[Preface: I received my PET scan results this week. It looks all good. I still have a small nodule in my bottom right lung but it continues to shrink. Otherwise, no spread of the disease. So the healing continues to go well. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and positive energy.]
I think I’m inadvertently starting a series of posts on a topic. Last week I wrote about Addiction and Recovery. Today I’m writing about darkness.
Some people suffer seasonal depression around this time of year. I never understood that before, but I am feeling it acutely this year. I’m also feeling a bit of survivor’s guilt. Which, for me, is wrongly named. It should be squander’s guilt. I don’t feel bad about surviving– I feel bad about looking back and thinking I should have accomplished more with this time that I didn’t even know I would have back in April.
Writing it out, I can see that I’m putting the intention in the wrong place with that feeling. It shouldn’t be about accomplishment, it should be about practice and love– which I try my best to engage in daily. But somehow, especially this time of year, it doesn’t feel like enough.
I heard something last year that put a radical spin on my understanding of this dark time of year, the season that the church refers to as Advent. The following text is from the Rob Bell (a spiritual writer) podcast, called the RobCast. This episode is called Darkness and Hope but I’m focusing on the darkness here. If you’d like to listen to it in its entirety, it can be found here. The podcast is an interview with Alexander Shaia, who has a background in anthropology, studied under Joseph Campbell, and is from Birmingham, Alabama. After listening to this, and finding this again this year, I need to read more of this guy.
The subjects of this blog might seem oddly timed, but I’ve been focusing on addiction and recovery in the past few weeks. I think that the seasonal depression that some of us might be experiencing (whether it’s from the holiday blues or the early darkness) call for this exploration.
I have a family member struggling with addiction. I pray for recovery and transformation for this family member. It’s hard to hear about, hard to accept the powerlessness, and hard not to become cynical about all of it. In the book An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture, one of the writers tells about his ex-wife who was an alcoholic and eventually died from it. While she was still struggling, the writer had a breakfast with Ivan Illich and the writer went over all of the measures he and the family had taken to try to get her conquer her alcoholism. Exasperated, he finished with, “I just don’t know what else to do.” Ivan Illich responded: “Grieve.” Indeed, I am grieving for this family member.
Something different for this week. I’d like to share a poem and a prayer. Both have meant a great deal to me and have helped me in even the lowest parts of my journey.
The poem is by Jellaludin Rumi (a 13th century Sufi mystic) and it’s called The Guest House. The prayer is the St. Francis Peace Prayer or sometimes called the St. Francis Prayer. This prayer is used by Alcoholic Anonymous in their 12 step recovery process. I’d like to write more on addiction and recovery and am working on a large piece on exploring the spiritual side of that. Have a good weekend, everyone. And have a good Thanksgiving week!
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
The Saint Francis Peace Prayer
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
I learned my MRI results this week. My brain is clear of any lesions (tumors). Except for the resection (the cavity from my brain surgery), my MRI looks like a typical brain. In doctor-speak, this is a complete response. In August, my MRI was a partial complete response. I’ve been upgraded. There was little else to talk about for my appointment. We set the next scan for 4 months out.
I took my last steroid pill this morning. Tomorrow will be my first day in 8 weeks with no steroids. I’m already feeling very good. I think by the end of the weekend I’ll be feeling even better.
I have a PET scan at the end of the month and I find out the results in the first week of December. I’m going to hold off on the weekly updates until then. Things have calmed down considerably. It feels forced to give weekly updates during long periods of inactivity. No news is good news.
I’ll still keep the main blog going and write weekly. Initially, I set the goal writing once a week for 1 year. I’m still aiming for that.
All of this good feeling has me basking in the awe of feeling put back together again. I feel like I was broken, and broken for a long time. It’s only through the love and grace of my family, friends, and professionals (medical and otherwise) that I became functional first, and now exceptional. I am not worse for the wear- my past has become wisdom, and the scars I bear show the power of love and community. I find the Japanese art of kintsugi tells a small part of the journey I’ve gone through in becoming a New Man.
When I was little I never liked westerns. I thought they were boring. They didn’t have spaceships or new planets, and worst of all, they took place in the past. Yuck. I always went for more Star Wars replays over watching a dated Western. Even the combination of western and sci-fi, the 3rd Back to the Future movie, was a bummer for me as a kid (and still is, sort of). And now, as I age, I realize westerns might be more dear to me– because they take place here, on Earth. I think the magic of westerns comes from the “anything is possible” framwork of the chaotic Old West. But it’s an “anything is possible” within boundaries– there are still deeds, and laws, and justice. And only a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of beaucracy (which is always vilified). I think we’re attracted to westerns on an unconscious level because they take place in nature, and in a version of America hasn’t yet turned into Pavement-Land. It certainly appears that living in the present was a whole lot easier when adventuring in frontier territory.
