Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Love: The Glorious Maybe

In a month, I will be 53 years old. And in many ways, it feels like I'm starting my life over from scratch. I'm full of questions.

How much money can I save before I'm 65? 70? Will it matter?

Am I ever going to have a full time job again?

What other changes am I going to have to make in order to live below my means?

Am I ever going to have a wife again?

Will I ever make love?

And just how does a post-middle aged gray-beard meet women who are single, sane, and not young enough to be his daughters?

Will my ability to learn and remember ever come back?

Will my energy?

Will my cancer?

Will my faith?

Worries? I don't think of them as worries. They don't keep me up at night. They don't make me anxious or angry or afraid. But these questions... they are on my mind. I know a man who spent weeks after his divorce sleeping with a loaded rifle next to his bed. He was waiting to work up the courage to put the barrel in his mouth. Thankfully, he never did, and before long, he met and married the love of his life. I know another, well into his 70s now, who still refers to his ex as "my wife." He has no rifle, but he has a bottle and a pack of cigarettes and has been using them both like a gun for years. I am not there. And I'm not going there. That's a cliff whose crumbling edge I have explored quite enough in my life, thanks. Whatever life has in store for me, I intend to be around to drink it it.

They are not worries... more like puzzles. Like the Rubic's Cube that used to be on coffee tables or the little wooden triangle with the golf tees that you try to solve before they bring you your dinner at Cracker Barrel, these questions occupy my mind from time to time, then I put them down and move on to whatever is next in the present.

My shrink calls it mindfulness. It's being aware of what's happening now, acknowledging the difference between what's real, and what's only in my head. I read one of those Facebook pearls last night that hit home: "Worry is a waste of imagination." It's true. If God is our role model... if our goal is to imitate our Creator, then worry is misuse of the most important creative tool we have. Even the dullest of us is blessed with imagination. using it with love may be our most important goal.

The truth is, we can not help but see possibilities in our world. It seems to me that the trick is looking for possibilities for love rather than fear. God did not create us out of fear, but out of love. Our universe is not a hiding place, it is a work of art by the great Artist. My life can be a tragedy, a comedy; an epic poem or a joyful song. It all depends on how I choose to apply my imagination, the glorious ability to see more than what is here and now.

It isn't about turning my back on reality. It's more like seeing things as they really are, then looking deeper for the loving God who set them in motion. It's asking the What If questions that lead toward love.

What if I stay strong and excited enough to keep working for the rest of my life?

What if I can simplify my life so money doesn't matter quite so much?

What if I learn to live at peace with myself, so I can be a more complete part of my next relationship?

What opportunities will my health and my history offer me for service and inspiration to others?

How much stronger will my faith be when I have passed through this dark valley?

It isn't just changing the words... it's changing the intention. I intend to live. To love. To stay sane. To serve God.

There are a lot of circumstances in life that I can't do a thing about. The way I treat life isn't one of them.

How many times have I wished for one more chance in the last 53 years? Good news... I just got it. They say youth is wasted on the young. "If only I had known then what I know now." OK, life, old chum... now I know. I may never be young again, but I can look at you through young eyes. My heart will never be unbroken; the scars will heal, but never disappear; but that doesn't mean I can't love with all the passion of my youth. The years are slowly wearing down my joints and muscles and synapses, but I can fight them every step of the way by keeping strong and fit and active.

Some people respond to tragedy by dying prematurely, then waiting for their body to catch up. I choose another path. I'm going to live every second I have left, seeing what is, and imagining what could be, always trying to see life the way a loving Artist sees it.

We can focus our eyes on impossibilities, or possibilities. It's our choice. This morning, I'm choosing life. Love. The glorious Maybe. What if God really does have more in mind for me than I can possibly ask or imagine?


Friday, June 21, 2013

Glorious Summer

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer...

So begins Shakespeare's telling of Richard III, and so begins my own summer of 2013.

Lord, but this was an ugly spring.

Not outside. Been great running weather. The flowers were and are still beautiful. The lawns and trees are lush and verdant. Kentucky has been wearing her Derby best since long before the race. But my heart has taken a beating.

