of mussar. Part of that practice involves focusing for a month on a particular character trait, last month’s was self-awareness, this month’s is awe.

The practice involves using a focus phrase, mine was be aware, to keep our attention focused on how we are with that particular trait over the month. I said I’d journal my awareness. Others made lists twice a day of how they made choices, another put a note on their car dashboard asking, Where I am going, why, Where I am going, how, and another turned off the radio in their car and used that time to focus, while yet another checked in on how they were eclipsing themselves, hiding their true feelings behind socially expected behavior.

At check in we said how it had gone over the month. Most of the folks had very fruitful months with some behavior changes I would describe as significant. When it came my turn to check in, I couldn’t remember any of the things about which I’d journaled and I admitted that the journaling didn’t last long. As my Woolly friends who read this will know, I love assignments and am diligent about fulfilling them. Comes from all those years as a student. Except I hadn’t this time. Again, I felt embarrassed.

Too, this meeting went until 8:30 p.m. I’m in bed at 8:00 p.m. since I get up at 4:45 or 5:00 to feed the dogs and start my day. I’m not sure, but I think as my mind begins to move toward sleep, at least at this age, my emotional resilience goes down, especially when I’m out.

The end result of this was that I came home feeling like a failure. Too big a word? Not really. The good news here is that I recognize the context for this feeling, why it came over me and that it was contextual, not core. I told Kate I’d feel better after some rest. And I did.

Being older means having gone through this cycle before and being self-aware (hah, ironic, eh, in light of last month’s character trait?) enough to know the feeling will pass. This is so important, though it may not be obvious. If I allow my embarrassment to mutate into shame, then it could well weaken the bonds I’ve begun to develop at Beth Evergreen.

Shame at not being able to fulfill my obligations could make me much more reticent in future meetings and in general with the people involved. It could push me away from Beth Evergreen. But that only happens if I see the embarrassment (my reaction) as being produced by the other’s shaming me. If I understand and own the reaction as my own, and as a reaction to circumstance, not as a character flaw, then I can continue in community.

A tough but good learning.

 

 

For Tom

Lughnasa                                                                    Kate’s Moon

This is an overdue shoutout to my good friend, Tom Byfield.

So sorry to hear about your stroke, Tom. Gotta be scary, but if anyone I know can face down scary with a big laugh, it’s you. Moving to assisted living sounds like a big change, but there again, with books and arts and visits to the MIA when you’re able, I’m sure you’ll build a rich life.

It got me thinking about assisted living as an idea. Now that I’m past the 70 line, too, and with the history of strokes in my own family-Mom and Dad both-I know it’s always a possibility. I would find the transition to living in an apartment very difficult, but not impossible.

Tom, you’re a great role model for the 8th and 9th decades of life. You’ve met them with humor and passion, with intelligence and wit. You’ve stayed engaged and formed new friendships. I admire that. A great deal. Your poem at my moving to Colorado good-bye party is a treasure. I read it every once in while just for fun.

What happens after all this sturm und drang? Who knows? Maybe the afterlife for those of us who care about beauty is a vast museum with all the best art, good food, family and old friends. Plus all those dogs you’ve ever loved. It’d be pretty interesting to have DaVinci or Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent or a potter from the Song dynasty as a docent, wouldn’t it?

Right now the best I can come up with is that life is about friends and family, about love. That life, no matter what happens after, is a pretty damn interesting ride. As long as it lasts for both of us, I’m your friend.

 

Hello, darkness

Lughnasa                                                        Kate’s Moon

monolith (1)Dark ecology. I’ll post more about this both here and on AncientrailsGreatwheel.com, but it interests me a lot right now. It’s a contrarian view of the climate crisis, but not in a denier vein. These are folks who accept climate science, but take a pessimists look at the likelihood of change, at least change sufficient to stave off disaster. They don’t see it happening. This could be equated to the final stage of the grief process, acceptance.

monolithI’m not familiar enough now with the movement to comment in depth, but the tone of it strikes a chord in me. Admittedly, it’s a melancholy chord though the more you know about both climate science and the current political will to tackle change, the more that chord may come to dominate the melody of your life. It’s either brave, facing reality in spite of its horror, or defeatist. Maybe it’s both.