I grew to love westerns as I came into adulthood. I’m realizing now, it was thanks to music, and not TV or movies. I’m still not completely taken with western movies or TV shows. HBO’s Deadwood is the closest I’ve come to really being taken by show set in the West (the show is essentially Game of Thrones without the dragons and it’s set in an Old West frontier town. Also explicit like Game of Thrones).
Now I can recognize that I have Bob Dylan to thank for my love of the Old West. And Josh Ritter, too.
This past weekend my hometown buddies gathered together at a friend’s beach house and celebrated my latest PET scan. It was an opportunity to see me, hang out, give me a high-five and some hummus, and for a bunch of guys to see friends they rarely see, and engage in….dare I say, “guy things.”
Well, maybe it’s our age but “guy things” turns out to be pretty tame, but really really fun. I had to be the first to bed both nights because of my steroid / head pain issues but I wish that I had been able to stay awake and chat with those fellows until the early morn.
[I did wake up early on Saturday and watch the sunrise for an hour. That was a powerful way to start a morning. Picture below.]
The type of crew assembled that weekend really enjoys games- video and table top. (Tabletop gaming is just another way of saying board games. Blame the “kids these days”.) We all had brought an assortment of video game consoles and contemporary tabletop games (no monopoly, or yahtzee to be found there).
The game that stole the weekend was a tabletop game called Red Dragon Inn.
[Check out the new menu on the home page. In case you didn’t see I post weekly health / well-being updates on the “My Journey” section. Fixed for mobile, too.
Thanks to the WordPress helper who assisted me to fix this. I recommend WordPress with all the accolades I have as a blogging platform.]
When I was in the hospital I signed up for a weekly email summary of daily devotionals from Richard Rohr. (I’ve already written about how I gobbled up Falling Upward by him while in the hospital and at home during my recovery.) I enjoy many of them, but this one stuck out enough that I feel moved to write more about it.
In it he discusses Inner and Outer Freedom, and uses the phrase “on the edge of the inside.”
…On the edge of the inside. I like it. It’s got a certain ring, doesn’t it? If someone said Warren Buffett described himself that way, everyone would say, “Of course! Such a folksy genius!”
I swear I’m not trying to make a habit of posting about books I haven’t read yet. But I feel compelled to post about Chris Arnade and his searching.
Some of this may be apocryphal but I find that telling stories in your own words (as opposed to citing and footnoting the daylights out of a document) can add flavor.
Chris Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who reached his limit and decided to walk away from it all. Like Forrest Gump, he decided to just start walking. But he chose to walk in the places that people had advised him not to go to. Neighborhoods where “people like him” shouldn’t walk around. He sought out those places. He walked them, and then he started to talk to the people there.
Preface: In this post I refer to some music styles and their designed appeal to the troops. This is not a commentary on people in military service or their music preferences. As I’ll say in the post, troops (or members of military services) are not a monolith. They are complex and cannot be grouped or labeled. For a more insightful analysis of military service members, veterans, and their treatment in our society I recommend Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
Americana music. What is it? The word “roots” seems to come up a lot. Is it something still involving singing and guitars but not Nashville country and not alternative rock? Is it folk music with an edge? I don’t know. I’m not a music blogger (I think that requires a lot of work and energy), but I would like to dive into 3 songs from 3 different artists that have resonated with me.
Josh Ritter. How can you not love this guy? He is so happy at every show he plays. He’s got so much on-stage energy. His songwriting is deep and reflective, sometimes even dark. His band, The Royal City Band, plays as if they’re the successors to Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Band.
I haven’t read the book yet, but I pre-ordered it and it arrived on my doorstep on Tuesday. I am so excited about this book.
Some background. I found Ryan Holiday on a podcast when he released Ego Is the Enemy. The podcast was simply a sample of him reading a selected chapter, entitled What’s Important to You? It tracks the post-Civil War careers of Ulysses G. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman (known to us as General Sherman). While Grant was swept along into politics, eventually becoming president, he was out of his depth and did not know when to say no or how to be comfortable with himself. He accomplished little in office, and then was caught up in a Ponzi scheme. He finished his days trying to write his memoirs in order to leave something behind for his family.
