Eddie, I remember you.

I got the text from my mom on Sunday afternoon. “Johnny, Aunt Marcella called to tell us that Eddie died. So sad!”

Eddie is my cousin, my favorite cousin growing up and the closest one to me in age. Typically we’d see each other 2, maybe 3 times a year, and always at Christmas when my family would visit and stay with my grandparents in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, a short drive from where Eddie’s family lived in Philadelphia.

I loved seeing Eddie during those visits. He was funny and smart, and really sneaky, in a way that I admired—a way that all kids admire. He could plot and plan and execute those plans like a master strategist, whether it was some diabolical and inventive way to agitate our sisters without incurring our parents’ wrath; or maybe he’d dream up a scam that would allow us to liberate those extra donuts Grandma had made that morning and put aside as a snack for later for all of the grandchildren. Eddie was curious and had a creative mind; he and I would explore our grandparents’ basement together, making up games out of the flotsam and jetsam we found there, or pretending to be archaeologists unearthing some great find.

And Eddie made me laugh. He was two years younger than me but I think he was the first person I knew who understood how and when to employ sarcasm, understanding its humor and employing it to great effect long before any other kid I knew. He could deliver an insult perfectly deadpan straight in the face of one of our older cousins. Pumped up with their pretensions of maturity, Eddie would say something just clever and ambiguous enough that they had to pause, turn it over in their mind and work out whether he was ridiculing them or not—and because he most often was, he’d often pay the price when they slugged him, or twisted his arm, or put him in a headlock and threatened to beat the shit out of him. And as soon as they let him go and he got a little space away from them or had gotten in eyeshot of a protective adult, he’d make some other jibe, smirking and taunting even though he knew he’d pay for it later. He had guts Eddie did. And for a kid like me who spent a lot of time anxious and afraid, his fearlessness was a wonder.

There’s an ocean between Eddie and me, but the space between us wasn’t so much about geography as it was about time. It had been over 25 years since we had been as close as we were growing up and we had only seen each other on a handful of occasions, none in the last 15 or 20 years I think. It was adulthood which separated us, each of us going our own way, no longer brought together by the grown-ups who loved and cared for us.

I would think of Eddie every couple of years and vow to get back in touch with him. The last real conversation we had was when I was 23 or 24 years-old, doing a volunteer year of service after college, running a program for chronically homeless men—men with an assortment of issues, some in and out of jail, others suffering from long-term substance abuse, and so on. Eddie and I talked on the phone a couple of times during that year. Eddie would go on to have a hard life as an adult, and some of the problems that would haunt him later were present then, but still in the fairly early stages, and what power they would wield over him was still an open question.

Our last phone call during that time was about him coming down from Philly and living with me in Florida. He and I were both excited as we talked about it. He thought that a change of scenery would be good for him, a chance to reset his life, make a clean start of it somewhere new. And I’d get to reconnect with this kid, now an adult, who had been such a fun and interesting companion to me as a child and when we were teenagers. It would be my chance to recapture part of my past, memories and connections that I already felt stretching thin and fading. I remember the hope in his voice and the lightness I felt at the prospect that this was really going to happen. We promised to check out the bus schedules and figure out a plan to get him down there. I remember that we both felt like something good was about to happen, that the long dormant seeds we had from our past as children were suddenly ready to sprout and burst up from the ground, reintroducing us to each other in our present.

But neither of us followed up. It never went anywhere from there, and over the next 20-plus years, Eddie and I would talk just a few more times, never long or serious, just the obligatory hello, how you doing that we exchange with people we’re tied to by blood or history, but no longer really know. We’d become Facebook friends eventually, but never really connect again, despite the electronic possibilities.

When I got news of his death, I went to his Facebook page to see if anything was there about his passing, searching too for anything else that might let me glimpse a little of this man who I never really knew as an adult, now dead at 46, the kid I used to know and love. At the top of his page were the last words I ever sent to him. On November 18, 2016, his birthday, I had written

“Eddie, cousin! Happy birthday man. Would love to catch up with you some time.”

eddiefb

I didn’t hear back from him. And there’s no evidence that he ever saw it.

Whatever else you experienced in the 25 years that we’ve been strangers, I remember you, Eddie. And I give thanks for our shared childhood. Rest in peace cousin.

This is where the story ends

o-vote-facebookI’m in Brussels this morning, half a world away from my home country, where almost all of my friends are going to sleep in shock over what they have just witnessed.

At 4am Brussels time (10pm EST), I woke up to check the results of the presidential election and had the first pangs of panic and confusion over what was happening. By 5:30am, after feverishly scrolling through websites on my phone and playing a game of “wtf?!” with a friend back in the U.S. via text, it was clear that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. And all I could feel was sick. Sick to my stomach, yes; but mainly, sick at heart, sick in my soul.

The shock has worn off now. I’ve had several hours to let what just happened settle in. What I’m starting to see now, and expect to see more of, is anger and disgust, blame and accusations and name-calling … and more anger. I understand. I get it. I could easily go there too.

But something is stopping me. I know how easily pain and fear and confusion can be woven into something that makes us feel less vulnerable, less exposed. How we reach for anger, disdain, contempt, ridicule, sarcasm and a host of other tools to cover over how much something hurts us. But hurt is what I feel. Hurt for my young adult children who just voted in their first presidential election and are feeling distressed over how their fellow citizens can elect someone who traffics in misogyny, racism and bullying. I hurt for my country that is looking at itself in the mirror for the first time today and realizing that yes, this is what we really look like. I hurt for all of the people who are going to be victimized and marginalized by this new administration. And I also hurt for all of the people who voted for Trump out of their own fear about their country and their place in it; for those who voted for him out of frustration and anger over their own experiences of disenfranchisement and disempowerment; for those who voted for him because they have felt mocked or ridiculed or put down and this was a chance to punch back; and for those who voted for him because they’ve been manipulated, fooled and used by slick media personalities and politicians who prey on them to line their own pockets or feed their own ego.

