Aug 132015
 

The temporary nature of life exposes its most enduring value and meaning. A delicate, fragile piece of porcelain has more value because we realize the ease with which its beauty might be ripped from our lives at any moment. A vessel made virtually unbreakable would seldom etch the same splendor in our hearts.

So it is with the delicate nature of those who know us and accept us for who we are. Their value in our lives is magnified by its impermanence; the magnificence of their unquestioning, unconditional love comes, in part, from its temporary, fragile nature.

If we could, would we return to an earlier time and cast-off the love, connection, and intimacy they offered in order to escape the pain and heartache that flows from having lost them? The answer is simple, but causes many to pause momentarily, especially in those moments when the sadness is fresh and the grief raw and unrelenting. In the end, we know that deep grief, and the tears that flow from it, are the price we pay for love.

It is said that a river cannot be halted in order to study its nature. When we fall under the spell of terrifying rapids, the melodious gurgle of a brook, or the majesty of water in free fall over a cliff, it is the impermanence, transformation and change that bind us to its beauty. If the current flowed forever without unexpected turns, protruding rocks, and the pull of gravity, we would never discern its power, grace, and beauty.

Life itself is much like the ever-changing, impermanent flow of a river, but in life, we find ourselves unable to witness its power and magnificence from afar. If we could, we might see the glory and majesty in a whole new way. Might the unexpected turns, the obstacles that rudely and harshly change our course, the free falls into an unknown abyss, contain a majesty we simply cannot comprehend as we are buffeted and battered by life?

With the perspective of time–more than ten years after his passing–I see the confluence and influence of my father’s life with so much gratitude and love. I see him for the gracious, kind, caring person he strove to be, and forgive him for the times he was so very human…and fallible.

Regardless of our beliefs about what transpires after this time on Earth, each of us is granted a kind of immortality here, in this place. Neil Postman once said “Children are the messages we send to a time we will not see.” By living the messages of those who have come before us, we alter the flow of human history in their name. Even when life is punctuated with turns, boulders and freefalls, with perspective, we witness the river of life as a thing of true beauty, understand that impermanence imbues it with majesty, and know that those we have loved and lost helped make it so.

May 222014
 

There are moments that emerge unexpectedly that remind me to slow and be witness to miracles.

Many years ago, I published an interview with a favorite author, Peter Block. One of the most touching moments came when I asked about his children. He said, “I always knew that the kids were the most important thing that would ever happen to me in my life. And If I was ever going to witness a miracle it was watching them grow up.”

At the time my own children were…still children. Today, as they continue to find their paths into the world, I have a much more vivid interpretation of Peter’s words. I woke this morning to a text from my daughter, Kathryn, with an attached picture. She said…Necklace

10 years ago, you bought me a beautiful and unexpected present for my 8th grade graduation. Today, I wore the same necklace to receive my Masters degree from John’s Hopkins! Thanks for everything dad. I love you.

I am reminded of a letter I wrote to her when she participated in a Kairos retreat in high school. The words I was given are truer today than when I wrote them so many years ago…

Why is your presence in my life a miracle? How else can you describe the flowering of someone so beautiful from soil that so often seems coarse and arid? As hard as I have tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times you longed only for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on yours in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished you in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, you emerge as a caring, compassionate, fervent young woman. Beauty is always a miracle. Too often we simply fail to take the time to sit quietly and be witness to it.

I am thankful every day for David and Kathryn, and that I was chosen to help shepherd them into this world. But days like today remind me to sit quietly and simply be witness.

Apr 232014
 

The flow of a river is constrained by its banks. Over time, however, the rushing water erodes the banks and redirects the course of the river. Riverbanks are necessary to give form, and yet the river retains the power to alter its future.

If you would be willing to play along, what appears a game just may prompt surprising questions about the riverbanks that constrain our lives.

Triangle Instructions

Figure 1

Take out a piece of paper and located three points in the shape of a triangle. Label them 1, 2 & 3. Pick any point on the page—inside or outside the triangle, and locate additional points using two rules: pick 1, 2 or 3 at random and move 1/2 the distance from the most recent point to find the next.