“There is no such thing as normal. Let’s stop using that word.”
In my appointments with my neurosurgeon I’m always waiting to ask about a particular milestone or typical level of function. “When will I be able to take in media without any limits, like normal?” “When would I be able to work a normal workload?” “When will my head pain stop, and be normal?” “When will I be able to normally sleep on the right-side of my head?”
And his response:
“There is no such thing as normal. Let’s stop using that word.”
His elaborate answer is always something along the lines of: go slow, and listen to your body. I’m looking for the certificate of achievement, a mile-marker, or an acknowledgement that confirms that I can return back to the self I was before April. But there is no certificate, mile-marker, or black-and-white “Yes, you’re good now,” statement. There never will be. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, there never was. There is no such thing as normal.
My habits, my daily routines, my diet, my ability to engage in a typical American 40 hour-per-week career— that has all been changed forever. I’m learning to live with that. Some of it’s good and some of it’s, well, a difficult adjustment.
This past month I started maintenance immunotherapy treatments. The maintenance phase is supposed to be easy. Less side-effects, one drug instead of two drugs, and a less frequent infusion schedule. I thought I had graduated from normal immunotherapy treatments to maintenance immunotherapy treatments.
As you know, if you follow the “My Journey- Updates” page, within 1 week of my first maintenance treatment I came down with immunotherapy induced hepatitis. Low-fever, body aches, lost of appetite, lost of flavor in food, and extreme fatigue. I was put on a regimen of steroids to get my liver function back, it had an immediate and very good effect on my overall sense of well-being. I was myself again. The fatigue was gone, and food tasted great! I also felt a strange sense of energy. I was more than happy to pick-up and drop-off kids, cook, clean, organize, and play as much Mr. Mom as I could. In a way it felt normal. But there is no such thing as normal.
This past week, the steroid regimen has revealed itself in the form of very noticeable side effects. To begin with, I can’t sleep. Even when I’m exhausted, I can’t get more than 3-4 hours of sleep at night. I don’t wake up groggy but I’m not bursting with energy either. My heart is pounding hard in my chest and all I can think of are to-do list activities for the day. So I start them obscenely early. My energy is frantic and un-contained. By the time other beings in my house wake up too, I’m already tired and stressed.
That’s the second side effect. Mood swings. The kids come down stairs, which brightens my day, right? But then they start fighting over a toy or a cereal spoon, and I turn into Drill Sergeant Dad while they’re wiping away crusty eyes in their superhero pajamas. I immediately over-compensate and start explaining why Dada’s so frustrated while I pat their backs and stroke their hair. They start eating dutifully and I find hot tears streaming down my cheeks.
Something else happens and I’m back to Drill Sergeant Dad. Paige will come down and say hello to everyone and all I can muster is a very weak, “Hey,” which, I know, comes off as if I’m mad at her for something, but I’m not at all. I just don’t know what else I can say or do or anything.
Then the situation reaches ultimate tension and it’s the dagger-in-the-heart proposal from Paige. “Listen, I’ll just take the kids and you can do your thing, okay?”
That’s the last thing I want! No, I want to be with the kids! I want us all to be here, together, happy, enjoying the moment with sugary cereals and coffee for the grown-ups. But that’s impossible now, and it’s only 7am.
When I do have moments of solitude, those are not immune to the effects of the steroids. I can be very peaceful and find a place of relaxation. But then my mind will go somewhere, and trigger a very emotional memory (like our dog Athena passing away), and even in my favorite outdoor chair I’m a tearful mess again.
Third. I’m always eating. Always. Vegan food loading isn’t easy. For me, it’s been lots of breads, high fiber cereals with oat-milk, fruits, nuts, and lots of peanut butter. The post-digestion side of all of this is a house of horrors as well. I feel like I’m walking around in my own toxic cloud, Pig-Pin style. It’s so frequent I feel like I’m contributing to global warming emissions. I tell Paige that I think I’m ruining furniture. I can’t believe she still sleeps next to me.
There are mental games too. Thoughts about the permanency of these effects. Is this stuff better than the ailment? What got us here? Why did we do choice A instead of choice B? Are our lives over because I’m on a steroid regimen for who-knows-how-long?
I thought I was on the right path and had it down.
After the September PET scan I thought it was all going to get easier, a downhill motion, a return to normal.
But there is no such thing as normal.
