We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

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.

 

Less Angry

Midsommar                                                                 Kate’s Moon

johari windowOn the last night of kabbalah a classmate, Cece, chose for her presentation an exercise involving the Johari window. She had this model (illustration) with blank quadrants for each of us. We filled in 3-6 adjectives in the hidden self quadrant, then passed the paper to our left and others added adjectives in the open self quadrant.

It’s a powerful exercise when done in a safe setting. It was powerful here even though many of us had only the other 5 nights of our kabbalah class as baselines for our observations. The information other people give us about ourselves is key to life in groups, but most of the time the feedback involves glances, body language, or indirect observations. Getting direct information about how others see us can increase intimacy and trust. Not to mention that it’s just interesting.

PEACE DYERToo long introduction to the point. One of the others in the group wrote on my sheet, less angry. There were four people in the class who know me from the mussar class on Thursday afternoon and probably remember my agitation after the 2016 election. I was not and am not a happy U.S. citizen, but something has changed for me. I’m not sure what changed, but I am less angry, though I hadn’t realized it.

I did surprise myself a couple of weekends ago when we were in Glenwood Springs with Lonnie and Stefan. Over lunch they both expressed understandable and referented anger at Trump, at the decline of civility, at the danger facing our democracy. “He meets the definition of a fascist.” Stefan said.

“An election can fix most of what’s being done in Washington right now,” I replied. Stefan had quoted an Italian friend from Florence who said, “We had ours (Berlusconi) and know you have yours.” I agreed with that, going on, “Yes, the nativist and alt-right type movements are strong on the continent, but France just turned them back. And, Hillary won the popular vote here.”

peace“Well, what does that mean?” Lonnie asked, “The system elected Trump.” “The electoral college, yes.” I said, “But more people, some 3 million more, rejected him. He does not have a mandate.”

I think the gridlock and deadlock in D.C. right now reflects that rejection. We are a divided people, yes, but we’ve been divided before. We’re still the strongest economy in the world though by some measures China is catching up. Point is, I was voicing a don’t panic, don’t despair attitude toward our current political mess. I agree with the analysis that Trump is a disaster for our country. There’s no question that he and the Republicans are trying to take us to places as a people that are despicable and mean. True that.

But my anger at all of this has been tempered over the last couple of months. I’m just not as reactive. And I like feeling this way. My analysis has not changed, at least not much. I still view both parties as agents of a rapacious capitalism that creates false gods, false gods on whose altars their worshippers would sacrifice the very lives of our citizens. Just look at the idea of “reforming” Obamacare by gutting Medicaid.  With Medicaid expenditures out of the way, their plan goes, draconian tax cuts for the wealthy won’t break the Federal budget. Evil.

soul-mate-heartI still believe that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. But for me, how to be part of the solution has changed, I think. Long, long ago I realized that my anger toward my father, whether justified or not, was hurting only me. Not him. I set it aside. Somehow the same realization occurred to me about politics and only recently. So, I set that anger aside, too.

Now the question for me is how to be part of the solution. I’ve always had a straight line approach to radical politics. Join up with others, focus on an issue at the root of a social ill and work until something good happens. It’s a strategy that has worked for me over and over since the mid-1960’s. I’m moving in a different direction now.

beautifulThis is in part a third phase change. The angry young radical has aged. I can see the finish line from here and want to make the time before my death as fruitful, loving and creative as I can. Anger interferes. I want to write, to spend time with Kate and Jon and Ruth and Gabe and Joe and Seoah, with friends at Beth Evergreen, friends from Minnesota, Mark and Mary. I want to study Latin, kabbalah, China, art. I want to hike in the mountains, travel this state, see the solar eclipse. Obsessing over the insults to our body politic just doesn’t seem useful to me right now.

spiritual-enlightenment-spiritualityLiving well is a political statement I need to make. Politics, in other words, though crucial to our common life, is not the only component of a life well lived and should not be allowed to interfere with the very goal of politics itself: a decent life for all. In my case I’ve often allowed that interference and right now I’m saying enough. The priority for me, now, is this smaller life, the domestic and semi-public life of family and learning and creativity. Feels calmer, more livable, more age appropriate.

