Poem for All Souls Day

I grew up the middle child

of divorced parents

a family held together more by tenacity and verve

than any old fashion values

more infused with a refusal to become broken

than aspirations to become beloved

 

I was raised in a Los Angeles suburb

which underwent a botched values transplant.

I watched the button-down Rockwell world of the 50s

on modern, state-of-the-art 13 inch black and white TVs

where Wally and the Cleavers

eventually gave way to guns and rose colored glasses.

 

The factory which once manufactured children

from snips and snails, sugar and spice

was sold

when the new management changed suppliers

to cut soaring costs.

 

Every child since 1972

is made from scraps of innocence

and recycled hope.

These days, it is almost impossible to find one

rolling down the line

untainted by trauma or despair

or, who still possesses

the forward evolutionary lean

of a planet tilting its axis toward the ancient promise

that some day we could all become one

among billions

of communally minded mystics

 

What if

we started anew

considering events

like Watergate, Watts and Waco

Nuremburg, New Orleans and Newtown

as pretext

for the fundamental choice

between walking out our door

every morning

armed with hope

instead of hurt?

 

I believe there are enough people

Still not willing

To give up.

Who don’t have to lose their memory

To retain their sanity.

 

Indeed, no one now living today

can look back on their life

without having wiped off the fingerprints

of tragedy or disappointment.

Hurt and the impulse for hostility

are in our box of recipes as well as our journal.

But aren’t those few slender strands of DNA

that differentiate us from the warring animals of the jungle

just the most beneficent sections

of a very complex code

recalling for us the risks we took

when we dared to choose

compassion instead of contempt?

Cooperation instead of competition?

And aren’t those only

the millions of minute distinctions

that make us most human?

 

None of us can rewind this great, collective story

we are all part of.

We are actors with bit parts and aspirations of stardom

not directors who move the stars to suit the scene.

Everything before us is simply the outcome

of millions of lines already spoken

many of them responding to the hurt

instead of the hope in our lives.

And even if we could

erase all the pain,

edit out the disillusion and despair,

would we not also lose all the necessary practice

To forego this stunned and stunted outlook

for a more starry gaze?

There is no better time

To begin writing over old hurts

With a new code of hope.

From Top to Bottom

There are times in life when we find ourselves stuck.  Times when the place we find ourselves is a temporary respite at best.  We see no way ‘forward’ and there’s no way to retrace our steps back.  These are times where we realize that some new way must break forth – either from around us or from within us.  At such times we cannot see the door that life will open for us and feel lost.  These are times when it becomes clear that the breaking of our assumptions or expectations or habits is sometimes not only a good way to go but, without realizing, it’s exactly the way set out to find in the first place.

Pressing our bodies tightly against the brick wall of an unknown building on the University of Virginia last week was one of these times.

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Liz and I were exploring Charlottesville, VA last week having taken a day to tour Monticello and learn about the fascinating and complex life of Thomas Jefferson.  We learned that, besides his pursuits as President of the US and Governor of Virginia, Jefferson was passionate about horticulture, astronomy, education and architecture.  We wanted to go see the University of Virigina – and particularly, the rotunda at the center which he designed.

It was raining lightly when we started out for the half mile walk, up the hill, toward the campus.  We set out with pleasant enough moods and an umbrella for a leisurely, even romantic morning of discovery.  But as we got a little more than half way, the rain went (and our moods) went from easy to urgent.  Before we reached the top, it began to pour.  And just as we turned the corner – when the church and the rotunda came into view – the wind lifted and the rain shifted from horizontal to a sideways trajectory.

We stepped over a bright yellow umbrella discarded on the sidewalk with all its little spokes broken.  It seemed an ominous sight, as was the whistle of the wind now taunted our own feeble umbrella which had given up on its promise to keep us dry.

Seeing the Rotunda and the church were too far away, we made a dash for the brick building ahead of us.  Seeing the front was an additional 50 feet, we made a dash to the portico on the side.  The awning offered little shelter from the sweeping rain so we pressed ourselves flat against the wall where we avoided all but the mist and the splatter.

We stood there, humbled and helpless.  “What do we do now?” Liz asked.  “Nothing we can do, I guess.  Except wait,” I responded.  So we did.  And watched the sheets of water continue to fall.

It was then that a head popped out of one of the two unmarked doors set into the brick wall of that portico.

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“Are you trapped?” asked a well-dressed middle-aged blond woman with wire-framed glasses, smiling.  “Yes,” we both said at once.  “We were on our way to the rotunda when it started to pour and we just ran for it.  We don’t even know where we are.”  “This is the administration building,” she smiled.  ”I’m Teresa Sullivan.  I’m the president of the University.”  We must have looked stunned.  “Please come in.  You can dry off in our lobby.”

