We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.


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.

Shifts and Changes

Spring                                                                      New (Passover) Moon

2010 01 19_3454Writing can lay bare something hidden, perhaps something that needed excavation or something attached to a thread, even a flimsy thread, by which it can be pulled from the inner world. Things get lost in there, pushed behind stacks of unused memories or stored with a faulty label. Sometimes ideas once full and vibrant get partially severed from their context, crucial links of thought go missing and the idea fades away.

“I’ve continued to write and study, my primary passions.” March 21, 2017 This sentence is an example, a recent example. It stares back at me, rather baldly. Oh. Well, that’s right, isn’t it?

I love to read, follow an idea through its growth and changes, learn about something in depth, wonder about it, tease out of it new implications or old truths.

I love to write. I don’t know why. Might be an inheritance from my newspaperman father. Might just be long established habit. Whatever the reason writing is my painting, my sculpture, my photography. I have to do it to feel whole.

2010 01 19_3455Which, speaking of ideas, then links to the idea of the third phase. That quote comes from recent thoughts on the third phase. A primary wondering for me, I think for all third phasers, is this: what am I about in this last phase of my life?

The Trump catastrophe, a miserable wound of our country’s own making, pulled on the 60’s radical thread always near the surface for me. I’ve been trying to put that mask back on, to become the political activist I once was. I felt obligated. You know, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

But it hasn’t been happening. I just haven’t connected with other activists. I haven’t been doing much more than writing about it. (a clue here, by the way) Grousing and complaining, yes, sure. But not acting.

Writing and study. Third phase. Beth Evergreen. With Kate I’ve found a community that cherishes study, scholarship, a community that finds writing an understandable vocation. Right now I’m thinking, wondering. Should I lean into my primary passions? Stay with them. Dig deeper. That feels right.

Here’s a confession, too. I’ve never liked politics. The person I become, the masks I put on then, feel far away from my core Self. Why then have I spent so much of my life in one political arena after another?

611333-ancient-roman-wall-with-street-nameboardPart duty. For whatever reason I came out of Alexandria with fully formed political ideas about justice, equality, fairness. They were strong, rooted in the powerful union movement among my friend’s parents who worked for General Motors, reinforced by the liberal politics of my Roosevelt Democrat parents and then pushed toward action in the turmoil of the 60’s.

Part ego. It feels good to lead, to have people hang on my ideas, to see change occur when something I’ve helped shape makes things happen. But this is part of what feels far away from my core, introverted Self. That ego drive also presses forward an angry, demanding, often insensitive persona. A persona I dislike.

Part religious conviction. The almost random way in which I ended up in seminary, then the ministry came from following political conviction away from graduate academics and toward an institution willing to pay me to organize, to act politically. There was a merger of political passion and the prophetic line of a certain strain of liberal Christianity, even radical Christianity.

No conclusions here. Not yet. Just more of the shifts and changes, movements in my soul. Something will come out of all this. Not sure what. Not right now.



Delights and Horrors

Spring                                                                  Anniversary Moon

rumiThe third phase, that phase after the career and nuclear family focused portion of our life has come to an end or is winding down, has its own delights and horrors. Auto-didacts, those with pleasurable, but challenging hobbies, those with adequate funds, those with a close network of friends and family have a good chance of enjoying the third phase more than any other part of their life. It’s a time when the pressures of achievement and child-rearing recede. They may not disappear, but their initially critical significance shifts to the margins.

This leaves the possibility of centering on who you truly are, expressing the soul/Self, the unique you created when sperm hit egg all those years ago. A rich time, filled with creativity and exploration, can be the result. It certainly has been that way for Kate and me. We’ve traveled, gotten closer to our kids and grandkids, gardened, raised dogs, moved to the mountains. She’s quilted, sewn, cooked and finally taken up the spiritual journey she started so long ago with her conversion to Judaism. I’ve continued to write and study, my primary passions. We’ve both nourished friendships from our Minnesota life and begun to develop friendships here in Jefferson County, Colorado.

It is also in the third phase, however, when the body begins to signal its eventual end. Even if there are no presenting issues of the moment, the third phase, by its very definition occurs as our age passes into the mid-60’s and beyond. The implications of this becomes clear when we make the calculation about doubling our life span so far. At 50 it’s just possible to conceive 100; but at 60, 120 is a stretch. At 70 the notion of reaching 140 is ridiculous.

will-testament_audible-wisdom-org_CCWith prostate cancer two years ago and a total knee replacement last year my body has given notice that its sell-by date is approaching. Yes, both of those have resolved well, at least so far, but they are concrete proof that I will not live forever. Something, sometime. Now it seems to be Kate’s turn to face her mortality. She has a cluster of medical issues that are challenging, making her low energy and too thin.