I’ve made the decision to take a break from work again.
I have a few dates on the calendar out there for trips and events, but I’m not adding to them.
I have to do this even slower than one-day-at-a-time. This is going to require six-hours-at-a-time style evaluating. That’s my choice, at this moment.
It is mass hypnotism? Is it the shear inertia of habits, incentives, rewards, and a strange-acceptable-flow of what a normal life is supposed to look like, that makes most of us take one career-like pursuit and call that our “work”? And then further to take that “work” and self-identify with it and use that as the defining mark of who we are.
What do these statements say about these people?
“Oh, Steve? Yeah, he’s an accountant.” “Oh, Ashley? Yeah, she’s a doctor.” “Oh, Bryan? Yeah, he works in finance.” “Oh, Russ? Yeah, he’s a minister.” “Oh, Tom? Yeah, he works at Lowes.” “Oh, Bob? Yeah, he’s an über driver.”
NOTHING. There might be some helpful handles there about what schooling they made or may not have. But besides that…?
All of those people could be working a 2nd job. Or have a very enjoyable side-hussle. Or be workaholics. But in their adult life, no one has physically forced them to pursue any of those choices.
The choice is yours. What do you want your day to look like? What do you want your life to look like?
Do you need to wait for cancer? Do you need a tragic-death-in-the family? Do you really need to wait to the point of over-the-top misery before doing something radical about it?
It’s your choice. Because there is no such thing as normal.
Again, my son Will picked the movie for a Friday-night movie night. His choice was The Greatest Showman, which overtook our household last September and forced us into a late costume change from Moana characters into characters from The Greatest Showman for our church’s Halloween family costume contest (side-note: we won).
If you haven’t seen this movie of finding hope, beauty, and redemption in the wonder and diversity of humanity, I hope you’ll give it a chance. It’s a movie that is a loose biography of Phineas T. Barnum and his journey of putting together the Ringling Brothers and P.T. Barnum & Bailey circus. Sure, the movie might gloss over his penchant for profiteering or bending the truth slightly to sell a show. But the movie does recast P. T. Barnum as a “woke” Barnum. One who finds beauty in all of the diversity of humanity, then dresses it up (maybe with some exaggeration), and organically sells it as a extraordinary show. He brings people together previously outcast as “freaks” or “oddities,” from the fringes of society. Instead of shunning them, he brings them front and center, and celebrates them.
I was lucky to be invited by a friend up to Charlotte, NC for the Hootie and the Blowfish, and Barenaked Ladies concert. Hootie was the headliner and they put on a great show. It felt like a celebration. Something was strange about the weather that day (most likely due to Hurricane Dorian) and the Charlotte weather was fantastic. There was an ever-present gentle breeze almost throughout the entire concert. The crowd was nearly Canadian in their politeness. What a good time.
During the concert, Hootie sang their anthem hit song pretty early. The opening words, after 25 years, still have a loving power to them. As if Martin Luther King Jr. was a songwriter.
With a little love, and some tenderness We’ll walk upon the water, We’ll rise above the mess
With a little peace, and some harmony We’ll take the world together, We’ll take them by the hand,
Hootie and the Blowfish, Hold My Hand
Don’t we all need to hear this so much right now? The name of the tour, fittingly, is Group Therapy (which is also the name of a Columbia, SC bar).
I’m excited to share that my PET scan came back with phenomenal results. The melanoma has not spread anywhere new. Of the existing 6 tumors that lit up previously, only 1 tumor showed up on this PET scan, registering at 5mm (down from 1.2cm in May). 5mm is also the smallest measurement a PET scan can pick up. This is the nodule in my right lung. I don’t have pictures of the scans to share with you, but I will tell you that the May PET scan of this nodule and the August PET scan are night-and-day. My oncologist even remarked that they wouldn’t even notice if they weren’t looking for it. The term “remission” was used (more on that in a bit).
I’ve used the term “True Self” in earlier posts. It’s a phrase I’ve lifted from Richard Rohr and his work on finding our True Selves in absence of ego and other “shadows”. (Which, he most likely picked up from Carl Jung.) While it’s a theme found in a lot of his work, he really develops this in his book about True Self and False Self, The Immortal Diamond. (Spoiler: The True Self is the Immortal Diamond.)
But I’ve had this nagging feeling that I’ve heard something very similar in a book I read about, of all things, sports.