Lost my mentor and dear friend.

Lost my grip on emotional and mental stability during a bipolar episode that lasted for 6 weeks or more.

Set my new career back by months or maybe years.

Lost my personal trainer.

More funerals than I can keep track of.

And I'm writing this morning in a one bedroom apartment where I now live because I've separated from my wife, perhaps for good.

I'm not sure at all that I wouldn't prefer to repeat the spring I learned I had cancer over the one I just finished. It has been ugly. But by the grace of God and the love of God's people, I'm still standing.

There is a scene in The Raging Bull where Jake bellows across the ring at Sugar Ray Robinson after taking a beating from the great champion. "I never went down, Ray. Never went down." He took everything that the champ had, and lost the fight, but he stayed on his feet. Well, I don't mind admitting that I went down. Hard. Dropped my guard. Took one or two or ten to the chin. I saw stars. I heard the count. But by God, I never stayed down.

When you pray the stations of the cross, you walk along with Jesus as he travels from his betrayal to his death. And three times, he stops and falls. Three times, Jesus has to decide whether to give up, or keep going. And by God, he keeps getting back up. Taking more blows. Making his way to the death that will ultimately bring redemption.

There are times when I would like to be able to point my bruised and bloody finger into Life's face and say, "I never went down." But failing that, I guess Jesus isn't such a bad role model. It sounds crazy, but this dark season hit me harder and from more directions than cancer ever did. Still, the lessons cancer taught me keep paying dividends. That disease knocked me down, too, but it also taught me how to get back up. How to lean on the people who love me. How to fight for my life when my life doesn't seem worth the trouble. How I am never alone. How God will never stop sending me the love I need to survive, often from places and people I would never have expected to find it. How much a run in the cool of the morning can reconnect me to my Creator and the Creation of which I remain a valued, if deeply flawed part.

As I sit here typing, I'm looking out my window onto North Broadway in Lexington. Ambulances scream down from the outer counties toward the hospitals on the "good" side of town. Cars zip by carrying people on their way to work. A neighbor who looks for all the world like a transvestite hooker from the West Village in Manhattan struts in hot pants as drivers honk at her. And above, the sugar maple glows gold and green with the light of a new morning. So much has changed. So much of what made up my life a few months ago is gone. But some things remain.

It is still a funny, inspiring, beautiful world.

Life is still worth fighting for.

There is still a chance for my dreams to come true.

There are still people who trust and depend on me.

God is still faithful.

And always, always, always...

It's a Great Day for a Run.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Father Who is There

I loved his company. He was a Vietnam war vet and a skilled poker player and a man of the theatre. We toured together for a brief, happy time back in the 80's. My friend had three kids. Three different women. Three different states. He never saw any of them.

I judged him pretty harshly for that. I wanted to be a father so much, almost more than anything else, and I couldn't understand how anyone could just walk away from such a gift. 

One day, he got the phone call. His oldest son who lived far away in a big city down south had been shot and killed on the street. My friend was dry eyed and ghostly as he told me the few sketchy details the boy's mother had shared with him. "When are you going down?" I asked. "Nothing I can do there," he answered, shaking his head numbly. It wasn't as if he didn't care, exactly. It was more like he knew that a moment, a lifetime had been missed and that there would not be a second chance. 

I got a glimpse of how that felt on a day, weeks later, during a poker game at the table in the back of the tour bus. We were on a country road, on our way to some little college someplace, and we passed a cemetery. As is so often the case, there was a lot next door where stones were sold. For some reason, we both looked up from our cards at the same time. There, by the side of the little two-lane road, we saw it. A granite stone, smaller than the others, cut into the shape of a teddy bear. Grotesque. I heard him whisper softly, "Oh, no. No." My friend put down his cards. Folded. Walked away from the table. I judged him a little less harshly after that. He should have been there for his son. Seeing that stone, so ridiculously inappropriate for the inner city tough guy his oldest had grown into, must have touched something in my friend. A memory. A dream. A hope. I don't know. We didn't talk about it at all after that. But I saw a big man cry that day. Tears of shame and of loss for an opportunity that would never be coming back. I believe that at that moment, my friend would have willingly traded places with his son. Laid himself in that grave and put his boy on the bus, laughing, drinking, singing songs and playing cards and enjoying playing Shakespeare to a different town every night. 