 

A Clashing of Deep Thoughts and Spiritual Longings

Beltane                                                                          Rushing Waters Moon

(found this draft and just published it. It’s from a month or so ago.)

Irv Saltzman invited us to a performance by his singing group, the Renaissance Singers. It was held in a wooden Episcopal Church, St. Laurence’s, which is near our home. Directed by a Chinese national, Hannah Woo, who is finishing her Ph.D. in musicology, they were 8, four men and four women. As a group, they matched each other well. April, a soprano, had a lovely clear voice and a large range. Irv, formerly a tenor, has now transitioned into a bass/baritone role. Their performance was wonderful. At a meal afterwards we discovered April is our neighbor.

Renaissance choral music and instrumental renaissance music has always captivated me. It’s easy to see courtiers in colorful costumes listening to this music in a palace, brown robed and cowled monks hearing it in a morning prayer service, or small groups performing at home for their own amusement. It’s also the music most often heard at Renaissance festivals. Sorta makes sense, eh?

The sanctuary had a vaulted ceiling with exposed beams and two large, clear windows that looked out to the east, toward Shadow, Evergreen and Bear mountains. It rained while we were there and the mountains were in mist, the windows covered with raindrops slowly moving from top to bottom. There were individual chairs, padded with kneelers, arranged in a three sided configuration, making the sanctuary a sort of thrust proscenium stage, an ideal arrangement for a small group of singers.

A church artist had painted the stations of the cross and they were around the sanctuary, set off by bent sheet metal frames. A copper baptistry, large, sat over a cinerarium where the congregation deposits cremation remains and memorializes the dead with small plaques.

Between the two windows hung a large crucifix, a cross made of bare, light wood and a bronze Jesus hung by two nails. I had an odd sensation while listening to this music I’ve often heard in monastic settings on retreat, being carried back into the spiritual space of an ascetic Christianity that often comforted me. This time though I came into the space as a peri-Jew, identifying more with Marilyn and Irv and Kate, with the still new to me spiritual space of Beth Evergreen, than the theological world represented by this spare, but beautiful sanctuary.

The crucifix stimulated the strongest, strangest and most unexpected feeling. I saw, instead of the Jesus of Christianity, a hung Jew, a member of the tribe. More than that, I felt the vast apparatus and historical punch created by his followers, followers of  a man who shared much of the new faith world in which I now find myself. It was an odd feeling, as if this whole religion was an offshoot, a historical by-blow that somehow got way out of hand.

These feelings signaled to me how far I’d moved into the cultural world of reconstructionist Judaism. I see now with eyes and a heart shaped by the Torah and mussar and interaction with a rabbi and the congregants of Beth Evergreen.

This was an afternoon filled with the metaphysical whiplash I’ve experienced often over the last year, a clashing of deep thought currents, spiritual longings. This process is a challenge to my more recent flat-earth humanism, a pagan faith grounded not in the next world, but in this one. Literally grounded.

What’s pushing me now is not a desire to change religious traditions, but to again look toward the unseen, the powerful forces just outside of the electromagnetic spectrum and incorporate them again into my ancientrail of faith. This makes me feel odd, as if I’m abandoning convictions hard won, but I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on. There is now an opening to press further into my paganism, to probe further into the mystery of life, of our place in the unfoldingness of the universe, to feel and know what lies beyond reason and the senses.

 

 

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.

 

 

A Birthday Party

Midsommar                                                                Most Heat Moon

Yesterday was hot. Hit 91 I think and the heat lasted through the night. At Marilyn’s birthday party we spoke with her son, Kevin. Kevin lives in Las Vegas and said, “105 is a relief. People say it’s over a hundred degrees, doesn’t matter. No. When it’s 117, that’s worse. 105 is better. 90 is really good.” Well, if he says so. Not a subtlety I want to become accustomed to.