At the beginning of this month, I had the chance to take my wife and children to the camp I grew up going to and worked at during summer breaks during college. The camp is called Cedarkirk and it’s loosely Scottish for “church in the trees.” A lot of my friends from my hometown church, and my camp days were coming back to join me, and introduce their families to Cedarkirk. It was a remarkable homecoming. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about how much my wife would enjoy it. When given the choice, there was never a debate with her about whether to “rough it” or choose air conditioning and a hot shower. Her susceptibility to bug bites and the quarter-sized welts they leave for days convinced me not to push the extreme camping adventure with her any time soon. But at the first night at camp, we met in a hallway after getting the kids to bed. We embraced and she told me, “I get it. I understand why. There is no ego here.”
When talking with friends and family about what I’ve been through, the topic of my radical perspective shift comes up over and over. And I always say that “staring down the barrel of that gun” or “dangling on the edge of that cliff” or “looking straight into the abyss” will do that do a person. But I am also quick to follow up with the qualifier that a person can’t force that experience onto themselves. It just has to happen— and dying will do that.
In my much loved (now dog-eared and marginalia-covered) book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, he writes the same sentiment— that one cannot force the second phase of their spirituality to happen. It just does. But he also mentions that it seems common for it to happen to people sometime around their mid-40s.
I have heard of someone who did manage to simulate their own dying experience and come away changed forever as a result. Kevin Kelly is former editor-at-large at WIRED magazine and has his hands in a long list of fascinating projects. He’s written several books about technology and the future. I’ve read his latest futurist book, The Inevitable, and recommend it if you’re interested in things like what automation will look like, AI, and the singularity. At the heart of his futurist predictions there are very rooted and optimistic outlooks on what we as humans will learn from our own advancements. To paraphrase his take on automation, when robots learn to do everything we do and obviate the need for work, the result will be that we will learn, deeply, what it is to be human.
The following summary of this story was made into the very first episode of This American Life. He also reflects on it during a long-form interview on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast.
Mark Twain has some good zingers when it comes to a well-placed jab at organized religion. Although his eloquent critiques of doctrinal organization and dogma don’t completely aim to do away with religion, they do provide plenty of fuel to the fire for people who like to scapegoat religion as The Problem in the world. Consider the following:
“So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.”
Mark Twain, A Biography
“Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven….The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.”
This confusion about our True Self and False Self is much of the illusion of the first half of life, although most of us do not experience the problem then. Only later in life can we perhaps join with Thomas Merton, who penned one of my favorite lines, “If I had a message to my comptemporaries it is surely this: be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…if you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” Success is hardly ever your True Self, only your early window dressing. It gives you some momentum for the journey, but it is never the real goal. You do not know that, however. In the moment, it just feels right and good and necessary- and it is. For a short while.
-Richard Rohr, The Immortal Diamond, Thomas Merton, Love and Living
So this one’s a bit of the blog post and leaning towards a bit of the “My Journey”, right? Well, we all know both of those distinct sections are going to merge together sooner or later, that’s where we’re headed, right?
For my birthday, Paige got me a quick-read book entitled Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. I hadn’t heard of it but after reading a blurb about Kate (35 years old, married with an 18 month-old son when diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer) I raced through the book in two days.
Kate Bowler also has a very active website, articles, podcast, and book club. She is a divinity professor at Duke Divinity School who has specialized in the prosperity gospel. [An aside for my a-religious friends. Prosperity gospel focuses on receiving rewards such as money, health, or success in exchange for being a faithful Christian, or in some crude cases, in exchange for money given to a church. Thinking televangelists. It’s the worst example of a very conditional arrangement.] I feel very drawn to Kate’s work and her perspective throughout her diagnosis, surgery, and treatment. Not that she would take me up on it, but I wished I would’ve been familiar with her work when Paige and I went up to Duke Cancer Center for our 2nd opinion consult so I could’ve asked to meet for coffee or lunch. Stage IV besties probably isn’t a thing but it would be fantastic to have a conversation with her.
“We are being trained to commodify our own impulses so that everything can be translated into a purchase.”
[preface: Full disclosure, I am a member of the REI coop. I’ve participated in Spartan races, and I’ve planned trips around athletic “adventures.” Yes, I am part of the problem. This blog post is directed to me, too.]
One source of consist restorative energy I’ve found has been nature. Even during my very limited days during recovery I would sit and watch the wind blow through the branches of trees through the window for 30 to 45 minutes and enjoy it like a movie. Better still was enjoying a meal and an audiobook outside. Usually breakfast but sometimes lunch as well. We have a covered, screened deck and it makes sitting and eating outside easy and enjoyable. I still do these activities, although the summer heat has made meals on the deck a bit less pleasurable but it’s worth it.
