Aug 302011
 

Note: The following piece is being published in the September issue of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business. I wrote in on my 60th birthday, August 20.

When my parents turned 75, I asked to sit with them and capture a few memories. I hoped to wander the peaks and valleys of their journey; peering into their lives and helping them recall wisdom they surely received over seven and a half decades.
They eventually acquiesced, but not before disavowing any particular insight into what it means to be human. In the midst of the negotiation, a friend said “Ask them if they simply want to be older, or would they rather be elders.”
Older or elder. Change a single letter, and the words suddenly compete for the definitive description of what it means to enter the most senior years of a human’s time on Earth.
Many older people have either learned to deny their wisdom. or are so certain of it they populate their discourse with an overabundance of sentences ending with periods. Their ideas are correct, indisputable and change slower than Earth’s tectonic plates collide. The fields where their discussions take root are arid and choked with weeds; not an environment where a delicate new idea might find nourishment. And when life comes to an end, they often leave kicking and screaming.
On the other hand, I know many seniors who don’t need to deny or declare their wisdom. Through the subtlety and openness afforded by question marks, their intellectual gardens nurture new species of mental flora or fauna. They are the elders who have planted seeds of wisdom in my life.
In a recent discussion with friends, we explored the myriad roots and meanings of the word “wisdom”. One image emerged in the midst of the conversation: a wise person is perpetually in an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of them. Such a person approaches every moment with the eyes of a child…in wonderment and amazement. They have the stunning ability to bring their years of experience to each moment, making it more extraordinary, but don’t allow the learnings from their yesterdays to blind them to some subtle newness that may avail itself tomorrow. They are aware that every moment offers the possibility of an idea, thought or experience without precedent in their life, or perhaps even in the life of all humanity.
Why the ruminations about elderhood versus olderhood? I awoke early this morning to wander this path because today is the 60th anniversary of the day I arrived on this planet. And while I don’t remember, I’m sure I arrived as most do, literally kicking and screaming.
I am more aware than ever that I am dipping my toes into the senior years of my life. And so, I too must begin to ask if I desire the wisdom and grace of elderhood, or am I destined to become stuck in the intellectual drought that results from the overuse of declarations…and scarcity of question marks. Should I live to see the completion of 70 or 80 years, will I have developed an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of me? Will I learn to experience the world with a gentle sense of wonderment, amazement and perhaps a bit of wisdom?
Or will I leave as I arrived…kicking and screaming?

 

Aug 262011
 
Last night at Operation Snowball, the evening ended with a conversation about spirituality and how often we find ourselves in a spiritual state. The discussion ended with me. I quoted a friend who, before she died, expressed concern that her life might have been a “throw-away line.” I said I did not want my life to end without meaning and that spirituality was the search for that meaning. I am not sure that answer matched the grandeur of the question. Perhaps no answer could, but allow me one more attempt.
If I glance at my hand, I am aware that every atom of which it is composed was once part of a star. Suddenly I am in awe of the miracle that the trillions of atoms in my gaze have come together to form this body and consciousness. In light of the incomprehensible nature of such an occurrence in this Universe, how could any life possibly be a throw-away line in the play being written amongst the stars?
Spirituality for me is to simply be in awe, and to discover, in my own feeble way, how and why such a miracle could take place. And now that it has, to contemplate my responsibility to those stars, the Universe in which they existed and the force that created them. I have a role in the play; I just need to discover my lines.
I hope to live many of the remaining moments of this life in deep awareness and extraordinary gratitude.
Aug 112011
 

 

I wrote this piece shortly after my father passed away in 2005. A young friend from Operation Snowball lost her father this week to cancer. I reprint this here in honor of Megan Scott and her father. The footprints you are leaving, Megan, are filled with love and courage. You are very special.
 
“But Roger,” she said with tears in her eyes, “it feels like I am throwing him away. I can’t throw him away.”
In the months following my father’s death, my mother, God bless her, spent many hours cleaning out the house—going through my dad’s things and making painful decisions about what to do with what often feels like mountains of personal effects. While she did much of this in solitude, because my father and I were partners in a consulting practice, she wanted me with her as we approached the file cabinet that contained most of his written history. We faced thousands of articles, pictures, certificates, awards, letters, notes and other memorabilia. Knowing we couldn’t keep it all—it’s hard enough to go through it once—we discarded all but the most sacred reminders of his journey. But there were times when, I admit, it felt as though pieces of him were being discarded with the tattered fragments of paper.
But then I recalled what I learned in the days immediately after he died, during which hundreds of people came to tell us stories of how they were changed by something my father did. I learned of a neighbor, dying from ALS, who my father picked up every morning so he could go to church, and for coffee at McDonalds afterwards. I met a recently widowed church elder. He told my mother tearfully, “Just a few weeks ago, Wally told me he loved me. You have no idea how much that means.” I learned of the church secretary who loved how my dad would leave a quarter in the office every time he took a cup of coffee. “No one else ever does that,” she told us.
These are a few of the footprints my father left behind. You can’t put those in a file folder and you can’t throw them away at the end of a person’s life. It is in the changing of others that we continue to live on in this world—not through the awards and certificates we file.
It’s vain I know, but I too have file folders stuffed with memorabilia about the “whats” of my life. Having experienced both the “whats” and the “whos” of my father’s life, I now wonder about who I have been, who I am today, and who I will choose to be in my future—in the next decade, the next year, the next week…even in the very next moment. I wonder if the footprints I am leaving are ones that will leave the world a more generous and joyful place.
That becomes one last footprint my father left in my life—one I can never throw away.
Aug 092011
 