In Figure 1, I began at “a” and picked “1” at random. Point “b” is then 1/2 of the distance from “a” to the number 1. Next I picked “3” and moved 1/2 of the distance from “b” to 3 to locate “c”. Then I picked another “1”and moved 1/2 of the distance from “c” to the number 1 to locate “d”. Finally, I picked “2” and moved from “d” to locate “e” 1/2 of the way to 2. Simple enough…go ahead and plot a hundred points or so. I’ll wait…

Triangle 100 Points

Figure 2

If you did that, you would end up with a diagram similar to Figure 2. It appears a fairly random set of dots. What happens if you plot, say, 30,000? This time I won’t wait. But before you look at the resulting diagram below, any guesses what it might look like? Okay, take a look at Figure 3 at the bottom of the post.

I find this result both stunning and terrifying.

I am stunned that such simple rules—rules that appear at first blush to yield chaos—countenance order and beauty over time. Order out of chaos. Stunning! Rules as simple as green means proceed, and red means wait, give order and meaning to millions of vehicles. “Do unto others…” gives order and meaning to our lives.

But there are ways in which I am terrified as well. As long as we remain allegiant to the rules, future dots are determined, and our path is immutable. We remain trapped in the pattern forever.

I wonder how I remain trapped by rules in my life, even those so very subtle they remain imperceptible. Might there be ways in which my future is constrained, rigid and immutable? I hated writing essays in school and remained, for many years, certain of my inability to assemble meaningful words on paper. “I am a loner,” “I am artistically destitute,” “I am not a good listener” and “I don’t like to read,” defined much of my life. While I have not overcome feelings about lacking artistic ability, I have set aside many of the others. As I do, I erode the banks and set the river of my life on a new course.

I leave you with one final exercise. Allow yourself a few moments to reflect on the “rules” in your life. No doubt there are many that provide order and meaning. But if you are honest and look deeply enough, you just may uncover a few that keep you trapped in work, relationships, communities or images of self that limit your freedom, and constrain your future? It just might be time to jettison them, erode the riverbanks of your life and allow stunning new patterns to emerge.

 

Triangle 30000Points

Figure 3

Jun 252011
 
Note: This piece is being published in an the July-August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Reprinted with permission.
 
They laid the first stone April 14, 1434—three hundred and forty two years before American’s Declaration of Independence. It took 50 years just to complete the façade. Inauguration of the nave and aisles occurred in the late 1500s. On December 25, 1891, 457 years after they began, Bishop Jules François Lecoq inaugurated the completed St. Peter and St. Paul’s cathedral in Nantes, France.
On a recent visit with our daughter after her semester abroad, I stood in the nave of this edifice, gazing upward 114 feet to the roof. The interior is 116 feet wide and 313 feet long. The outside towers raise 192 feet. These somewhat cold statistics cannot begin to instill the awe that overwhelms you as you stand in this magnificent holy space.
As I stood in this vessel—a message sent from the Middle Ages, and delivered to me in this moment—I realize the stones in the columns I stand beside were carefully, perhaps lovingly, put in place by a mason more than 500 years ago. My mind is flooded with questions I fear we have lost the ability to answer. When we find it difficult to create plans that survive four decades, how was it possible 600 years ago to design a structure that would not be completed for more that four centuries—and last a thousand years? In an environment in which every generation is encouraged to leave their unique fingerprint on the future, how did more than 20 generations refrain from changing the cathedral’s original design? When the technologies we use to transmit information to the future change every 2 or 3 years, can we even conceive of passing plans entrusted to fragile parchment across more than 400?
However, the questions that most intrigue me relate to the mason who laid the stones in front of me—perhaps a hundred years after construction began. Even if he began as an apprentice and spent the entirety of his life dedicated to the completion of this monument to his creator, it would have risen only a few meters as he lay on his deathbed. He woke every morning, and invested all of himself for his entire life, inspired only by a vision of this gift to generations so distant their lives were simply unimaginable? Would any of us be willing to toil for our entire lives on a project begun by our great, great, great, great, great grandparents, which will not be completed before the birth of our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren?
In an ironic coincidence, I began reading Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch before we began our two week pilgrimage. As MacCulloch relates the history and derivation of the Christian faith, he touches on the origin, meaning and symbolism of the world’s great cathedrals. As I read MacCulloch’s words and chapters, and stroll the masons’ nave and aisles, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the creation of a cathedral and the formation of humankind’s great wisdom traditions. Each is a gift from the past, built from seemingly infinite, small, often courageous contributions by mostly anonymous individuals.
I am left to imagine generations 600 years hence. What will they come to know of us? What messages will we have left behind that speak of our visions and passions? Are we building any edifice—with the bricks we lay or the wisdom we formulate—that will invite them into a feeling of awe? Then the final questions emerge: What have I done, what will I do today, and to what will I dedicate my remaining days to help craft a message of wisdom, grace and beauty to be left for my great, great, great, great, great grandchildren? The masons of the 15th century had answers we may have forgotten.
Jan 022011
 