Whichever it is, it feels like an important approach to climate change at an emotional level and one I want to better understand. If you want a sense of dark ecology’s direction, take a look at this manifesto on the Dark Mountain website.

D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Lughnasa                                                                    Kate’s Moon

tammy-wynette-divorce-epic-2Jon starts back to work today. One last month of commuting from Conifer to Aurora, then he moves into his house. It’s been a series of difficult, often wrenching moments for him since last May. He decided then he’d had enough of his marriage to Jen.

Divorce challenges those who go through it at the most basic levels: sense of identity, feeling of worthiness as a person. There is also emotional conflict that can sear, doubts about parenting capability, and, too, how to manage alone the mechanics of living a life, things like bill paying, work, decision making about what comes next. Having divorced twice and knowing many others with similar records, I know those blistering changes can really spin the Self.

There is though the real opportunity for self renewal, cleansing. It requires a close look at the internal dynamics which created the mess in the first place. I had to recognize that I was an alcoholic in every significant relationship I’d had until I met Kate. The person who showed up in those relationships, especially to Judy and Raeone, was more focused on work, on politics, and on medicating the tensions that arose from them. Among those three, work, politics and drinking there was little inner room for solid relationships.

611333-ancient-roman-wall-with-street-nameboardJudy and I met in the midst of the rebellion of the late 60’s. We were both running from wherever we’d been, whoever we’d become and ran right into each other. Smack. The relationship with her was intense, a wedding on an ancient burial mound in Indiana, a quick honeymoon to Canada, then a move to Wisconsin, leaving behind Indiana forever. We played a lot of sheepshead in Appleton and I remember the cases of beer stacked around the house while we played. Neither one of us knew how to sustain our marriage so we split apart without divorcing, got back together briefly, bought a farm together and proceeded to wreck our life together with bickering, long absences.

Raeone came later, a work colleague with a broken heart. As with Judy, I comforted her through an illness and a breakup, fell in like, wanted someone around and asked her to marry me. Why? Don’t know. Why did she accept? Don’t know that either. Our marriage papered over a profound difference between us, Raeone the extrovert, wanting to spend lots of time with friends, me the introvert, wanting to spend my non-work time recovering from contact with people.

In the wake of both marriages I hit a wall, a hard one. Just like Jon. I made a bunch of dumb choices, quickie new relationships, for example. Fortunately, and I hope the same for Jon, eventually I found my way to Kate, a relationship marked by mutuality, intimacy, and regard for the best each of us can be.

 

 

Wherever you go, there you change.

Midsommar                                                             New (Kate’s) Moon

travelIf you’re an alcoholic like I am, you learn early in treatment that the geographical escape won’t work. Wherever you go, there you are is the saying. It’s true that the addictive part of my personality follows me from place to place as well as through time. Even so, this move to Colorado has awakened me to an unexpected benefit of leaving a place, especially ones invested with a lot of meaning.

I lived in Minnesota over 40 years, moving to New Brighton in 1971 for seminary. I also lived in Alexandria, Indiana until I was 18, so two long stays in particular places. In the instance of Alexandria, I was there for all of my childhood. In Minnesota I became an adult, a husband and father, a minister and a writer.

Here’s the benefit. (which is also a source of grief) The reinforcements for memories and their feelings, the embeddedness of social roles sustained by seeing friends and family, even enemies, the sense of a self’s continuity that accrues in a place long inhabited, all these get adumbrated. There is no longer a drive near Sargent Avenue to go play sheepshead. Raeone and I moved to Sargent shortly before we got divorced. Neither docent friends nor the Woolly Mammoths show up on my calendar anymore with rare exceptions. No route takes me past the Hazelden outpatient treatment center that changed my life so dramatically.

2011 05 09_0852While it’s true, in the wherever you go there you are sense, that these memories and social roles, the feeling of a continuous self that lived outside Nevis, in Irvine Park, worked at the God Box on Franklin Avenue remain, they are no longer a thick web in which I move and live and have my being, they no longer reinforce themselves on a daily, minute by minute basis. And so their impact fades.

