August 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
…at least not the heaven of infinite repose, the one described by the churchy. As the gospel tune says, Wish I was up in heaven sitting down. That heaven is a place with muzak as persistent as a grocery store’s, only heaven’s sound track is an endless medley of praise and pep rally. You go God! (And more harps than any music requires).
Personally, I think any God worthy of the title is above needing or wanting continuous praise, and even the most grateful souls would tire of singing those atta-boys-without-end. Sooner or later some upstart member of the heavenly choir would just have to bust out with “Mustang Sally.”
The big problem is that heaven, as advertised, is static. It drones along. The YOU HAVE ARRIVED sign would get so tiring to the soul that has been staring at it for what seems like an eternity (and perhaps is).
Souls are curious, wandering beings. They rove and ramble, they discover and change. Shouldn’t heaven, any heaven worthy of the name, honor that state of always-in-flux which, to my mind, is one of our most invaluable gifts from the creator?
We are meant to be fluid, always in the process of becoming. We are meant to learn and grow. I want that kind of heaven.
Heaven can’t be a place where we sit and rest, neatly stored like fine china behind the closed door of a polished china cabinet.
I want a heaven that is surprising, stimulating, challenging, a heaven that takes your breath away—a heaven in which we still have breath to take away.
I guess my heaven is right here on earth.
For all its uncertainties, calamities, and disappointments, what could hold more promise, what could be more vivid and exciting? What could be better than life?
Note: If heaven turns out to be what the churches preach, I’ll be that solo voice singing “Mustang Sally.”
June 7, 2020 § 7 Comments
Hope is an investment in the future. It yearns toward an anticipated joy. But when the future is so uncertain it may last just a few days, it is hard to risk such an investment.
As the old saying goes, make a plan, make God laugh.
If we have learned anything from the virus it is that we are not in charge, so why jinx ourselves?
Unavailable for now is the joy that comes from aspiration followed by success. Also unavailable is the joy of a past success remembered.
I don’t imagine myself performing on some future stage; will there ever be a time when Hot Tamale can play for a gaggle of folks standing carelessly close to each other, maybe even dancing? And when a moment from a past performance flashes up, it hurts. Why wasn’t I more appreciative when it happened? How did I ever take it for granted?
I try not to remember or imagine seeing our daughter, her husband, and our two grandsons. Getting to New Jersey seems suddenly like a voyage off the edge of a flat earth.
Joy, as we have known it, is in short supply.
Luckily, there is a second, more spontaneous form of joy, one not predicated on hope. Unplanned, and unearned (like grace) this form of joy is more abundant in this time of crisis. Momentary and unplanned it takes us by surprise. This sudden splash of joy might have gone by unnoticed before the Corona Virus. We were all so busy then, so preoccupied, so puffed up with purpose.
This joy comes unexpectedly, overtaking us without anticipation or planning. Because we are moving slowly enough, mindfully enough, we notice the sudden, intimate beauty of something as small as a milkweed beetle walking a leaf.
Joy is sized to match what is possible. Right now it comes in the smallest of packages: a colorful butterfly in the backyard, a loaf of homemade bread rising in the pan, a two-year-old grandson saying, “How are you guys doin’?,” his face big on the screen.
Stilled and slowed, we take the time to really see what has always been all around us. This new awareness is a byproduct of the disruption of our routines, but it may also be a byproduct of vigilance. We are fully awake and really observing our surroundings, scanning for threats, and as we do so we see everything more clearly, the good as well as the dangerous.
Who knew the world was so beautiful?
We hope to hope again sometime in a future we are deliberately not imagining (why make God laugh?). Until then, we subsist on moments of joy that come unexpected.
And, for once, we are present enough to receive them.
Note: When I wrote this essay in my daily journal, we were hunkered down–as we mostly still are–but we now plan to make that drive off the edge of the earth to go see our daughter and her family in New Jersey. We will make the car trip nearly as self-contained as astronauts aboard the Space Station–and hope we don’t make God laugh.
May 31, 2020 § 5 Comments
In some ways, we have achieved the heightened awareness the post suggests, something we often only gave lip service to before the pandemic.