“They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
                                                         Don McLean
With the tragic loss of Dakota Lewis, I sit with tears streaming down my face. I grieve that the joy he was able to give to so many is now lost to us—and to those who never looked into his eyes and felt the affirmation he was able to give in the moment of connection. We have only the memories of his joy in which to seek comfort. I am comforted by the few but vibrant memories he wrote upon my heart.
I was reminded of Don McLean’s words about the troubled life of Vincent Van-Gogh on the Facebook page “In Memory of Dakota Lewis.” As I have dwelt in the aftermath of Dakota’s passing, I have wondered why he was deaf to the words so many of us tried to share with him about the beauty and joy he brought to the world. But upon further reflection, and in the shadow of Don McLean’s lyrics, I also wonder if there was a quality of deep listening I was unable to give when I was with Dakota. No matter how hard we tried, I wonder if we were in a constant dance of conversations that ran parallel…never collided in a way that we could both hear. While I wish it were different, perhaps that is just part of being human. If I let you down my young friend, I am sorry. I tried, and was simply unable. I am, after all, only human. Perhaps, just perhaps, I will find a way to listen to the one next to me today in a slightly deeper way.
Dakota, while your life was short, you used your time here to leave us with many blessings. None of us, in a single lifetime, can witness our impact on the world. It is only in setting “initial conditions” (see “Stepping Gently Into the New Year”) that we change the future. Dakota, in a few short years, you helped us set in motion a future with more love, kindness and generosity than would be possible without you.
I miss you my young and very dear friend.
Nov 222010
 
This weekend, Judi and I joined our children in the Quad Cities, David’s adopted home, for a new tradition of enjoying their many pre-holiday events. If you haven’t been, I recommend it.
All weekend, the two of us sat in amazement in the presence of our children. I know David and Kathryn are no more amazing than millions of other emerging young adults, but since they are my children I demand the right to be in awe of who they are becoming, and speak of them as if they truly are God’s gift…because to me they are. What can bring me to my knees, is wondering why I have been given the gift of them in my life.
After expressing my disbelief on a social media page, a dear friend commented, in part, “Seems to me ‘everything’ you and Judi did explains their beauty.” I appreciate the generosity, but I see little way my efforts can explain the beauty in front of me this past weekend. As hard as I tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times they longed for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on theirs in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished them in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, they emerge as caring, compassionate, fervent young adults.
Judi has a growing passion, and a passion for growing, orchids. Last week, after more than a year, she coaxed one of her plants into rewarding us with three absolutely gorgeous blooms. They are stunning. And while I do not want to demean the loving care Judi gave them, their beauty is far greater than the effort to raise it. A bit of care, some water and a nourishing environment yield a thing of stunning beauty. The orchid rushes forth, becoming what it was always intended to be so long as it has a healthy environment and nothing gets in the way of its journey from seed to blossom. The magnificence of the blossom is contained in the tiny seed from which it grows. No matter how hard she might have tried, no matter the extent of her care or the nourishment she provided, Judi could not coax the plant into producing roses. Anything she might have done to try would surely have damaged this thing of beauty.
When people tell us we did a wonderful job raising David and Kathryn, I usually reflect that if we did anything well, perhaps we stayed out of their way just enough. We tried to provide a loving, nourishing environment, but we always knew they had to blossom into the amazing humans they were intended to be; an orchid if it was their birthright or a rose if that’s what was implanted in their soul.
So why have I been given the gifts of David and Kathryn in my life. Maybe, just maybe, they weren’t put here for me to be the teacher, but the learner. Perhaps they are in my life to teach me something about the unimaginable mystery, miracle and beauty of this Universe. This weekend was a magnificent lesson and I am grateful beyond words.