On the other hand, in Colorado, there were many fewer memories and those almost all related to Jon, Jen and the grandkids. When we came here, we had never driven on Highway 285, never lived in the mountains, never attended a synagogue together. We hadn’t experienced altitude on a continuous basis, hadn’t seen the aspen go gold in the fall, had the solar snow shovel clear our driveway.

jewish-photo-calendarThis is obvious, yes, but its effect is not. This unexperienced territory leaves open the possibility of new aspects of the self emerging triggered by new relationships, new roles, new physical anchors for memories. Evergreen, for example, now plays a central part in our weekly life. We go over there for Beth Evergreen. We go there to eat. Jon and the grandkids are going there to play in the lake this morning.

Deer Creek Canyon now has a deep association with mortality for me since it was the path I drove home after my prostate cancer diagnosis. Its rocky sides taught me that my illness was a miniscule part of a mountain’s lifetime and that comforted me.

This new place, this Colorado, is a third phase home. Like Alexandria for childhood and Minnesota for adulthood, Colorado will shape the last phase of life. Already it has offered an ancient faith tradition’s insights about that journey. Already it has offered a magnificent, a beautiful setting for our final years. Already it has placed us firmly in the life of Jon, Ruth and Gabe as we’ve helped them all navigate through the wilderness of loss. These are what get reinforced for us by the drives we take, the shopping we do, the medical care we receive, the places we eat family meals. And we’re changing, as people, as we experience all these things.

Well over fifty years ago Harrison Street in Alexandria ceased to be my main street. The Madison County fair was no longer an annual event. Mom was no longer alive. Of course, those years of paper routes, classrooms, playing in the streets have shaped who I am today, but I am no longer a child just as I am longer the adult focused on family and career that I was in Minnesota.

Wherever you go, there you change.

Leaning in

Midsommar                                                                  Most Heat Moon

Strange times in the inner world of Mr. Ellis. Feeling peaceful. Leaning into life rather than pushing against it, struggling. Feels. Weird.

The move from Minnesota, which we did for love of Jon, the grandkids, adventure and the mountains has had a more drastic effect than I could have imagined. I thought the chief task here on Shadow Mountain would be becoming native to this place, instead it was becoming native to myself.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? We move, then I have prostate cancer in a place where I know almost no one, with a doctor known from one or two visits. Not the best setup for entering a new place. But I got good care, came to know Lisa much better and have prostate cancer in the rearview so far.

Sometime after that Kate read an article about a study of King David at a local synagogue, Beth Evergreen. We went on a cold winter night and had a challenge finding our way, but we got there. Bonnie, who would become a friend, led the session and we met many others that night, including Marilyn and Tara Saltzman, who would also become friends.

Kate’s long ago conversion to Judaism, when she was in her early 30’s, had been dormant for the most part though firm. Here we were in a new place and Beth Evergreen had people who seemed friendly, the synagogue greeted us warmly. Both of us. I decided to attend further events to support Kate and, besides, I’d always enjoyed my relationship with Jewish folks over the years.

Since then Kate has deepened and lived her Jewish life, taking Hebrew classes, getting to know more members of the congregation through mussar (Jewish ethics). Joan Nathan has become her culinary heroine and she’s made many recipes from King Solomon’s Table including a seven-species salad for a holiday whose name I don’t recall.

Meanwhile I’ve been taking it all in, an experience I’ve taken to calling Jewish immersion. Each faith tradition has its own culture, its own way of being for those who participate. The whole, the gestalt of this, can be seen as a language, a language unfamiliar, even foreign, to outsiders. Without intending to I’ve been learning the language.

I think about conversion, about becoming a member of the tribe in the way Kate did, but somehow it doesn’t feel right for me. I keep myself open, however, not closing either heart or mind. The study of kabbalah has cracked open a door, a door I thought I had closed, the door of a faith reaching beyond the sensible world.

We’ll see where that goes.

 

 

An Earthquake

Midsommar                                                                 Most Heat Moon

Kabbalistic_creatorKabbalah. It’s trying to pry off the empiricist covering I’ve put on my world. I say trying because I’m a skeptic at heart, a doubter, a critic, an analyst yet also, and just as deeply, a poet, a lover of myth and fantasy, a dreamer.