Taking a walk around the neighborhood or walking with my brother on the Swamp Rabbit Trail downtown have been restorative activities that take me away from screens and insert me back into life itself.
Nature is divine. Not in the sense that nature is magic. And not in a way that implies pantheism (God is nature). Rather, nature is divine in a panentheism way (the belief that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it).
[Preface: I try to update this blog every Thursday morning or at the least by Thursday PM. I had family in town this week, which was great, but also pushed out this post a bit. It also took longer because it required a good bit of re-reading.]
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred…let me sow love, Where there is injury…pardon, Where there is doubt…faith, Where this is despair…hope, Where there is darkness…light, Where there is sadness…joy.”
Saint Francis of Assisi, plaque found in the lobby of Saint Francis Downtown hospital
“Blessed is he who expectedth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”
“What you’re looking for is what you’re looking with.”
St. Francis of Assisi
My subject for this post is Saint Francis of Assisi. The hospital I was in is named “Saint Francis Downtown”, the hospital I got my alarming CT scan at is named “Saint Francis Eastside.” It’s all part of the Bon Secours (french for Good Heart) hospital system here in Upstate, South Carolina. It’s a Catholic health institution and it’s very common for me to overhear a Psalm or quick devotion read aloud over the PA system when I am in one of their facilities for an appointment or treatment. I thought it would be annoying but, surprisingly, it hasn’t been.
The only thing I knew about Saint Francis before this year was that he was the Dr. Doolittle of Catholic saints and that, for some reason, my class watched a 1961 live-action biography movie of him in 6th grade and we all laughed at his naked backside when he stepped out into nature sans clothes.
This year (before my hospitalization) I began to listen to podcasts with Fr. Richard Rohr as a guest. He is a Franciscan Friar in the Order of Friars Minor (OFM, Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or “Lesser Brothers”). I did not expect to be drawn to the teachings of an older, aged, Catholic leader but his emphasis on love over dogma immediately had me drawn to what he was saying and writing. In one of the podcasts he’s featured on, he mentioned that before he was even allowed to open the Bible for study he had to endure four years of philosophy teachings to ensure that he would be ready to read scriptures contextually. I could go on and on about him, and his books, but I also became very drawn to the namesake of his Order, Saint Francis, this lover of nature, champion of grace, and mercy.
Once I got back from the hospital I started my mornings by preparing a breakfast of a plate full of fruit and would eat it outside, one blueberry at a time, under our covered patio, while listening to the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton.
This blog is titled Enlightenment At Gunpoint: A Blog about Living in the Moment. This phrase, living in the moment, is commonly used interchangeably with phrases like living in the present, or being present, or mindfulness, or intentional living. What I want to focus on for this post is the present, which I think is so valuable I will rename this blog to Enlightenment At Gunpoint: A Blog about Living In the Present.
Our culture has a love/hate relationship with living in the present. In someways it embraces it, studies it, and encourages more of it. In other ways, it is actively undermining it nearly everywhere we look. My last entry talked about LEGOs and jigsaw puzzles and how those activities force you to live in the present. We do have an aspect of our culture that spreads being present propaganda: Go outside. Take a walk. Stop and smell the roses. Even with crowds of other people, our society loves moments of living in the present. I think it’s why, as Americans, we love sports so much. When that football player is twisting his body to make that incredible catch he is living in the present and nowhere else. It’s why we love movies. Two hours to stop thinking about anything except entertainment? Sure! But this infatuation with the present stops at greeting-card level introspection. We all have the wonder-destroyer (a phrase lifted from spiritual writer Rob Bell) always in our pockets– vibrating, giving us notifications, and demanding we scroll some more, even in the midst of an good meal with family or close friends. Now it seems every restaurant has multiple TVs mounted up, one found in every ceiling corner. Unless the restaurant is a sports bar, it should not have TVs in it. It takes us out of the present. It takes us away from our families we are dining with and the food we should be enjoying.
When I was in the hospital, one of the items I asked Paige to grab during an errand run was a LEGO set. Any set. It didn’t matter. The idea was focusing on a task and working to put something together and feel a sense of completion when it was all done.
She came back with a Star Wars set and I overestimated how much flat surface real estate I would have in a hospital room. I didn’t end up doing the set until I returned home but the upside was that my daughter and son helped me piece it all together.