The horrors I mentioned above are not these, these are normal, though disconcerting. We age. Our bodies break down, then stop. Hundreds of thousands of years worth of hominid deaths makes this all too common.

20170310_174900The horrors are the loss of the one you love, the person whose life has become so entwined with your own, not enmeshed, I don’t mean here a situation where life going on without the other is inconceivable, but the loss of a person whose life has been a comfortable and comforting fit with your own, a bond of mutual affection. Imagining life without Kate leaves me with a hollow feeling.

This loss, too, is common. Just read the obituaries and see the list of “survived by.” It is different from your own death because your life goes on with a big hole. I know this feeling too well. My mother died when I was 17. This is horror. Is it survivable? Of course. But life after the death of a spouse is a change none of us who are happily married seek. Yet, it seeks us. It is the nature of two finite creatures bonded through love. One leaves first.

These matters are on my mind today as we try to hunt down and fix what’s ailing Kate. I’m not ready, will never be ready, for life without her. May it be far in the future if it happens for me at all.


Knee, Birthday, 60s, Cold

Samain                                                                       Thanksgiving Moon

A diverse day, yesterday. Down to Orthocolorado for a “class” about my knee surgery. Not bad, not great.

20161103_130418At 12:30 we drove over to Evergreen for mussar at Beth Evergreen. It was Rabbi Jamie’s birthday and each woman brought a cooked or purchased offering of some kind. We had cranberry juice with tea and mint, apple juice, brie and a wonderful soft cheese, warm carrots, pistachios, cashews, strawberries, grapes, melon, crackers, chips, guacamole, a birthday cake, sea-salt caramel and chocolate brownies (Kate, see pic), with Halloween plates and napkins.

Later in the afternoon, around 5, we went down Shadow Mountain and spent an hour or so at Grow Your Own. This is a hydroponics shop, a head shop, a wine shop and a place to hear local musicians. Last night there was a former member of Steppenwolf playing guitar, a singer from a group called the Bucktones and a guy named Stan, who looked like the aging owner of a hardware store, playing bass. Time erodes the vocal chords so the singing was spirited and practiced, but range and timber suffered. Guitar chops however seemed undiminished.

The crowd was Kate and me like, gray hair, wrinkles. That question that comes to me often these days was germane: what did you do in the sixties? I don’t ask, at least not yet, but I do wonder what long-haired, dope-smoking, radical politics lie beneath the walkers and penchant for the music of yester year.

Then home to a boiler that’s out. After just having been serviced. The perfect end to an interesting day.

Wedding, Bodies, Weather, Money

Spring                                                                                Maiden Moon

Seoah sent me the wedding invitation or announcement last night. The only part of it I understood was: joseph s buckman-ellis. I’ll see if I can get it off Kakao (message/phone app) and reproduce it here.

So. The physical is over for another year. So far no diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease, so much better than last year already. Labs not in yet. Kate and I celebrated completion of this annual task-Dr. Lisa Gidday is our mutual physician-with lunch at Nono’s, the New Orlean’s style restaurant. Kate had crabmeat au gratin and chicken gumbo. I had a catfish po-bo and finished off with beignets.

And, last night, we got yet more snow. I don’t know how much, but enough to make clearing the deck twice necessary. Maybe 4-5 inches? The snowpack is back up to decent levels.


Don’t believe I mentioned a bit of good luck. The clergy housing allowance, which I had to eschew once I left the Presbytery 25 years ago, kicks back in at retirement. My entire pension check can be excluded from our taxable income as a result. Not only does that make our tax situation more favorable going forward, it also means that we can file amended returns back to 2012. Not huge amounts of money, but enough to make the budget easier. Nice.

Obviously I had been unaware of this until now. We learned about it when our accountant asked if my pension was all taxable. I thought, yes. But. Better check. So, I did. OMG. As they say.


Imbolc                                                                          Valentine Moon

Sunday’s occupy a different reality. Time slows down. Ambition flees. A good thing. In spite of my now long absence from the Christian faith the notion of a Sabbath, lifted from Judaism, has always appealed to me.  A seventh day when God rests. And us, too.

The notion of a divine creator soothing the chaos before speaking the world into being has faded from my belief system. The idea, however, of a time for setting aside work, domestic and otherwise for a reflective day every week still makes sense to me.