“Getting it done” often begins with a list:
Bathe the dog, pickup a dozen eggs, lose thirty pounds, finish reading the book started last summer, bake bread, call my sister, write that memoir….
The “how” of “getting it done” will fall somewhere between the following two choices:
1.You juggle. Everything on the list will get done incrementally. A little here, a little there. You move fast and leave each project with an I.O.U. and an apologetic, “Hey, I’ll be back,” and hope no task hits the ground before you can catch it again.
Upside? If you’re good at juggling there is rarely a big mess to clean up, and you don’t disappoint anyone–at least not completely.
Downside? Completion of each task comes with, at best, a moment of relief before you rush on to one of the other projects keening for your attention.
2. The single-project strategy: I will sit in this chair until I write ‘The End’ on this damned memoir! All other projects can pout, twiddle their thumbs, even wither and die because, for me, there is no other project.
Upside? The payoff is huge. You’ve slain the dragon! This calls for a ticker tape parade! A new national holiday!
Downside? You look up, and all your other projects are sickly and wilted, and those who have a stake in those other projects, or simply wanted a decent conversation, are good and ticked off. Still, for some there is only one project and it is worth living for, maybe even dying for: martyrs and saints, writers and artists, scientists and dictators—the rest of us have spouses, bosses, friends, and lists that natter at us too loudly to be ignored.
But neither strategy solves the underlying problem.
Time is the get-it-done problem that can never be solved. Time, a river that flows without end, is infinite. We, the list makers, are not. We, ourselves, are items on a list of a higher order and we will, one day, be crossed off.
As finite beings we have limited time to get anything done. Perhaps we should expend a little of that limited commodity to question the whir that keeps us in constant motion. Perhaps we should sometimes set it all down and do…nothing.
This idea can cause panic. Americans are a get-it-done people. Whether in increments or in one long march, we define ourselves by what we accomplish. The busy person seems far more important than the guy sitting on a bench enjoying the warmth of sunlight on his face.
Still, let’s entertain this idea as a third strategy.
3. Don’t get-it-done. Don’t do anything at all. Just be.
Sit still and feel the sun on your face and call it only, the moment.
You won’t vanish. You won’t depreciate in value. And you won’t sit quiet for long before you are, once again, doing.
But sometimes…sometimes…it is better to be the rock in the river, the rock that simply is, as the river rushes by.
May 24, 2020 § 3 Comments
In our current isolation we reach out to each other virtually. We lean, with longing, toward the screen as if it were a window (we are such social animals).
We are also domesticated indoor animals, techno-animals—but not to this degree. We still like to be physically close to others, not locked in our private towers.
But if we can’t congregate, hug a friend, worship together, celebrate graduation, or gather on poker night, we can open the door and walk outside.
And since we are doing-animals, while out there, we can grow something.
Growing something, in contrast to clicks and keystrokes which move nothing in the real world, creates physical change.
A garden is a literal place.
The gritty dirt, the persistent weeds, the sprawl and tang of tomatoes, the ire of disturbed ants, the weight of sun on bare arms; all are solid-real as the gardener works on a project that responds to sweat-labor, but also to the uncontrollable elements of weather, season, time, and biology.
All we control in the garden is our own, human input, and every one of those inputs is administered by hand so there is dirt under our fingernails. The skin is cracked. Weeds are heartier than the gardener’s desired crop, grow twice as fast, reach for the heart of the earth, and stubbornly hang on as the gardener leans back, muscling them out of the dirt. When the sky withholds, water comes out of a hose held for as long as it takes to soak soil deep—gardeners have a lot of time to think.
And as the gardener thinks, the garden offers lessons.
One of those lessons is humility. Plants don’t care about the gardener’s desires or schedule.
They grow slowly—or they boom.
They thrive—or they don’t.
The gardener can’t dictate which, but is allowed to take credit and swell with pride when harvesting those sun-warmed tomatoes—also allowed is a profound cussing of the bugs, the weather, and the plants themselves.
Gardeners think. And gardeners cuss.
Each growing season is unique. More heat. Less heat. More rain. Less rain. A plague of insects. Insects that only take their share—there are always insects. Organic gardeners understand that tithing to them is part of the deal.