Someone asked me why, as an adult, I was so into LEGOs. It’s therapy for me. How many projects can we undertake and then completely finish with something fun to see, hold, and touch in 2-4 hours? (Depends on the LEGO set, of course. Mina and I worked on the Parisian Cafe during nights for a couple of weeks before it was finished.)
I am so excited to be sharing this with you all. I’ve been sitting on this book for a while, just waiting for this post to gleefully shout from the mountain tops about how wonderful it is.
Today I’m writing about the book Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. I took this book in through audio-book form, read by the author. It’s a short audiobook (a little over 4 hours) and A.J. Jacobs’s voice is very…distinct. Please keep in mind, I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t love it.
Some background. A.J. Jacobs gets his book premises from wild ideas. He’s the guy that wrote The Year of Living Biblically (which I think had to have helped inspire A Year of Biblical Womanhood by the late Rachel Held Evans) in which he tries to follow every law in the Bible for a year in order to experience something profoundly spiritual. (He focuses deeply on Old Testament law and, spoiler alert, his profound spiritual experience ends up being a 10 second out-of-body experience during a dance with his toddler daughter. Well…what can you say? Mysticism is weird.) So, now back in his daily life, over dinner he says a form of grace and says thank you for the food they are about to consume. He thanks the farmers and all of the people who worked hard to make and provide their food. His young son points out, “Dad. They can’t hear you. Why don’t you say thank you to them so they can hear it?” Boom. Book idea.
As promised, here is the Will video. As far as sentimentality goes, this one ramps it up. To begin with, it’s a long song so there are more pictures. But overall it’s more brutal and unrelenting.
Credit to Phosphorescent’s Beautiful Boy from his C’est La Viealbum. By the way, Phosphorescent is an “Athens, GA’s-own” musician and this entire album is great; I strongly recommend it. Thank you to my church friend who introduced me to Phosphorescent while chatting over coffee sometime last year— this friend is my connection to new music and I’d be forever lost in a 90s music echo loop without him. Again, thank you to my friend who finally won the Apple versus PC debate— it only took a brain tumor for me to get over myself. Thanks also to my friend the excellent audio-visual engineer who also serves as my instant self-esteem booster whether I ask for it or not.
This was a project I had the idea for a while back, before the brain surgery, before the cancer diagnosis. I really wanted to make a music video featuring my kids. One for each kid that I really connected with and had a message I would want to say to them. The brain surgery and cancer diagnosis made the need for this project very urgent. I’ve been working on this since I got back from the hospital. There are two videos. One for Mina and one for Will. Next week will be Will’s.
Credit to Ben Fold’s Gracie from his Songs for Silverman album. Thank you to my friend who finally won the Apple versus PC debate after I realized iMovie was what stuff like this was made for. I bought a MacBook Pro and made these little videos. It was not difficult and I look forward to making more. Thanks also to my friend who is an excellent audio-visual engineer and helped me determine ideal timing and zooming and all of those things that a rookie like me has no clue about.
About a month before I was hospitalized, I was running up a mountain in 34 degree weather on a Saturday morning. 3.5 miles up and 3.5 miles down. I was not concerned about my finishing time— only finishing (Which I did. My time, if you’re curious, was 2 hours and 45 minutes.) In November of 2018, I completed my second Spartan Sprint race with my college friend Thomas. I liked challenging myself physically even though I had to work hard to be average. (I think it’s important for everyone to find something like this. It makes us grow, and humbles us at the same time.) I was mapping out the year in terms of training and when I could do Spartan Super and Beast races in order to make the list of Trifecta (completing all three Spartan races) in 2019, before I turned 40.
Then I had brain surgery. All of that disappeared in a series of 6 days. After the surgery I still wanted some activity. I could walk around the hospital floor for 1 or 2 laps, but that was all. I starting searching for “seated Tai Chi” videos on youtube. I quickly found David-Dorian Ross and starting practicing Tai Chi right there in my hospital bed. It felt liberating. There is also a certain dovetailing of Tai Chi into the deep meditation practices I was developing. Somehow this was all coming together.