This is how love and compassion flow from top to bottom.  When those in the upper echelons of influence are able to see through layers of complexity and power to see the tenderness and vulnerability of those caught in the winds and rains of these tumultuous times.  When I got home, I googled Ms. Sullivan and discovered she recently won an award for leadership.  I wasn’t surprised.  This is what leadership is: the ability of those at the top to see through stormy conditions and remember our true purpose… an aim for those at every station to understand why they left in the first place, what they set out to find and how to get there.

May this be a model for all of us on the path.

To the Glory of Life.

Carrying Stones

Before the journey, I was told to bring a rock.

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I was told it was part of the pilgrimage.  That there is a place – indeed many places along the camino – to place it.

“Why?” I asked.

“Why would I carry a rock?” I wondered.  “Why carry something that had no purpose?”  Especially when I was told to carefully consider every single ounce that went into my pack?  When everything I’d read told me how important it was to lighten my load for the six hundred mile journey?”

Although I stumbled across many responses, none made much sense to me.  The reasons I heard  for carrying rocks seemed sentimental or superstitious.  I did hear the enigmatic zen reply: “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,” but that simply deflected off my fortress of skepticism.

So, I didn’t pack a stone.  Only my essential gear – not all of which proved essential.  And such items quickly found the place they belonged in trash cans along the trail.  But I did take my mother’s ashes which seemed exceptional enough to rise above all my rules of strict pragmatism.

I was told to bring a rock, and I resisted.  The resistance I carried came, I believe, from an accumulation of things I have been told over the course of my life that turned out, in the end, not to be true.  Sentimental or superstitious things, that suspected that others carried out of worry and fear.

I was told to bring a rock.  But when my plane landed and my pilgrimage began, I had none.

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I probably wouldn’t have thought any more about it if it weren’t for the mounds of rocks that I begin to see were prominently placed on markers and signs along the trail.  These weren’t rocks that were naturally part of the Spanish hillsides.  These were rocks that, in many cases, were geologically different than everything around them.  They were obviously carried and set down – often stacked one atop another – in conspicuous fashion.

I’d heard that the Camino was an ancient pilgrimage dating back to the early pagans.  That when the Christian church came to power, they sent people on it to work off their sins. Those who believed the journey would absolve them, carried rocks as a form of penance.  My skepticism grew.

But I heard that in the earliest days of the Camino, pagans understood stones as capable of absorbing and holding our worries.  Our losses and our sorrows.  That we could pick up a rock and transfer our disappointments, regrets, hurts and despair into by doing the work of reflection, that is, sifting out the wisdom which is the blessing from the worry which is the burden.

I chose not to start my journey with a rock.   But somewhere around half way point – the 300 mile mark – just after Liz had to go back to work and I was on my own, I asked myself a very humbling question: “What did I carry instead of all these rocks I was seeing?  What did I pour my worries and sorrow into.  By this time, the arduousness of the road had me answering more honestly than usual.

A lot of my sorrow and worry and pain, I poured into Liz.  A lot of rigidity and overwhelm got poured into my family and friends.  Efforts to appear competent got poured into work.  A lot of the skepticism and vigilance got poured into life in general.   These things – to ‘ward-off’ disappointment (pun intended) – are not light things to carry – and I’d been carrying them for a lot longer than this 600 mile journey.

It was at this time I picked up a rock.  And from then on, in the times I routinely found myself becoming pensive – where I would ruminate and cogitate and worry – I held onto my rock.

The highest part of the journey – atop the Leónese Mountains – about two weeks before we arrived in Santiago – is where pilgrims come across the Cruce de Ferro (Iron Cross).  It is a mound of rocks surrounding a large pole extending far into the sky.  Atop the pole is an iron cross.   The rocks around the cross have names or words or prayers written on them.  Some have string tied around them or other symbols of significance.  They were brought by people who’d carried worries or prayers to this point from all over the world.  To get to the pole, you have to climb up ten feet of these worries.

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When I arrived there I realized my fears and worries had a place where they were understood.  Where they were recognized and known and where they were at home.  I could almost feel my own rock jump out of my pocket.  It was like they said, “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,”  I set it down and thanked all my sorrows and worry for trying so hard to protect me.  I also poured out some of my mother’s ashes – a mixture of sand and small pebbles – and realized that, for years, my mother had carried a lot of my sorrows.  And I thanked her for trying to protect me.

They say that the position of Cruce de Ferro is important.  From the Leónese Mountains, you can practically see Santiago in the distance.  And you are supposed to approach and enter Santiago with joy in your heart.  Hard to do when you carry so much worry and fear.

The road to Santiago – to wherever we are headed – is lined with sorrows.  It is also lined with superstition and sentimentality.  Look to the side and you will see how rocks hold all these things in place and allow you the lightness necessary to be a bearer of gratitude and joy.