The sabbath can be seen as a form of radical hospitality for the self, a day when shaping our lives to the demands of others gives way. On a sabbath we could read, view art, listen to music, cook, play games, visit family.  The third phase of life, after we have set aside work and at home parenting, can be a sabbath phase, much like the last of the four Hindu life stages.

Something to consider.



On Dying Luminously

Mabon                                                                              New Moon of the First Snow

Friend Tom Crane wrote this morning:  “Third phase (or whatever the hell it is we are in) is stereotyped as winding down, dealing with fewer issues (because they have all been dealt with already) and generally a slowing down.  Now that we are all really fully into whatever this is it seems to me there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy.  We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital.  There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations.  And yet it is curious that we seem to be demonstrating greater capability than ever before as we navigate all this with the experience and wisdom(?) gained through decades of experimentation with who we are.”

The third phase notion is my attempt to decouple this period of life from the concept of retirement, an idea that this period of life defines itself as not-doing something. Winding down, dealing with fewer issues, slowing down featured prominently in the finish line model of retirement. We were done with the workaday world, no more 9-5. No longer the buzzing, blooming world of business with its implacable demands. Now we could kick back, put our feet up, pop a PBR and watch football without guilt. Or go fishing. Or golfing. Or quilt. Or spend more time with the grandkids.

And, when work finished up followed by four or five years of leisure, then disability or death, that model, retirement, the time of not-working, probably made sense. That is, it described life post-work for the bulk of retirees.

Lengthening lifespans have caused not-working to become inadequate for understanding life after the second phase of family building and career. In fact for some who enter the third phase they may not have given up their career, though family building is likely behind them. Still, even those still active in work often now see work as much less central, much less definitive for their identity.

If you agree to any degree with this: “I believe that the true norm of the third phase is to wander, to become like a planet to your Self, pulled by the gravitational attractions of its values and its directions. Now is the time, if you have not availed yourself of it earlier, to listen to the voices of your own heart, your own dreams, your own ancientrail.”, then, this time, call it the third phase or aging (though I’ve always found this an odd term since by definition we begin aging at birth) or old age, is qualitatively different from what has gone before.

It no longer focuses on getting somewhere, accomplishing something (though we may get somewhere and things may well be accomplished), but on the journey of your uniqueness. In this way we can arrive at the paradox, the apparent contradiction that Tom identifies: “…there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy.  We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital…There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations.”

Once we have made or not made our family, stumbled on or victoriously walked the path of work/career, then the shift can be made to a time of self-understanding, self-expression. Perhaps the second phase could be characterized as a “we” phase and the third the “I” phase, in this sense the third phase and the first have much in common. In none of the phases do we exist solely in a we mode or solely in an I mode. I refer to a matter of emphasis, one dictated not so much by personal desire or even cultural norms, but by matters of biology.

How so? In the first phase we are young, inexperienced, naive to the world. As we grow and our bodies change, the emphasis is necessarily on personal learning: socialization, athleticism, school curriculum or skill set development. At some point in our twenties, early or late depending on the amount of schooling undertaken, the idea of family begins to take hold for most of us. This reflects a maturation of the body and an acquiescence to the species imperative for propagation. Work and/or career follows from the learning of the first phase and becomes, again for most of us, intricately entwined with family.

We are not eternal though. The body begins a decline, at first gradual, then more pronounced. At some point the children are launched, either into the workforce or into higher education then the workforce, and our own work/career reaches a peak. Sometime after we begin to contemplate a time when neither work nor family building will be central to our lives. Yes, family will still be important, probably, and even work might continue in some fashion, but neither will be at the center of our lives anymore.

What will be at the center? Individuation. The final process of personal development. Does this mean a collapse of the we and an ascendance of the I? Not at all. Your individuation may well carry you more deeply into the world. Or, it may not. It may carry you into the study, the sewing room, the world of rocks and minerals, even the development of a brand new way of human interaction. Wherever it carries you, if you are true to the defining character of the third phase, that it ends in death, you will become more of who you really are. Because, you see, it is, finally, only you that dies.

So, then, the paradox. When we are at our most authentic, are most keen to explore and liberate our gifts, the body is well into its senescence. So, the signals of mortality come fast and often: cancer, arthritis, glaucoma, weakening, imbalance at the same time the Self, the integration of body/mind, is at its most flourishing.

