I’ve been practicing one form of meditation or another since my college days almost thirty years ago. And by practicing I mean trying and then failing to keep a regular practice for nearly thirty years. My best stretches seem to last around 6 months, but, more often than not, the vast majority of my attempts at daily meditation usually run a course of 1-3 months, then my discipline wanes, I lose interest, and my commitment vanishes.

Until (I think) now. My latest commitment to a daily practice is right around the 5 month mark (so I’m not quite over the hump). But something is different. I don’t struggle to practice or try to cram a few minutes in whenever possible or grudgingly stop whatever else I am supposed to be doing to go and sit in silence for 20 minutes. There may be a day here or there when such things still happen, but mostly I’m just doing it–10 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening–with a degree of rhythm and ease which were totally unfamiliar to my past attempts.

The change (again, I think) is in why I am doing it. Every other time I took up meditation (or centering prayer or contemplation or call it whatever you will), I began doing it because I wanted to be better. I dove into it because I felt the desire to be a better person or the drive to live a better life or the need to have a more profound spirituality, a deeper experience of God. I was banking on it making me calmer or more compassionate or more centered or more loving or more the person I really wanted to be. Always–ALWAYS–it was about better and more. And thus it started from the premise that there was something wrong or lacking–whether with me or with my life–and I needed to do something to fix it, to get better.

And therein lies the difference this time around.

My practice now consists of something far less vague or esoteric than “becoming better” or “deepening my spirituality”. I intentionally keep using the word “practice” because that is exactly what my meditation is now. I am “practicing” something every time I do it, and what I am practicing is learning how to stay.

For me in these 10 or 20 minute sessions, it simply means that I just practice staying with the moment, focusing on my breath, letting go gently and without judgment of whatever thoughts or anxieties or emotions that come up during that timeframe (and they come up, tons of them, again and again and again). It is training for doing the very same thing in my regular life when I am not meditating. In my meditation I’m preparing myself for how to stay with difficulties and discomfort when they arise in my day-to-day activities–problems at work, uncomfortable emotions, painful experiences, relationship issues, and so on. The default for me (maybe for others too?) has often been to repress or ignore ugly things, to flee from that which makes me ashamed or uncomfortable or hurt, or to lash out or build walls under the guise of self-protection when I feel threatened or afraid. What I am teaching myself instead to do is to just stay. Stay with the difficult thing instead of pretending it didn’t happen or blaming someone else for it. Stay with the feeling of pain or humiliation instead of acting out or pushing it deep down. Stay with the experience of discovering something unsettling about myself instead of projecting my issues onto another or living in denial. This practice of “staying” which is the real content of my meditation is just training for all those moments in my life when “staying” is the last thing I want to do.

There are at least two good reasons I want to increase my own capacity for being able to stay with whatever arises in myself or in my own life: 1) Because at times, whether I like it or not, want it or not, deserve it or not, things in my life will be difficult, painful, heartbreaking, frightening, disastrous, etc.–this is just the reality of being human. Live long enough and everyone experiences hardship and catastrophe, whether by our own hands or because such is the nature of life. And 2) because the people, events and situations I perceive as difficult or unseemly or unacceptable are in fact the very opportunities I need to learn something really important, maybe essential, about myself and about what it means to be human. Learning to be compassionate and gentle with my own pain, with my own failures and brokenness–and coming to a greater understanding of myself in the process–is the gateway to cultivating compassion for others, for treating others who also wrestle with all the messiness of being human with gentleness and respect.

So this latest meditation practice feels different for me. I no longer come to it begging with a sense of need and self-improvement, with vague or ethereal reasons of wanting to be better or even “holy”. I have sloughed off that search for a better life, a better way of being in the world, a better me. Instead I meditate for the most practical and mundane of reasons, just learning how to “stay”–to stay with myself, to stay with this moment, to be stay with whatever I find here, inside or outside of me, no matter what it is. I’m just learning to sit with myself really, as I am; with my life, as it is. That’s all.

All things are changing.

0706162100aEach evening, before I practice twenty minutes of sitting meditation, I recite a short prayer, softly, but aloud to myself:

Let nothing disturb thee
Let nothing dismay thee
All things are changing
God alone is changeless
Patience attains the goal
The one who has God lacks nothing
God alone is enough

It was written by St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic.

Lately, for me, the line that keeps rising above the others is: “All things are changing.”

Three years ago this month, my wife suddenly left me, asking for a divorce that eventually she would get. What I most remember about that time and the months and years which followed is how thoroughly I perceived myself and even time to be static, how the confusion and fear and pain and grief—and the intensity of those feelings—felt utterly permanent.