The party was at the home of two of Marilyn’s friends, Jan and Claude. Their home, like the Bernstein’s, is up a long private road, but unlike the Bernsteins, their house sits near the end of a wide valley situated between two shorter mountains. The valley itself is open at the east, looking toward North Turkey Creek road and well beyond that, to Denver. In the distance were mountains, the furthest still carrying some snow, the closer ones, mountains that enclose Evergreen, green with their lodgepole pine contrasted against buff colored rock.

The sun in the mountains is brutal. There is less atmosphere to block out the UV rays and it was a clear, blue morning. Forgot my hat so this bald head needed shade. Jan and Claude’s house has a huge wrap around deck and yesterday it had maybe 20 folding tables setup end to end, the sort used in churches and synagogues across America, with paper tablecloths and silverware wrapped in cloth napkins. A small tent welcomed guests in the driveway with mimosas and orange juice. Nametags, too.

Marilyn turns 70 on July 12th. She and Irv have lived in Conifer for 45 years, all that time in the same house up King’s Valley road. Over that time she and Irv have made a large mass of friends, many of whom testified to the many mitzvahs she’s done over the years. Marilyn is energetic, “This year I’m doing a 7 mile hike each weekend just to show myself I still can.” She chairs the Adult Education Committee at Beth Evergreen and has done so for many years.

Many of the folks at the party were from Beth Evergreen, but there were also many who used to work with Marilyn in the Jeffco School District where she was the public relations director. One, Jennifer, was with Marilyn in that office at the time of the Columbine shootings. Marilyn handled public relations for the school district during and after the shooting. Columbine still has a big footprint on the Colorado psyche, the nation’s, too.

 

 

Simcha

Midsommar                                                                     Most Heat Moon

mazeltov3_0Danced the hora last night, mixing up my feet as I normally do while dancing, but enjoying myself anyway. Joy, it turns out, is a character trait in mussar. “It’s a mitzvah to be happy.” Rabbi Nachman. Judaism constantly challenges my Midwestern protestant ethos, not primarily intellectually, but emotionally. Last night was a good example.

I’d spent the day feeling punk, stomach a bit upset, tired, exercise was hard. Told Kate, “I feel like I can’t my motor started.” Didn’t really want to go to this once a month mussar havurah (fellowship), but I’d decided to make gazpacho for the meal and had finished it. So I went, pretty sure I’d feel better if I did. Which, if you think about it, is an interesting sign.

When we got to Beth Evergreen, it was a small group, seven. Becky was new and Lila, a friendly pug/boxer mix, Rabbi Jamie’s dog, strained at a yellow leash tied to a picnic table on the patio. Tara, the cantor/director of education, Rabbi Jamie, Judy, the social action chair, Mitch, a long haired man in his early 50s, Kate and me made up the rest.

20170531_161806We ate our meal together outside, all at one picnic table. Tara’s Hebrew school students had decorated it and it was colorful underneath our paper plates and plastic bowls. The evening was a perfect combination of cool warmth and low humidity. The grandmother ponderosa stood tall, lightning scarred against the blue black sky. Bergen mountain had already obscured the sun which still lit up the clouds from its hiding place.

While I ate my own soup, not feeling hungry since my dis-ease earlier, Rabbi Jamie got us started on the evening’s conversation, suggesting we focus on hope and joy in the present.

“When I read that tonight was about joy, I first thought about dogs. How unrestrained they are and how in the moment with their feelings.” Lila, I said, had greeted me fondly, showering me with kisses, a stranger. I like that about dogs.

100008 28 10_late summer 2010_0180We all laughed when Rabbi Jamie asked if I hoped (another middot, character trait, clustered with joy) to be able to greet strangers the same way. “Well, not by kissing them on the lips or licking them.” I was thinking, but yes, I hope I can add that level of uncalculated joy to my meetings with others.

Becky said she had problems with hope, naming the carelessness of humans and the destructive presence we are on the earth. “I think about how we might destroy ourselves, but after some time, the planet will be fine. That makes me feel better, oddly,” she said. Rabbi Jamie mentioned then something I’ve heard him voice before, a Talmudic argument over whether it would have been better if humans had not been created. Yes, the rabbis decided, it would have been better. But, since we are here, what will we do?