Though it doesn’t have to make sense, since this is a biological process and has its own timing, it does make sense to me that our most fully evolved person can be the one who faces the physical challenges of aging. By now, hopefully, we have learned of our finitude and understand biological deterioration. What a gift it is to see our frailties for what they are, accidents of our biology, and not determinative of our Self, its worth. In this way our best Self confronts the dangers and agonies that would have terrified, perhaps frozen, our younger Selves, and sees in them not the hand of a cruel fate, but the working out of a truth known since birth. We are mortal.

But, we can die as the flaming aspen does, a brilliant luminosity apparent just before the winter sets in.

Third Phase Summary

Summer                                                            Recovery Moon

The third phase. First phase: childhood/education through at least high school, maybe undergraduate college. Second Phase: career/family formation. Third phase: Post career with adult children. This last phase has become an extended and to some extent new part of normal life. In the recent past the third phase was often short, interrupted by illness and often marred by poverty and ended not long after it began, especially for men.

Advances in medical science, improved social security and medicare and the maturation of the baby boom generation have combined to push the third phase into greater and greater prominence. We live longer, with better health and improved economic conditions. Too, the large population bulge of the baby boom is forcing society to see the third phase. In the past it may have been possible to consign the aging third phaser to the margins of society, but with the huge numbers of those born between 1946 and 1964 third phase citizens will be a larger and larger percentage of the population.

This is exciting. It allows our culture as a whole to reconsider the third phase and its implications for both individuals and society. Since the third phase is post career/work and usually represented by a couple with no children at home, it places an inflection point on the question of individual worth. The normal external markers affecting self-worth are employment and children. Both of these are in the past for most third phasers. Or, at least the time when they dominated an individual’s life is in the past.

Though it may be frightening to some this means that we each get the opportunity to reshape our lives, often around activities more closely aligned to our own interests. Kate, for example, always a hand-worker and seamstress, now focuses on quilting. I was able, earlier than most third-phasers, to focus on writing, political work and the arts, interests which sustain me now in my late 60’s. Family is still important, of course, with grand children and the lives of adult children, but those interactions happen occasionally rather than daily. This allows a pleasant mix of intimate, family contact while ensuring enough time for independent activities.

The third phase continues to fascinate me as I see friends headed into it and experience it myself with Kate. Friendships matter even more, with the hard work of friendship done while family and career dominated, and become increasingly precious as those factors reduce in importance. In my case the Woolly Mammoths and the docent corps continue to enrich the third phase.




the u-shaped graph

Samain                                                                                Moving Moon

Been thinking about the U shaped graph I’ve seen in recent articles about happiness. The graph follows feelings of happiness over a lifetime. During early childhood happiness is high according to the graph. Then somewhere around adolescence and continuing through  an individual’s working life happiness declines reaching a nadir in mid-career. After that the curve ticks up, implying of course that we’re happiest again when we die. Hmm. Probably not.

(graphic for an Economist article on this topic.)

My life experience so far seems to underwrite the broad concept. Specifically I’ve been wondering about that uptick in happiness (well-being, satisfaction)-I prefer the Greek,  eudaimonia, human-flourishing. Why does it happen?

Here are a few random ideas, not proven as far as I know.  We flourish when our life has recognizable limits. We’re always being told we can do anything we set our minds to, we can be anything we want to be. Maybe so, I don’t know.  I do know that the burden of  having to choose among competing futures can make the present seem fraught and burdened. One limit in the third phase is that of diminished prospects. We no longer have the career world and its vast horizons spread before us, nor do we have the energy, the ambition we had in that time of our life. Seems good to me. Narrowing down the future and its possibilities means a less fraught daily existence.

A second limit we encounter (most of us) in the third phase is financial. We know how much money we have and what we have to do to live within its possibilities and constraints. Again, I think, good. We’re not reaching, hoping for another raise, a windfall, a lucky break. No, we can settle into the life we can afford.

A third limit is length of life. We know now that life does not stretch on well beyond the horizon. Our friends and family have begun to get serious illnesses and die. Our own body has begun to signal its intention, too. Like the other two, narrowed prospects and financial constraints, at first this seems like a horror, an anathema to the American dream of excelsior. But I think good here, too. I want my obit to start out: Ate right, exercised, died anyway.

Acceptance of all three limits encourages us to focus on those matters dearest to us, most important in our lives. Does this mean that we have no hope for a productive life? No. It simply means that we’re likely much clearer about where to spend our energy and gifts. Does this mean we give up on managing our financial affairs? Again, no. It just means that they’re easier to manage and probably take up less energy. Does it mean we abandon caring for our health? Of course not. It means that we no longer do so with the illusion of eternal physical life as our reward for it.