Days pass. Plants sprawl. The pandemic drags on, but if all goes well, as each plant reaches its zenith it will inundate the gardener with too many tomatoes, squash, peppers. Overwhelmed, the gardener will freeze, pickle–and share, even if that share has to be left in a box on a doorstep.
Hopefully, we will have access to each other in person before too many months have passed, but until then, the natural world offers us its company, its lessons, an opportunity to think and cuss, a bounty to share even if we cannot cook and eat it together, and this reminder: we are still residents of Eden, even if it is buggier and requires us to invest more sweat than the Bible led us to believe.
Note: As I walk my neighborhood I see pots of tomatoes edging driveways, fresh-turned garden patches in the middle of lawns that weren’t there prior to the pandemic.
Note 2: Take a listen to The Okra Song. I began writing it as I held a hose in the community garden, the sun beating down—there was more cussing than thought involved until I got home to my guitar.
May 17, 2020 § 4 Comments
I am good at reading people. You are too. We humans get the meaning of gestures. We stand close together so we can make eye contact or put a hand on an arm. We choose our words and the tone in which we say them, we listen for signals that are not embodied in words—just the intake of a breath can be enough to cue us.
Human to human communication is nuanced and subtle, but we get it. Life is a dance we do with others. We lead, we follow. Either way we are attuned to each others’ signals.
But, at least for now, we can’t do that. For now other people are off-limits: people in close proximity; people within range of a hug, a subtle gesture, a facial expression; people close enough to be read human-to-human.
All situations that require cooperation and advice are now mediated through one device or another. Sometimes a human face appears, sometimes a human voice speaks, but often the human is prerecorded, not there in the moment at all.
That face, that voice are no longer connected to a human ear, a human mind, a human heart: “We are currently experiencing longer-than-usual wait times due to the unusually high volume of calls. Hold time is now three hours.”
No human would say that so cheerfully in real time, but the human who said it has no connection to the desperate person on hold.
The voice chirps on: “Continue to hold or press two for a call back.” The caller presses two, but knows, no one is calling back.
In this time of crisis the call that is going unanswered is not frivolous. It is made to procure food, or rent money, or medical advice. It is made after the caller has tried to get an answer through a search of the ether, a search that hit a dead end, the algorithm saying in computer-eze: You have failed to jump through the hoops properly. There is no help forthcoming for you, oh unworthy nitwit.
If only the caller could explain the situation to a human being…
But there is no human being. So the unworthy nitwit gets no answer and feels like a failure into the bargain. In truth, it is The Machine that is the unworthy nitwit. The nuanced, intuitive, thinking, human, who is capable of solving problems in myriad different ways, interfaces with The Machine which thwarts the human for not following its baroque, un-intuitive protocols, for not executing perfectly a series of Mother-May-I steps no human would ever require.
And so, the subtle, thoughtful (and desperate) human being is told. No answer for you. You’re doing it all wrong–but to get by now, we must figure out how to do it right.
As imperfect as the match is, we now interact with The Machine, or if we are interacting with each other, it is often mediated by some form of technology.
We deal with each other, hands-off. No human touch. No human warmth, and every time we are unable to manage the virtual world, we take the blame.
We are stupid, slow, old, frustrated. Stuck.
No we’re not. We’re human.
For the entirety of our evolution we have relied on subtle, person-to-person communication. We have cooperated and collaborated. We have sought each other’s advice, solved problems together. We have lived real, not virtual lives.
There is much to be said for the high-speed, super-fast, data-driven virtual world, especially in a time when we are literally a threat to each other’s health, but if you don’t believe in the greater nuance and power of human-to-human contact step in front of a mirror and make a couple emoji faces. You look insane, right?
The cues we send each other are subtle, multi-layered. Artificial intelligence cannot replace human intelligence and the ingenuity, kindness, and understanding that resides in our gestures, our facial expressions, our voices, our touch—our humanity.
Note: I write this because I miss all of you–and I am mad at a printer that will not do my bidding. I believe if it could, it would be making the face that is at the far right on the bottom row above. It is disquieting to have a printer LOL at me.
May 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
Normal is a collective state, one that self-perpetuates largely because we believe in it.