In that long moment of being overcome, overwhelmed, it would have been impossible for me to believe that “all things are changing”. I felt stuck, mired, forever buried under a moment that just went on and on and on, seemingly unchanging, experienced in every way as final. I woke each morning and before I was even fully conscious, the reality of my situation—being rejected by the person I loved—came rushing over me, like sand filling my ears and my eyes and my mouth, covering my body and pinning me down. I went through the motions of living, but every day, every moment felt the same. It went on like this for years and I never thought I’d feel any different, that my life could be anything other than what it had become.

I write this tonight from Brussels, site of my new job where, for at least the next year, I will live half of my days. I left the job I had worked for 15 years just last month, and moved overseas – and will move again to a new city when I am back stateside. My daughter graduated from high school, the last of my two kids, soon to depart my home and follow her brother who is already two years into finding his own way in the world. I will not be actively, daily raising children for the first time in 20 years.

Somewhere in the past 6 months, I woke up to find the sand that weighted me down and kept me in place gone. I don’t remember when it happened, or if it had been happening in a microscopic or incremental way over a long period. I only started to know—smell, taste, feel—that something had changed.

All things are changing.

Sometimes I think we want things to stay exactly as they are, that they are so perfect and beautiful and full of joy that we just pray it will go on forever. Other times, the suffering and depression and fear capture us so completely that we are convinced that there is no way out, that we are trapped, that this is how and where our story ends, that our days will play out exactly the same until death finally takes us and it is done.

Neither, of course, is true, although I was convinced otherwise and saw no evidence to the contrary for a long, long time.

Now I can see that change was happening all along, whether I (or you or anyone) wants it or not, sees it or not, believes it or not. This moment is here and now it changes, now it is gone, a new moment is here, and on it goes. Life means change. Whether we crave it or fear it, pray for it or hunker down to resist it, perceive it or are blind to it, change is.

All things are changing.

Our nightly Advent ritual with my children, when they were young

I wrote this for US Catholic a few years ago. It appeared on their blog in 2010 then in the magazine’s Christmas issue in 2011. You can read it on their site here.

candleThe celebration of Advent took on a whole new level of seriousness and meaning for me a few years after I became a father, as my kids reached the age where they could understand what was going on around them. The observation of these days, the colder weather, and the early darkness encouraged a slowing down in my family’s life, and conspired to create tender, quiet evenings.

When my kids were still little, just around the time they had started to walk and talk, we began our Advent tradition. Each evening we’d send the kids off to their bedrooms, then silently stroll through the house, turning off each and every light, eliminating anything that could steal away their attention.

We’d light candles of various sizes, colors, and brightness throughout our living room, placed at different heights on tables, shelves and the mantle. (With each successive week of Advent, we’d light more candles until the room became literally bathed in candlelight by Christmas Eve.) I’d then go to my kids’ bedrooms, carrying only a single candle. I’d knock—making sure they had also turned off the lights in their room—and enter, the candlelight flickering before me.

I’d ask the kids what time of year it was, and if they’d like to come with me tonight, to watch and wait for Jesus. They’d walk quietly, all smiles, blankets and stuffed animals in tow, to our living room, lit now by candlelight. Together we’d light the appropriate candles on our Advent wreath, employing a little booklet for prayers and reflection. (As the kids grew older, we’d rotate in new booklets with age-appropriate reflections.)

Following the Advent wreath, we’d read a Christmas-themed book together, snuggling into one another on our couch. We’d end with a trip over to where the Advent calendar was displayed, removing this day’s little cardboard book from the calendar and reading aloud one small segment of the Christmas story—by Christmas Eve, we had read the entire story together.

We’d sing a verse from Silent Night, Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, or another favorite Christmas carol. The evening would end with the blowing out of all of the candles (perhaps my children’s favorite part of the whole evening!), saving one to provide just enough light to lead the kids back to their rooms, kiss them good night, and tuck them in.

What I have always cherished about this nightly ritual was how it cultivated a sense of quiet, a sense of peace in our household, and drew us all together by the low-tech simplicity of it all. It made our home a warm and loving place. By the time we would finish, and the kids would be tucked away in their beds, the silence throughout our home would have become the best kind of silence inside of me as well—a serenity I so rarely experience, and a kindness, a tenderness toward all of life. I hope it has done the same for my children.

I am a shovel, broken

I am a shovel, broken
the handle snapped and splintered
at the place where wood meets iron.

I am shards of glass that once made a mirror,
scattered on the pavement.

A car without wheels.
A bucket riddled with holes.

I am a clock on a wall without hands or numbers.

I am a porcelain cup, cracks like veins running down my side,
chipped and sharp at the rim.

I am a winter coat, moth-ridden and machine-gunned.