Just random ideas. Not proven as far as I know.

Work As Secondary

Summer                                                               Lughnasa Moon

I remember, back in the early, heady days after leaving the Presbytery, I calculated how I might earn an income. An income that would be equivalent to the one I made there. It would come through an advance on royalties each year on books I would write at so many words a day. This seemed straightforward to me. And, it was the expectation which I carried into this sudden change in vocation; or, as others said at the time of their own career changes, my reinvention.

Ah. There it is. That small nugget of information unearthed in the process of writing. Vocation. Yes. I have always viewed my life and work from the vantage point of vocation, and not a secular view of vocation, but rather a sense of vocation derived from its Latin root, a calling.

Yes. And I can trace its roots back, not to a moment of quiet prayer, but to a moment of rejection, quite specific, and one I’ve mentioned here before. After two years as a management apprentice at Johns-Manville corporation’s factory in my home town of Alexandria, I turned down an offer of a scholarship. It would have entailed my working a certain number of years for the corporation. No thank you, I said.

I was not clear then why, just that I would never do work that conflicted with my values. And I never have. This mysterious sense of a calling, a vocation, came from a voice that has never been still, not once over the years of my life so far. Yet, I cannot identify its source.

It received amplification, I think, during my recovery from polio and my parents understandable conviction that I had been saved for remarkable things. But just what remarkable things and saved by whom or what was never clear.

The remarkable thing took some shape, I’m sure, from my father’s work, especially his work as a newspaper editor, where he laid out his opinions for the whole town to read, and my mother’s compassion, for us and for others. It took some shape from the labor politics of my blue collar hometown, a place shaped by the strong labor movement of the United Auto Workers.

And, yes, it took some shape, too, at Alexandria First Methodist Church. The church exposed me to urban poverty, to the United Nations and to national politics in Washington, D.C. It convinced me, in a deep way, that each of us have a responsibility to the larger whole, a conviction reinforced by Alexandria’s political labor movement and somewhat reinforced by my father’s own liberal political positions.

The school system, too, had its impact. In this small town where immigrants from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, the poorer states of Arkansas and Mississippi, found a middle class life possible, the son of two college educated parents had an unearned advantage. There, too, I was groomed for remarkable things.  Just what those would be were again, not clear.

Naturally, all of these various streams of influence were at their peak in 1964, my senior year of high school. This was the launching year, my class would head off to its various fates. It was then that mom died. Again, I’m not sure how this impacted my strong sense of vocation, but it probably put a certain emotional motive force behind it that could not, by definition, mature.

After that came the 60’s. The radical politics of the era took my sense of vocation and did give it shape and focus. Initially, civil rights work, but in quick succession after that the Vietnam War and student rights. After that feminism. And after that neighborhood empowerment. Following all those more traditional political work and then, lately, work on environmental matters.

Ah. Another point of clarity. Since high school and most emphatically since those years of the 1960’s, my declared or daily work has always had a secondary place to politics. In college, though I enjoyed my studies and did well academically, I spent the bulk of my energy organizing and working for change. Once in seminary my primary work was still anti-war though, again, I did well academically. It was there that a secondary interest from college, the arts, began to take more and more of my attention.

Once I got into the ministry the ministry itself was never my primary focus, rather I managed a facility for developmentally disabled adults, then worked on the West Bank where my energy went into affordable housing, economic development and economic justice organizing of many kinds. When I became a church executive, even then my primary work remained political.

As then, so over the last twenty years with the writing. Writing was the work I did, but it was never the primary focus of my life. Rather, Kate and Joseph and Jon. The dogs. Unitarian-Universalism for a time. Regular politics in the 6th congressional district, before the Bachmann era. Then the MIA and the Sierra Club. Those were where my calling expressed itself.

It has never been about work, rather my vocation has been about those things that my work supported, seemingly ancillary, but in fact primary: politics, family, art, sustainable horticulture.

In other words I’ve treated writing in the same way I have every other “job” I’ve ever had. I engaged it, but only to a certain extent, only to the extent necessary to validate the “working” part of my life so I could engage all these other activities. This is not an excuse or a reason for not publishing, but it is an explanation, I believe, for the conflicted feelings I’ve had about writing from the beginning. They were the same conflicted feelings I had about the institutional work for the church, about my academic work in college, feelings conflicted because, to state that long ago negative as a positive, I wanted to work on projects congruent with my values and those values involved change, change in this world.

Why I never put that work in the true center of my working life, I may never know. I think it’s because it never occurred to me.



July 2017
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