We rarely question normal, even when it includes horrific behaviors because, heck, it is what it is.
Normal morphs over time, usually gradually, and we adjust, riding that change the way we did as kids jumping the wave at the beach.
But there are switch-throwing moments when “normal” is upended, and the pattern that settles out is wholly new, like a community after a category five hurricane when all the landmarks: the houses, churches, schools, the shoreline have been blown away, scrubbed clean.
Sometimes the abrupt shift is a response to a technological breakthrough: the wheel, the internal combustion engine, the internet. Technology can jolt us into a new normal.
We are at one of those jolt-points now. This time our collective-normal is being reset by a new, efficient, deadly virus.
Holed up in our houses, we are living a game of keep-away that has no obvious end point. We keep away from each other, from our jobs, our plans, and our dreams.
It may well go on long enough that the systems that sustained our agreed-upon normal will wither, rust, break down, atrophy, or blow away with the wind, and the hardships that result will be enormous.
The normal that comes out the other side will be smaller, poorer, leaner, more local, and more pragmatic.
If, after the plague and its mismanagement, our institutions are as badly shattered as it appears they will be, we will be largely on our own. We will fight like street dogs over the scraps, or we will cooperate and help each other; the new normal will be a ruthless demonstration of survival of the fittest, or it will be the dawn of a powerful and active culture of kindness.
I am an optimist. I am counting on kindness to prevail, and I see it already as our current “normal” hurtles toward the edge of the cliff. All around me I see people doing for one another. Sharing.
Either way though, our old normal will never come back and, like it or not, we will shape ourselves to the new normal we are just beginning to see. The normal of two months ago will be a story we tell the young, like tales of long-ago wars, the Great Depression, party lines, the Beatles, and bell bottom pants.
Our old normal will strike young listeners as strange, fantastic. Perhaps those stories of plenty will shine fairy-tale bright. Perhaps they will be jealous of all we had, all we were able to take for granted.
Perhaps the new normal will make listeners turn away in disbelief—surely no one consumed that much, treated the planet that badly, was ever that selfish–no wonder people were called “consumers” back then.
I am not looking forward to the next wave of the virus, and the next, the deaths, the job losses, the hunger, but I am hoping that the agony we are living will produce a new normal, one that is better.
One in which our species is right-sized for its spot in the web of life.
One in which kindness has replaced greed, and we all listen more appreciatively to the hum of the other lives all around us.
Note: Our daughter, Josie Faass, runs a foundation that advocates for change and, like me, she sees this as a moment of peril, but also one of opportunity. Click here to learn more.
May 3, 2020 § 2 Comments
This is how PR works. First, make the customer feel bad about what they are which, in this case, is OLD. Then offer a solution to the problem just created: buy our product and you will be YOUNG again!
Which you won’t, but all they have to do is get you to buy the danged thing they are selling and they’ve done their job.
Their pitch begins with dissing OLD: “Misplacing your glasses, keys, and the name of the guy you talk to every day at the park?” Then they dangle a product. “Take this once-daily pill to turn back the clock and make your brain YOUNG again!”
They work OLD-shaming from many angles.
They go after the easy stuff, like appearance. “Does your skin droop? Hate those crow’s feet, those wrinkles? Don’t worry. We have a cream, a face-lift in a jar! Results guaranteed in just five days.” Six days later OLD buys another miracle wrinkle cure.
If OLD hasn’t noticed it is a little less steady, the PR guys will happily point it out. “Afraid of falling now that you’re OLD? We have a clunky piece of not-jewelry to hang around your neck, just press the button and say these magic words, ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’”
When it comes to the fragility, embarrassment, and the diminishment of physical abilities brought about by age, these guys are relentless. “Can’t get out of a chair? Cook a meal? Tie your shoes? We’ll rent you a helpful, caring, smooth and attractive YOUNG person to do those things for you!”
But these ads, which purport to sum up what it means to be OLD are like characterizing picnics by featuring the flies, the ants, the poison ivy, the mayonnaise that’s gone off, and the 80% chance of rain.
OLD needs a new PR guy, one who has experienced its advantages.