Last night’s conversation at Beth Evergreen was on miracles. As is my wont, I looked up miracle in the OED. The first definition, considered most important and most normative,  says a miracle is an event that defies nature and is therefore the act of God or another supernatural being. Its root though is the Latin miraculum which simply defines miracle as something amazing, wondrous. The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, means banner, flag, trial, test, as well as miracle.

Rabbi Jamie, and kabbalah, pushes us to broaden our definition of miracle, or perhaps, deepen it. What is a miracle? Several budding kabbalists offered answers. The human body, animal bodies. Anshel, who has an identical twin, says their relationship is a miracle, “I can feel her pain. And she lives in Florida. We pick out identical birthday cards.” I said life, the ineffable animation of the inanimate.

plate_tectonicsRabbi Akiva says that nothing in nature is less miraculous than the rarest exception. This means, for example, that the water in the Red Sea (or, Reed Sea) is as miraculous as its parting. Or, for that matter, the Hebrew slaves pouring across it are, too.

It’s hard for me to articulate how this changes me. There’s a stubborn I will not be moved part of my psyche (I know. You know this already.) that keeps me from changing my perspective without a lot of thought. Good and bad. Makes me resolute in the face of adversity, but also mulish in terms of new ways of thinking. Reason can take me up to the wall, but will not push me past it. So I entertain a lot of new ideas happily, but absorb few of them There has to be an emotional component, a combination of reason and feeling.

The emotional/psychological element involved here is big.  And, it’s not only about an attitude toward miracles, nor even toward kabbalah itself, but about an inner tectonic plate, one that needs subducting but that I have not been able to move for decades. This core substrata of my Self supports a continent and that continent is my productivity, purposefulness, agency. Messing around with it scares me.

caveIt is anxiety. I believe it infested my life in two early stages. The first was polio, a young boy’s physical experience of our human finitude. It happened once; it could happen again. The second was the death of my mother when I was 17. It happened once, to Mom. It will happen to me and could happen quickly.

Now, I believe anxiety has its purpose. It makes us attend to matters that might harm us in some way and it encourages us to resolve them by poking us psychically until we do. A good thing, in my opinion. Yet, when everything or many things seem harmful-like life itself-then anxiety becomes crippling, closing down joy, play, eagerness, and yes, the miraculous, too.

I can feel that plate beginning to grind its way under more positive parts of my inner world, kabbalah is one of the forces impelling it. So is, oddly, Kate’s health issues and my own, coupled with increasing age.

Seems contradictory, right, at least these last two? Yes, but here’s how that works. Both polio and my mother’s death have left me with a sense of impending catastrophe, not immediate, not right now, but…soon. And, of course, that’s both wrong and right. The sense of finitude that both put into bold face type on my inner sign board is real. I will die, there will be some final illness even more destructive to me than polio. That’s the right part.

timeThe wrong part is that it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to worry about it, fear it, be anxious about it. It is. Or, rather, will be. Maybe in the next ten minutes, maybe in the next ten years, maybe longer. I know this by reason, have known it for a long, long time, but I have not been able to displace the irrational fear in spite of that knowledge. That’s why I say reason can take me up to the wall, but not past it.

The shuddering that’s affecting my innerworld, a sort of psychic earthquake, is accepting the finitude, leaning into mortality, even embracing it. The wall that keeps this from happening is built of tangled vines. Will I work? Will I care about my projects? Will I just relax, sink into the hammock and never roll out of it? Cutting a gate through this wall to whatever lies on the other side feels like indulging myself, separating myself from the motivator/motivation that keeps me moving forward. That’s the resistance that anxiety has constructed in my soul.

the-secret-garden-kewYet, increasingly I find myself wanting a way through this. I can sense, and here kabbalah is playing a critical alchemical role, a different world, a better world now hidden from me. I can peek through the vines at times, can see the secret garden beyond. It’s this wall that holds up the substrata, keeps it from being ground other parts of my Self. This wall has its roots sunk deep into this tectonic plate, is a barrier to its movement. But I can feel the vines withering, their complicity in the substrata’s effect on my psyche weakening.