And that is the insane, radical vision of God that Jesus offers: not a king, or a cosmic force, but a father. When Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer, he prayed "Our Father," but he used the word abba. It's the word tiny children use to address their dads. The closest English equivalent is "Daddy." 

A cynic might read that and think it's just one more example of the way religion infantilizes us and tries to keep us helpless as children under the authority of the church. But they've never seen what I saw that day in the back of the bus. My friend didn't want to turn his son into a child again. He just wanted him to live. He should have done more. It took the boy's death to teach him that. He had lost the chance to be that boy's "Daddy." Jesus' message on this Fathers' Day is that God does not pass up that chance. God does not walk away. And God suffers with us, God does what no human father could ever do... God takes our place. God dies so that we can learn to love before it is too late.

That is the lesson of Fathers' Day, to me. I remember ugly ties and walks in the woods and hard lessons taught with gentle firmness... but I also remember sacrifice. My earthly father was willing to give everything for his children. In doing so, he was a minister to us from our heavenly Father. Nobody could have ever loved me like my Dad did. And I loved him so much that now, almost 20 years since his death, my heart still aches to remember him. 

And Jesus says that's the kind of love the Creator of the universe has for me. Like the preacher said, "Ain't that good news?"


Sunday, June 02, 2013

Saying My Beads

The Rosary was never a part of my religion when I was growing up, but it was always a part of my life. Our neighborhood was almost exclusively Roman Catholic, and in the late afternoon, the older folks used to go to  their quiet corners and pray the Rosary. I saw them everywhere, but I was probably 20 years old before I even touched one. I loved the feel of it.. The smoothness of the beads, The light, but barely perceptible weight. The gentle discipline of the circle. The rhythm of the beads as they flowed from 10 to 1 to 10 again. Much later, after I had joined an Episcopalian church, I learned how to say these ancient and simple prayers. When I pray the Rosary, I feel connected to God. I also feel connected to all the people across the world, across the ages who have ever "said their beads." at the beginning or the end of the day. It is a true act of communion to pray the Rosary.

Traditionally, the prayer is a devotion to Mary. The Hail Mary is repeated again and again. Each row of 10 beads is called a decade, and there is a specific mystery upon which you meditate for each decade. Another part of the tradition is the flexibility of the prayer. St Francis changed the Rosary from 5 decades to 7 so he could meditate on a specific set of mysteries from Mary's life. The Rosary I use is one of these Franciscan Crown style, and while I often pray the traditional prayer, I have recently taken to including other subjects for my meditations.

Yesterday, I prayed for myself. That I might find God's will for my life at work, at home, in my community, in my family That I might grow in my spiritual life. That I might increase in wellness. Today, I prayed for others. For Mrs P. For the people at the Y and church. For my fellow survivors and fellow runners. For the animals I have known and loved. For my friends, my sisters, my mom. I had lit incense before I started praying out on the back porch, and as my fingers walked slowly along the string of beads, my thoughts rose like the smoke. In my imagination, I see that smoke travelling across the miles to touch the people I love like the Holy Spirit, the sweet, life-giving breath of God.

The words of the prayers, the circle of the beads: these are the discipline of the Rosary. To begin is to make a commitment to the devotion. I'm not sure I've ever started one and not finished it, though I have lost my place from time to time, and even nodded off to sleep. My fingers know the path, and my heart follows. As I make my way out of the recent darkness where I found myself, I will travel this ancient road, a little wooden bead at a time, back toward light and faith. Remembering Francis. Remembering his faith and child-like devotion to his heavenly Father, I try to trust God to guide my prayers and my life. It isn't always easy to trust, But having a few simple rules to start the day helps to focus my spirit a little. I choose the rules of the beads. They begin and end at the cross of Jesus. I pray that the same may be said of my life.