If I were that guy, OLD’s advertisements wouldn’t sell a thing. They would be more like public service announcements highlighting the benefits of OLD.
Congratulations! Because you’re OLD you’ve lost all that unwanted weight!
All right, that was a little deceptive; the weight you’ve lost is not measured in pounds and inches. What you have lost is the weight of self. The YOUNG self is so engorged, so massive, its shadow obscures everything else. YOUNG judges the world in reference to itself. Is this thing good or bad for ME? Other people are just mirrors in which YOUNG assesses the impression it is making. The YOUNG self is a heavy lift.
OLD sees the world much more lucidly and accurately—no big ego obscures the view. OLD travels light and trains its gaze outward.
OLD? Now you have it all!
From the outside, OLD is not all that pretty. But that’s just the outside. OLD is like those Russian nesting dolls. All the selves OLD has ever been are nested inside. The stories run deep and long—they are all in there. OLD is time in a bottle.
You’ve made it! You’re OLD and you’re cool!
OLD has endured every kind of humiliation along the way, OLD has staggered, but kept on walking, and so OLD exhibits the cool of the unflappable. Life has played a series of cruel tricks, inflicted sudden losses. It has proven itself to be unfair, illogical, and quixotic, but OLD has caught on. OLD knows that it can endure almost anything because the hard times pass.
When Life short-sheets OLD, pulls the rug out from under, or leaves a tack on OLD’S chair, OLD stays COOL.
OLD appreciates the good that comes.
When life delivers joy OLD does not take it for granted or feel deserving. OLD is appreciative because OLD knows it could have so easily gone the other way.
OLD knows how to say thanks.
OLD feels gratitude, , and that may be OLD’S deepest wisdom.
Note: I was scrolling through earlier posts and I found one guaranteed to take your mind off the pandemic: John Dillinger’s Dick
April 26, 2020 § 8 Comments
I take nothing for granted these days. I make no easy assumptions. I have no expectations beyond this moment.
This makes disappointment less likely and, strangely, it makes the small things: modest tasks accomplished, the beauty of the non-human life around me, the throaty voice of my guitar, the unexpected message from a friend, feel like gifts—if I don’t expect, anticipate, or feel deserving-of, when the good happens, gratitude washes over me.
This flood of gratitude, far rarer when I believed I controlled my destiny, is a reaction I hope I don’t lose when the panic passes.
The downside is that I don’t dare to hope or let myself look ahead and plan—what if the current darkness catches me nurturing that glimmer and snuffs it out?
Without hope or plan, I hold on tight to right-now, the future a bridge too rickety to walk across.
I clutch this moment hard, doing one thing, then the next. I call a friend, stir the spaghetti sauce on the stove, sit on my front stoop and gaze into the yard, I cross a small and finite task off my small and finite list, and I keep going.
Yes, I keep going.
I haven’t given up. I hold a pen and write my daily pages, realizing that if nothing else, I am a witness, one of many court stenographers recording the unfolding and overwhelming case being made by the pandemic.
Although what I am recording has changed since “normal” took a hike, I have always been a writer, a journal-keeper. By doing the things I have always done I prove to myself that I am still me.
And so I write.
I make music.
I weed the garden.
I reach out to others, although I can no longer hug them, or get close enough to breathe the same air.
I study the buzz and hum of the natural world.
And I think.
I am still here, acknowledging—and experiencing perhaps for the first time—this moment.
I would love to regain the luxury of planning, the comfort of believing in a long, long future, but this moment is all I have, and I now realize, it is all I’ve ever had. And it is enough.
April 19, 2020 § 6 Comments
I remember neighbors in our suburban New Jersey development bringing their kids over to see my dad’s garden. “This is where vegetables come from,” they’d say, meaning, vegetables grow out of the dirt, and this is what they look like before they are put in cellophane-wrapped boxes, but the kids would blink up at their parents. “Vegetables come from Mr. Fogelin’s garden?”
As adults we are almost as clueless. Our vegetables still come out of cellophane-wrapped boxes, grocery store freezers, plastic bags, those snap-shut lettuce coffins, and the bounty is endless.