I want to stay with this hurt until it teaches me compassion for and makes me curious about all of my fellow citizens who cast their ballots for Trump. I don’t want to flee into my own safe enclave alongside my own kind who feel betrayed and confused, where I can vent my anger at those others who caused all this nonsense. I don’t want to add to all of the negativity and dehumanization that created the scenario where a Donald Trump can be elected. I want to feel the full force of this hurt until I am so wrung out that I can appreciate the depth of the brokenness, pain and fear in others that led us here — and from it, cultivate compassion and courage.

I’m not naïve. I know that some chose Trump for wholly bat-shit crazy, psychotic, self-serving reasons. But I don’t believe that the vast majority of people in my country fit that profile. There is something else going on there, and I want to be curious about what that is, understand it, talk to it and about it with respect and tenderness, and then help to transform it.

Our nation doesn’t need more brokenness, pain, fear and division. I don’t want to get trapped in that narrative of us vs. them, where the “them” are just evil nutso whack jobs delighting in the chance to wreak havoc and to be blamed for whatever shitstorm Trump unleashes in the coming term. I’ve had enough of that storyline. Maybe this is where that story ends. Not because of Trump’s election, but as a rebuke to it.

Something good needs to come out of this.

Wait, and see.

empty-roomIt is a little after midnight on the last night he’ll spend in the city he’s lived in for most of the past thirty years. The air is heavy, humid but with no threat of rain, just droplets of water hanging in the air, as visible as dust motes passing through moonlight.

The rental truck is in the driveway, but still without cargo. Tomorrow is going to be a long day, he thinks as he takes in the boxes and bins, the stacks of milk crates full of books, piled and pushed back against the wall, leaving only a bare, empty spot in the middle of his living room. He’s sitting on the floor at the center of all this debris, surrounded by the things he can’t let go of, the ones he doesn’t know if he should, the stuff he has had no time to take the measure of, to determine if it belongs to those things left behind or those which will remind him of who he is, who he wants to be, who he could be if given the chance.

He’s thinking about Job again, his companion, his doppelganger, the ghost that has followed him for the past three years, nodding knowingly at every tragic moment, silently at his side through every moan and wail he lifted up as the weight of all this pushing down brought him to his knees, then to his hands and knees, and then not even that–just pressed into the dirt, face down against the ground.

Job was a righteous man, upstanding and clean-hearted in the eyes of God. And he was a man who had it all, every blessing God could bestow on him was his. He was admired and loved by friends and neighbors and he stood blameless before his God.

And, as the book relates in a few quick lines, all of it taken away. Everything goes. If we could wrap our minds around the abruptness of his devastation our breath would leave us, our minds given over to vertigo, our knees buckle and our souls shiver and shrink away inside of our bodies, desperate not to see it, frantic to find a place to hide lest whatever curse tearing through and dismantling his life with complete and gleeful abandon turn its attention on us.

The loss is total. In a society that equates wealth and success with blessing, and poverty and failure with curse, Job appears to have committed some crime so heinous that his former friends are consumed by rumor and innuendo, gossip and speculation, and they argue amongst themselves and to Job about what wrong he committed, what depravity he hides, what seed of sin is rooted so deeply in him that God himself has rained down such destruction and judgment upon him.

He smiles grimly at this. He knows that sometimes there is no explanation, no understandable karma, no real reason for why things happen. It just happens. We don’t get what we deserve; we just get what we get. And you buckle and fold and fall and stay down. Or you buckle and fold and fall down … and then, eventually, you get up again. For some it takes longer than others. There is no timetable.

Thinking about Job is like running his finger over a scar, a reminder of the wound that almost did him in, the one that left him disfigured. How he hovered between the desire to close his eyes and let death take him and the responsibilities which life demanded he not set aside or turn away from. Funny how sometimes responsibility is all that holds us here. Responsibility stronger than pain, stronger than despair, stronger than grief.

Like Job, he knows firsthand how dizzyingly quick and complete the change can happen, the turn from a life replete with purpose and beauty and meaning and joy to a living death, a field pummeled and left scarred and unrecognizable by tornado after tornado after tornado, ripping up the ground and carrying off everything he knew and loved.

So he thought. For a long time. And he laughs again, quietly.

Sitting here now, the angle has changed. The tornado after tornado after tornado swept away almost everything and everyone in whom he had poured himself—almost being the great qualifier here. Some things were left and some people stayed. He could now ponder these things and these people, curious about who and what he had valued before and how things had changed.

The life that had seemed full before now struck him as having maybe been too crowded, overgrown, strangled so that there was little space for anything new, no room for surprise, for wonder. In moments of gentleness and quiet, he could sense the faint stirrings of new life in him and around him, unfolding, searching, reaching tentatively, tenderly upward.

Exhausted and alone, in the silence of a life finally and fully dismantled, he’s surrounded by the few bones left to him, the ones he’ll carry with him and upon which he’ll fashion new flesh, new muscle, new tissue and skin, the beginnings of a new body, the disparate parts he’ll knit together to make a new life.

Grief and pain come with a swagger, a completely unearned confidence that they know the future, that it will unfold inch by inch to reveal itself as just as miserable as the present. In the throes of our own mortal suffering, such evidence seems overwhelming.

Half to himself, half to no one in particular, he speaks the next words aloud: “All we can do is wait.”

Wait, and see.

Stay.

boatondarkriver2

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.