What lies on the other side? I really don’t know. That’s sort of the point, but it feels like a healthier, happier place. Perhaps soon I’ll find out.

 

 

Sluuump

Midsommar                                                                Most Heat Moon

slumpBack to exercising yesterday. Yeah! Still a bit foggy in the am and my energy level remains subdued. Might be a summer slump occasioned by the heat or I might need a vacation. It’s been a stressful time period since December 1st, when I had the total knee replacement. That in itself was plenty but Jon’s divorce and Kate’s health tripled down on our resilience. It’s pretty good, I think, but the challenges this last few months were severe.

The summer slump notion may explain it all. As with Sundays, I have a conditioned response to the summer. It’s a time for relaxing, for kicking back with a good book or going on a road trip. Oddly, I no longer believe this, preferring the fall for travel and I read all year round, but my body and my mind carry this memory, ingrained by years of education where the main business went on from September to May. A learned part of me wants to slow down, smell the pines and the fresh running streams, but the rest, the conscious and choiceful part, wants to continue working, getting things done. The frisson between these two states is contradictory, conflictual.

Today is a Sunday and a summer Sunday at that so my strong inclination is to watch sports, go to a movie, read the Sunday paper. Which is funny since I don’t watch sports and rarely make it to a movie. I don’t even read the Sunday paper in the thorough way I used to. Yet at 70 the past remains, lodged in subtle cues which call up attitudes shaped by the culture, by happenstance, really. I’m not a slave to them, hardly, but their pull, their unconscious rightness does affect me.

Today, this summer Sunday day, Kate and I will have a business meeting and attend a birthday party, a 70th birthday party, for Marilyn Saltzman, a friend from Beth Evergreen.

I’ve got that I have to rethink, repurpose my time and energy feeling. It usually comes over me when things get muddy. Sometime in the next few days I’m going to seriously rearrange my week, reassert priorities I’ve chosen like Reimagining, kabbalah, getting some projects done around the house. But I’ll be thinking of myself as lying in a hammock, sipping mint tea and reading Faulkner.

Continuation

Beltane                                                                               Moon of the Summer Solstice

20170601_183426On Thursday night Jon and I drove into Stapleton. Ruth’s 5th grade class had presentations and exhibitions for class projects, then there was the oddly named “continuation” ceremony in which each 5th grader got a diploma. This was their last event at Schweigert elementary because next year each of them will be in middle school.

Ruth’s outfit and her posture speak for her in this fuzzy cell phone photo. Other girls had on white dresses with fancy shoes; but, not our Ruth, a girl in the fifth grade with fashion sensibilities I didn’t develop until college. She was one of two girls dressed down for the occasion. The other one had on t-shirt that said, “I like to fart at night.” The rest were in some version of fancy.

These occasions are fraught for Jon, and I suspect for Jen too. The hostility, shame, guilt and resulting tension from the marriage has not yet dissipated, but events important to the kids naturally bring them in proximity to each other. The day after this time at Schweigert Jen went to the police complaining about harassment from Jon, trying to trigger a violation of the restraining order. I don’t know why she did it, but I imagine inner turmoil from Ruth’s event contributed to the timing.

20170601_174005Ruth is a gifted student, a rebel and a usually sweet kid. She has a depressive side which can make her angry, sulky. She also resists, stubbornly, talking about her feelings, refusing to open up to counselors in the aftermath of the divorce. Her 5th grade teacher referred to her as a “little spitfire” whom she would remember forever. That’s Ruth in a phrase.

Being a grandparent of troubled kids, both Ruth and Gabe, is difficult. We can see what’s happening, have an idea about what would be helpful, but possess little true leverage, especially in these months so soon after the final orders for the divorce. What we can do is show up, love them, and offer, with some delicacy, our ideas.

I ache for Ruth, seeing all the potential, all the possibility in her, yet watching her forced to deal with emotional currents far too complex for her current level of emotional maturity. She does have her own reading chair in the loft and she sometimes retreats here with her kindle.

 

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