We can have any fruit or vegetable at any time of year. “Seasonal” is a nice little flourish added to items on the supermarket promo that gets tossed in the driveway once a week. “Seasonal” means local, or fairly local, and probably recently picked, but our supply chain centipedes across continents, and we don’t even think about where those vegetables come from.
As long as grocery store shelves are well-stocked, why would we think about it? Our food comes from everywhere! Sure, once in a while we are inconvenienced by the absence of a particular item at the grocery store, but that’s all it is; an inconvenience. Until now, we’ve had no reason to contemplate the magic of supply.
Now, as supply and demand lurch like a pair of mismatched dance partners, maybe it is time to consider the true cost of this way of feeding ourselves.
Is a box of tomatoes trucked across the country to a supermarket the same as a colander-full of tomatoes grown in Mr. Fogelin’s garden?
Getting commercial tomatoes to Publix contributes to global warming as the climate-controlled truck steams along the interstate. Growing those tomatoes likely polluted a local water source as mono-cultures require lots of pest control (Mr. Fogelin’s tomatoes were not always perfect, but in my book, delicious and sun-warmed beat perfect). Since days-to-market equal money, a lot of growth-boosting inputs were poured on those commercial plants.
Having picked up produce at a local market for our neighborhood food bank, I know, firsthand, the amount of waste in the system. The USDA estimates that food waste in America runs between 30 and 40 percent.
What if…what if we moved production closer to consumption? Wouldn’t we be more resilient and less vulnerable in times like these?
What if we reckoned the true cost of getting what we want any time we want it, and what if we were required to pay the true cost?
If we ran on that calculus, there would be more gardens like my dad’s, and less plastic, fewer pesticides, less CO2 in the atmosphere, no mono-cultures, and kids would know vegetables come from sunlight, water, and dirt (some of which is under the gardener’s fingernails). All it takes is a patch of earth, a packet of seeds, and rolled up sleeves.
I recognize that what I am saying has been said many times before, but we have been given one big gift by this catastrophe; the gift of time, and with that gift, the opportunity to rethink the way we do things.
Note: In many parts of the country it is time to turn the soil and plant some seeds. How about it?
April 12, 2020 § 3 Comments
God sat slumped, his hands on his knees.
When he had unbottled the primal soup that got the whole universe-time-life thing going he had unleashed a festival of possible outcomes, but perhaps he had added too much of that one ingredient, change.
Or perhaps the element, striving, which was shared by all things lit with the spark of life, was too strong.
Or it could be that he had stirred in too little of that moderating element, balance…
But for whatever reason, once in a while one of the competitors in the panoply of living species went rogue. It out-competed and overwhelmed the others.
There was that time with the locusts, a rustling conflagration that blackened the sky…
Prior to the current Corona virus plague, the species now under attack, the one self-named Homo sapiens, had mounted a plague of its own, one that made locusts look like pikers.
Homo sapiens were indiscriminate when it came to who they plagued: elephants, trees, fish, water, air, and earth.
But now, they were the ones in trouble. The ones snuck up on, and they were scared.
God sighed. He had a soft-spot for Homo sapiens, although their gathered praise embarrassed him (even if he did enjoy the singing). He poured succor down when they suffered, but did not give them what they asked for, which was a fix, a miracle. As much as they begged and flattered, he didn’t change the what-is he had created. It didn’t work that way.
If only they could see existence as so much more vast than what they were experiencing on the pinpoint of time. If only they put their faith in the eternal what-is. Then they would know that everything was, is, and always will be, okay.
But in this moment they are panicked. He’d seen this behavior before, this retreat into superstition; hadn’t he given them minds, curiosity, and reason?
Yes, he had. He’d equipped them with a tool kit to fix just about anything.
Now, all he could do was sit and watch, rooting for the ones with test tubes, charts, determination, and focus, pouring encouragement down on those who were throwing their own lives in the path of the deadly virus, and mourn those who behaved as mindlessly as the virus that was plaguing them.
“Come on, Homo sapiens,” he whispered. “Open the tool kit I gave you. Come on, Homo sapiens. Live up to the name you’ve given yourselves!”
Note: Click “The Never-Ending Adventures of God” page to read more accounts of the Almighty in action.