I am an outdated map in a long-dead language,
ripped and faded, streaked and soiled.

A shoe without a sole.
A pen without ink.
A body without bones.
The stub where a hand used to be.

I am a shovel, broken.

Empty nest

“I don’t know what to do, what to feel,” he says to her, weary and beaten, as he sits down on the edge of the bed. “I don’t want to be one of those parents who need their children,” he draws out the word ‘need’, “but after phone calls like that, apparently that’s exactly what I am.”

He takes his hands from his knees and rubs his fingers into his eyes, pressing hard until his shut eyes catch those wisps of light playing across the screen of his mind.

“When he’s on the phone with me — for the first time in three weeks! — it seems like all I am is a goddam annoyance, a task to get through, something to be endured. The good part of me knows there is nothing to it, that it’s natural, that kids in college are about as interested in spending time talking to their parent on the phone as they are in waking up early to get some studying done on Saturday morning. And yet it feels like a knife to my heart! I love that kid with all my being and I had him here, in my life, every day for 18 years and suddenly I’m like an addict who never realized he was an addict, that I need my son, that I want so much to know what is going on with him and what he’s doing and whether he is okay and how is his life and is anything interesting happening and, and, and … Goddam,” he says, “I could talk to that little pain-in-my-ass for hours and he can barely give me 15 minutes.”

He moves deeper into the bed, stretching his legs out, rearranging the pillows, one atop the other. He leans back into them, head and shoulders raised, arms reaching up and back behind his head so he can grab onto the top of the wooden headboard.

“I just miss him, that’s all. I just miss him. I never knew how much I would!” and a little chuckle leaks out, his frustration now mixing with amusement.

“It’s so funny, I know how much mothers go through ’empty nest’ but you never hear about how dads experience it. Maybe most don’t and, like with most things, I’m the odd duck here.

“I remember how you went through it,” he says to her, laughing again. “Man, the hours we spent talking over and over about how you felt when your kids left, the way you would ricochet from anger to depression to nonchalance, pissed that they gave such little thought to you, crying because they were gone and that part of your life was over, blowing it all off in front of them, as if you couldn’t care less — although I knew how much you did care and all the nights we stayed up into the wee hours unpacking it together, easing your mind, soothing that storm they unleashed every time one of them acted disrespectful or flippant or just — well, just like twenty-somethings often act toward their parents. How I would tell you exactly what I should be telling myself right now: ‘It’s natural. This is how it works. He’s not acting this way to hurt you; he’s acting this way because he’s 20 years-old and the nature of being 20 is to be wrapped up in yourself, totally not attuned to how his growing up and leaving home and striking out on his own affects his mom!’ How many times did it play out just like that, in bed, like this, holding you against my chest, or rubbing your feet until the fire burnt itself out and we could both smile about it and drift off to sleep?”

empty_bed_in_an_empty_room_ii_by_aimeelikestotakepicsAnother light laugh, and he reaches over to turn out the light. He scoots down in the bed and pulls the covers up, turns on his side, corrals the extra pillow in close to his chest, and closes his eyes.

She stirs uneasily in her sleep, in a different bed, in a different house, miles and miles away.

Damn you to hell REO Speedwagon

From the time I was 15 on through my college years, I took some pride in discovering bands before anyone else had heard of them. Punk, new wave, alternative—these were the genres that made up my palate. You can still see the remnants of that time by perusing the CDs that I (still) have stacked on a shelf in my bedroom: lots of early U2, the Clash, Uncle Tupelo, Husker Du, the Pixies and such. I thought my musical taste made me pretty cool.

But my first great love, the first band whose album I bought with my own money and learned every word to every song was the decidedly not cool REO Speedwagon. I was twelve when Hi Infidelity popped and I think I bought it on vinyl and cassette (and maybe even 8-track; our family had lots of 8-track). You could, at that time at least, blame my affinity for REO on my age and heavy radio airplay. But that would assume that I stopped listening once full-on puberty hit.

The fellows in REO Speedwagon, who apparently knew as much about clothes as they knew about love.

Guiltily I admit that I have continued to return to REO Speedwagon in moments of musical weakness—secretly purchasing their music well into my twenties (usually at chain stores like Specs where I knew none of my friends with any taste in music would see me), and, in recent years, searching out their songs on Grooveshark or other music-sharing services, listening to those old power ballads as I wash the dishes by myself after my kids have retreated to their respective rooms.

And what I discovered is that listening to all that REO Speedwagon during those formative years between 12 and 15, those bastards are responsible for shaping my ideas about love and turning me into the lovelorn idiot I became as an adult, some kind of romantic dolt way too moved by Lloyd Dobler holding up that damn boombox in the rain. (Damn you John Cusack! And the belief in grand gestures you created in me!)