Judaism has that sort of no nonsense approach to heavy existential issues. Yes, we’ll die. So the question is, how will you live; not the understandable response, OMG, I’m gonna die!

In the remaining discussion it became clear to me that Judaism has joy at its core, an embrace of life even in the midst of struggles and despair, an embrace of life in community, with known others. Joy, one quote offered for the evening suggested, comes from deep connection.

Calvin

Calvin

This is so qualitatively different from Presbyterianism. When Rabbi Jamie led us in song, then got us up to dance, I tried to imagine the same thing happening during a Presbytery meeting. Nope. Wouldn’t happen. It’s a cultural difference of substantial proportion.

I want to like this, I may even need to like it, but it’s hard. Being hesitant, reserved, especially physically, came with my Midwest protestant raising, reinforced by my Germanic father and the often dysfunctional nature of my mother’s extended family.

Still don’t want to be a Jew, but these challenges, to experience deep joy and hope rooted in community, are good for me. Necessary, even. When we came home through the darkening June night, driving up Black Mountain Drive, I no longer felt dis-eased. An odd sense of hopefulness had crept in. Maybe a bit of joy.

 

Meals

Spring                                                                          Passover Moon

Last night Kate and I went over to Marilyn and Irv Saltzman’s home, also in Conifer, but up King’s Valley Road out toward Bailey off 285. We had African themed food cooked by Marilyn, who went to Africa last year, and desserts made by Irv. The food was good and the conversation even better. Two of Marilyn and Irv’s friends also came over. We talked traveling, politics, Judaism and Christianity, those topics so often literally off the table at dinner gatherings.

It was great to have a night out with adult conversation. Though. Going to bed at 8 pm, my practice now since the knee surgery last December 1st, means staying out until 8:30, as we did, makes the next day difficult. I’m deciding I need a rest day after “late” nights like this one.

View of Denver from Mt. Vernon Country Club

View of Denver from Mt. Vernon Country Club

Probably will tomorrow night, too, since we have the Beth Evergreen community seder at Mt. Vernon Country Club over near Lookout Mountain. Passover is the defining holiday for Jews as Easter is for Christians. Both emphasize overcoming. And, due to the Christian formula for determining Easter’s date*, both come in roughly the same time period. Easter Sunday this year, for example, is the 16th of April.

  • In 325CE the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox.(*) From that point forward, the Easter date depended on the ecclesiastical approximation of March 21 for the vernal equinox.  Easter is delayed by 1 week if the full moon is on Sunday, which decreases the chances of it falling on the same day as the Jewish Passover.

The snow from last week is nearly all melted. The wildfire risk is moderate now, rather than high or extremely high as it was not so long ago.

Kate’s been to the cardiologist this morning for an echo cardiogram. Don’t expect any big news from it.

Art by Odegard. Finally hung.

Spring                                                                          Passover Moon

20170329_162936

Journeys

Imbolc                                                                           Anniversary Moon

20170310_174900The full anniversary moon lit up our way home from Bistro Colorado. It was the 27th time we’ve celebrated our wedding day and it was peaceful, funny, thoughtful. With flowers and chocolate.

I’ve been moving and reorganizing stuff in my loft. A favorite activity. This time though I can see the end. After Jon installed the walnut shelving, it was possible to replace and rearrange stuff I’d had lying around on the floor. Now that’s done and the art cart has been cleared. That means I can put the bankers boxes on it and sort through the files in them, putting them in translucent plastic file bins. Part of my idea with them is to have my files easily accessible and readable. The other is to unify the look of the file holders.

On Thursday I stayed after mussar to attend the adult education meeting at Beth Evergreen. After the meeting both Tara Saltzman, director of life-long learning, and Marilyn Saltzman (not related as far as I know), chair of the committee, made it clear that I was part of the Beth Evergreen community. Just how I can’t quite articulate, but it was an immediate, warm feeling of acceptance. And I felt very good about it. Another mile marker on the ancientrail of becoming Coloradan, of supporting Kate in her journey further into Judaism and of my own spiritual journey.

 

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