Tai Chi Qigong is a slow moving art form of body movement and breathing. It focuses on the concept of “qi” (pronounced “chi”), the idea of an “animating power that permeates the universe and all living things.” (I understand this is a big buy. Either buy-in or move on.) There is emphasis on the breath (which I feel is critical) and slow movement. During my recovery I’ve been forced to do things slow. I keep finding more and more value in this. And now this form of light exercise celebrates slow movement. There is an ineffable grace to the unison of the breathing and movement through the Tai Chi forms. I have found great value in two particular seated Tai Chi videos (see Resources at the bottom). I have also started some standing Tai Chi but am going very slowly. This is a daily practice for me unless doctor appointments don’t allow me the time necessary.
I experimented with some videos outside of David-Dorian Ross but Paige will tell you how upset I was when some of these videos didn’t even mention breathing. Breathing is so important! If you have any interest in Tai Chi I heavily suggest you start by looking up some David-Dorian Ross videos on youtube and subscribe to his channel.
There is another development happening with Tai Chi that appeals to me. David-Dorian Ross was inactive for a period of months. He had a tumor in his lower jaw / neck that was removed. It sounded like this was a time of serious introspection for him. It was amazing to me hearing this after my brain tumor and surgery. But he has been working behind the scenes on a big development in Tai Chi. He has been working with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to find a way to provide free Tai Chi to veterans. Part of this is making sure that Tai Chi teachers received appropriate compensation for their teachings. The details are still developing but I think it’s all very exciting. And who knows? I could be a Tai Chi teacher in the near future.
I’ve been shocked that there is not a daily Tai Chi resource available. I am exploring the possibility of using Twitch (the video game streaming service) to live stream Tai Chi lessons or seated Tai Chi lesson daily. I’ll keep you updated on this. I want to share this with as many people as I can since it has helped me so much.
Lastly, I’d like to share this Tai Chi poem by the Chinese poet, Li Bai. I’ve tried to find the source for this but can’t. If anyone knows the title of the poem, or where it’s from please let me know (formatting is my own attempt at reproduction, apologies for any discrepancies with the original poem). David-Dorian Ross shares this poem in his introduction to the Daily Practice video series.
I take my body and breath, And I go to play beneath the trees and the mountains. We are always three, Counting the sky and my friend the nurturing Earth Happily, the sky does not judge me, And the Earth gives me lessons.
After class, students and teachers go their separate ways, But this sadness I do not know, When I go home, The Earth goes with me, And the sky follows me.
https://taijifit.net David-Dorian Ross’s Tai Chi page (includes information about the development of the Tai Chi for Veterans program)
T’ai Chi Daily Practice, 8-episode video series with David-Dorian Ross and Daisy Lee Garripoli. This took me a while to find. It’s the only “daily” Tai Chi video series I’ve been able to find and liked. So far it’s been a good foundation.
https://www.joshwaitzkin.com/josh Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (who the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on) and his transition to mastering and competing in Tai Chi Chuan (a martial art form of Tai Chi). His book, The Art of Learning, is incredible and a great read even if you have little interest in Tai Chi. Buy it and devour it.
I want to talk about living in Deep Time. This is a term Richard Rohr uses a few times in his book Falling Upward. The idea of Deep Time is experiencing “the past, present, and future all at once.” It is the opposite of living in small time. As human beings living in the time we do, I would estimate that most of us look maybe 4-8 years into the future (possibly to do with election cycles?) and those of us that look back, look to a past that may or may not have existed 20-30 years ago.
But living in Deep Time encourages us to look out, at the very least, to the next generation and ideally much further than that. It also moves us to live in the exact present moment but to also live the past and future at the same time. It’s a paradox, yes, but learning (or unlearning) to be comfortable, even revel in, paradox is a crucial step toward finding our True Self (Rohr), Self 2 (Gallwey, more on this later), or enlightenment. I’m thinking about the time when I’m with my children and even when I’m very frustrated with them. I try to pause and consider this moment in the perspective of Deep Time. It’s difficult. I want to be present with them, but I also want to experience this time in the context of everything that has come before and everything that will come after. Sometimes taking a deep breath and taking a mental picture is all we can do before moving on to the next order of business in the nightly bedtime routine. Deep Time brings me peace in the face of possible health setbacks and challenges. “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” (Bonus points to anyone that can source that quote without google.)
One of my favorite loving-kindness meditations is:
May you be loved, May you be safe, May you be healthy, May you have peace.
I direct this meditation to Paige, Mina, and Will. I picture them in Deep Time. Part of it is a future I can only imagine, and part of it is a past that includes time before they were even born. This really helps my meditations feel like they are truly connecting to something.
“In deep time, everybody matters and has his or her influence, and is even somehow ‘present’ and not just past.”