Lyrics sung so plaintively about staying true to your love despite everything the world throws at you wormed their way down into my delicate, naïve soul, impressing upon me the belief that true and deep and abiding love is out there, somewhere, looking for me. My frickin heart still soars when I hear REO lead singer Kevin Cronin belt out (in a voice way too high for a grown man) “And I meant, every word I said, when I said that I loved you I meant that I loved you forever” and, after that pregnant pause, guitars, drums and keyboards  building, rising and then breaking like an emotional wave over those of us listening: “And I’m gonna keep on lovin you, cuz it’s the only thing I want to do, I don’t wanna sleep, I just wanna keep on lovin you…”

Ugh. What a complete sap. The singer, not me. (No. I am talking about me. Dammit again.)

So this is where it all comes from, this is where my grand disability took root. Kevin and his bandmates are responsible for setting me up for a lifetime of beating my head in over why relationships don’t work out, why people leave, why love does not seem, in fact, to be nearly enough. Damn you to hell REO Speedwagon! And all your songs about believing so deeply in someone else, about completely abandoning oneself to love, about loving with everything that I am, about a love that has a strength and a truth and a character all its own that elevates who we are, runs through us and animates us and calls us to life in a way nothing else can. Let those fictional characters in your songs embrace it, cultivate it, honor it and cherish it. I reside now in the real world.

So no more damn songs about how love never fails, how it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I have had enough. Wait a second. That wasn’t REO Speedwagon. That was the bible. Damn you St. Paul!

All that goes unseen.

Jonesy lived in his car, parked day-in and day-out, in the same space on the street in front of my house. The proximity to my home afforded him a degree of safety; I shared my living space with homeless people as well as my family, operating as an informal shelter and drop-in center for those who lived on the streets. Homeless people knew they could come by any time, day or night, for solace or support.

Jonesy rarely partook of our hospitality though. He seemed content to simply be close by, as if our protection extended out several dozen feet from the house itself, sheltering those within reach. During the year or so that he lived in his car on our street, Jonesy probably came in the house no more than a half-dozen times—maybe for a cup of coffee, to use the phone, or some other fairly minor service.

old-manHe was in his sixties, although he easily could pass for much older. Skinny and frail, shockingly white hair, he spent his days walking the streets and smoking his cigarettes. I can’t recall ever seeing him drive his car. The reddish-orange Oldsmobile, a mid-eighties model, simply sat in the same parking space, day after day. At night, Jonesy leaned the driver’s seat all the way back and slept.

I wondered sometimes why a man his age didn’t have a place of his own. He was old enough to be drawing Social Security and probably would have been eligible for a number of low-cost housing programs aimed at serving elderly people. But he slept in his car, and he took his meals at the Salvation Army or from other charitable organizations who served food in the evenings in our city core.

I’ve often wondered at how easily we form opinions about people based on their physical appearance or their circumstances, on what we can glean from the most cursory of observations, extrapolating from that little bit of information which is most easily accessible to us.

What I knew about Jonesy that few others, maybe no one else, did, is this. Jonesy had worked his entire life up north, and he drew a small pension in addition to Social Security. He didn’t live in his car because he was spending the little money he did have on drugs, alcohol, prostitutes or other vices. He didn’t gamble and he hadn’t lost all of his savings due to bad investments or sketchy purchases or profligate living.

Jonesy had a daughter and a grandchild. Several years earlier, his daughter’s husband had left her and the child, and Jonesy had used what money he had saved to help them find a place to live, buy food, clothing and other essentials. But his daughter continued to have a hard time—unable to find work that paid enough to cover the bills she had in caring for herself and her daughter. So each month, rather than pay for an apartment for himself, or spend his money on utilities and food and a television and other items most of us would never think to give up, Jonesy would cash his pension check and his Social Security, and he’d send nearly all of what he had back to Ohio, back to his daughter, so she could stay in her house and provide for his grandchild. And he lived out of an old car.

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think Jonesy’s daughter knew that he was living out of his car. Insofar as I knew Jonesy, I don’t think it is information he would have shared with her. He wouldn’t want her—or anyone else for that matter—to know what he was doing. He just did it because she was his daughter.

Jonesy never told me outright about what he was doing. I put it together, over time, as I learned small bits about his life and his circumstances from the few conversations we had and some errands for which he asked my help.

Plato mused that we should be kind to everyone we meet, for each of us is fighting a great battle. The battles that others fight are most often hidden from us, unavailable, perhaps, to even those who know them best. So too, sometimes, are the sacrifices others make in fighting those battles, their lives marked by invisible acts of courage and generosity and love, about which no one else knows.