 

At Operation Snowball, the teens call the exercise “Sex in a Fishbowl,” but it’s not some weird, erotic game. They divide the room sending males to one side with females facing them from the other. Everyone scribbles questions they would like their counterparts of the opposite sex to answer, and places them into a fishbowl to be withdrawn randomly and anonymously.
Anxiety fills the room as the questions emerge, and becomes especially ubiquitous when they migrate from the mundane to those that swirl around relationships and how we can test them for validity and legitimacy. “How do you know when a girl likes you?” “How do you tell the guy you are dating that you like them?” These are among the questions that cause the most squirming…and elicit the most embarrassed answers. On the surface, simple questions in search of straightforward answers.
But, I wonder if the answers sought are themselves in search of far deeper questions. I wonder if the unasked questions that lurk in background are not about how acceptance bounces from one to another, but how acceptance resounds within me. Could it be that the real questions are “Do I like and value myself, and how do I know?”
Perhaps I am unusual, but, for most of my life, and certainly as I raced through puberty, I have been in search of a self worthy of my respect. Can I tease from my being a self deserving of the resources it consumes, a self that leaves behind greater value than it finds, and most frighteningly, a self that someone might love. To this very day, it is possible, often easy, for me to fall into a place of deep questioning of self-worth and value…and let’s not even get into questions of lovability.
The need to be loved and valued is, I believe, deeply rooted in the human psyche. I know many people who are responsible for meaningful change in the human condition and they still question the meaning of their lives. One dear friend I grew to love and admire for her lifetime of work said, as she approached the end of her time on Earth, “I don’t want my life to have been a throw away line.” Another of my teachers reflected that, “When you ask people about their gifts and you get platitudes…ask about their faults and you get poetry!”
Each of us has gifts and an inner beauty; each of us has value and is lovable. But those qualities can be difficult to see in good times. In our darker moments, they can become impossible to touch. Or feel.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are cautions against this kind of attachment to “self.” The Buddha suggested that the root of all suffering is attachment. Nirvana is that place where we free ourselves from wishes that we, and the world around us, could be different. Freedom is the complete acceptance of what is. But I wonder if the path to Nirvana requires us to traverse the valley of doubt. Could it be that it is only after we discover a valuable self that we can finally let it go and end the search?
Human relationships are complex, difficult and often break our hearts; but if they were otherwise—easy to understand and incapable of touching our hearts—of what value would they be? They are the gateways into the valley of doubt and self questioning.
So, as you ask me about the validity of our relationship—whether I like you and you like me—I ask for your understanding if I squirm. To entertain those questions is to invite you into a deeply personal, and sometimes frightening, introspective dialogue. The answers to those seemingly simple questions are waiting for me to answer the larger question of how much I care for myself—questions that emerged long before a fishbowl appeared in the middle of the room. And those deeper answers are nearly sixty years in the making.
Aug 052011
 
The following will be published in the next issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.
Like a modern day Parthenon, it wore the ravages of time—but this monument to human endurance had no one to defend it against old age, or protect it for future generations. It stood pockmarked and failing, left as nothing more than a canvas for modern day artists and their graffiti. It stood as a memorial to what appeared to be a very different age.
Judi and I were examining this concrete formation in a digital image from our daughter Kathryn. On it, stood twelve students from her summer program in eastern Europe. “Do you have any idea what we’re standing on?” Kathryn asked via Skype. “It’s all that remains of the luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.” I was stunned! A feeling of sadness and loss assaulted me. This immense sculpture, which appeared to be from a much earlier age, was only 30 years old; a mere child in the panoply of human construction. Yet this child sat neglected and unloved.
Then Kathryn lobbed a verbal bombshell I found vastly more disturbing than the digital image on my computer screen; one that explained the premature aging of the luge track. “During the tour of Sarajevo, the guide insisted we remain on the path he traversed…if we were to stray, we would run the risk of detonating a land mine.”
I had to catch my breath. My little girl, one of two young adults I have tenaciously guarded and protected for the majority of my adult life, was walking the terrain ravaged by the Bosnian War that raged from April 1992 to December 1995.
As we sat in the comfort of our home, intimately and immediately connected to our daughter by the Internet, yet separated by thousands of miles, she proceeded to take us on a pictorial tour of Sarajevo; each image littered with the remnants of war…hundreds of buildings that still wore the scars of bullets and mortars.
In the weeks since our virtual pilgrimage to war-torn Sarajevo, I have been dragged back many times to images of life in a country where children live in constant fear of straying from the path…children who have lost the opportunity to roam freely and explore the land where they live. And while I am aware there are many places in America where children live in fear of straying from their homes, there is simply nothing in my life experience that can help me understand what it would mean not to be able to stroll the thousands of fields and forests I have wandered and explored over 60 years.
As I travel the roads and byways of America, I see much human creation vandalized by graffiti. And while most disappoints or angers me, an occasional image reveals artistic potential, or strikes an indispensable note about what it means to be human. But land mines are the hellish graffiti born of hatred and human conflict with no possible redemptive value. It is bad enough we scar human creation with pigment, but it is simply inexcusable to have scarred with explosives that which was created and left for us by the eternal.
Then, finally, I wonder if even my child has been left scared by the journey. In spite of my desire to protect her, will her experience of the results of hatred and conflict detonate within her some time in her future? Actually, I am hopeful it will. I am hopeful, as a result of experiencing humanity in ways I never could, she and her generation will find ways to diffuse the next generation of bombs, mortars and land mines before they too can be used to ravage tomorrow’s monuments to human creativity and endurance.