A Reflection Day

A Reflection Day: I am sitting in Tanja’s apartment while she is at work, reflecting on the last five weeks of travel. Access to good WiFi is a great privilege, one I appreciate more than ever since there has not always been easy access on this trip. I will not list again all the people who have fulfilled my central purpose in traveling by allowing me into their lives for a moment or a day or more. This trip has provided beautiful sights, beautiful people, character-building challenges and both physical and mental exercise. I am always about the relationships to the people, the physical environment and a complete immersion in the moment I am in, whoever or whatever happens to occupy that moment with me.

The consequence of experiencing each moment fully is that feelings about what the moment contains are also fully engaged. When I write I am forthcoming with those feelings. You hear the good, the bad and the ugly whether you care to hear them or not. As I have said ad nauseam, if I want to experience the exhilarations that life offers, I need to be willing to allow the frustrations and stresses their place also for life to be rich and layered and vibrant. I remember once when reflecting on the most difficult times that Mary Ann and I were experiencing together in those last years, recognizing that we were not just watching life go by, we were living it from top to bottom, side to side, corner to corner. We were not sitting on the sidelines, we were on the field in the thick of the game with all the risks, running, getting tackled, regrouping and running again. (Yes, I am thinking American football – you can choose your own metaphor.) 

The life I have now cannot compare to the magnificence of the life Mary Ann and I had in those last years. I cannot imagine accomplishing anything more important and valuable than what we experienced during those years. Measured against them, what I do now seems trivial. Having said that, I am not finished yet. I suppose I am still searching. The people I meet come to be very important to me quickly, more important than they realize. Where I could make a huge difference in Mary Ann’s life during our life together, I can make only a small difference just for a few minutes or hours in the lives of the people I meet along the way. I can celebrate and appreciate music and beauty in all its forms. Using the Camino as metaphor, walking 800 kilometers on foot, carrying a backpack toward Santiago (except for the day I was lost!), reaching the destination is not as important as the people and places experienced along the way. I celebrate so much the people I met on the Camino, especially my Camino Kids, Dragan (and Slavica), Tanja and Laida. During the last month they and I have talked together about what is important in life including the challenges.   

Central to my life now is living in a way that honors my Children, Lisa and Micah, and my Grandchildren, Chloe, Abigail and Ashlyn (as well as Dad Denis and Mom Rebecca). Their love and respect are vital for me. I celebrate that each of them has my love and respect without reservation. The future for me remains a mystery, no bucket list, just the expectation that there will be marvels and wonders yet to come, ones that I can put in the bucket after I discover them and experience them. All of you whom I have come to know and who bother to read this are already in my bucket, whether you like it or not. Don’t worry, there are no expectations that come with being there, only hopes that you will thrive and grow and experience life fully.   

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The Stress is real!I am sitting in the Madrid Airport early in a 12 hour layover between Basel, Switzerland and Estella, Spain, a town along the Camino. I will be spending some time with Laida, one of my three Camino Kids. I am looking forward to reconnecting with the Camino and Laida. This is one of the joys of travel.

The joys of travel are interspersed with substantial stresses in between, located sometimes right in the middle of the joys. Sound familiar? Part of the theme I chose for my blog is, “Life is a choice.” Choosing life produces great potential for moments of exhilaration and stresses of equal magnitude. In an exchange of texts with my Son, Micah, after revealing that I was very stressed about the missteps and roadblocks as I changed plans so rapidly, I concluded that I would rather be dealing with these stresses than sitting at home during the summer, bored silly.

I mean that, but when walking back to my hostel late at night completely confused by the lines and arrows on the phone maps, getting turned around in the opposite direction, rescued by a couple of city workers out late cleaning up after an accident, the stress radiates throughout this small body. It was, of course, raining also. It was the Saturday night of a day of colorful parades culminated in partying that had taken many beyond their limits. But I was coming back from an exhilarating concert of Verdi’s Requiem. Eventually, I made it. I survived.

The vast majority of my stresses come from frustration with not having been more thorough and anticipating more of the challenges, preparing more carefully for them. The mistakes trigger bouts of angry self talk. I am my own worst enemy. Mixed in with all that are experiences that make my soul shudder in wonder at the life I am leading. I just don’t seem to get one without the other.

One of those moments when it felt as if the universe was out to get me happened when I walked in the rain to the sheltered spot next to a building in Freiburg where there is wifi to be found. My hostel has none. I needed to phone ATT about my data program. I needed to try to connect with the Freiburg German Language School contact in Barcelona. Both of those calls were important ones that needed to be made. I had heard a small brass ensemble busking in a street a few blocks away earlier in the day. You guessed it! They came with their instruments and set up just feet from me. I managed to finish one of the calls before they started, but there would be no more phone calling while they were there (they played well and it was my kind of music). It was symbolic of the crazy accumulation of large and small frustrations that life brings. All I could do was laugh and go get some ice cream.

I do not claim to be a master of handling stress. I choose to hang on for a while to the mistakes that frustrate me the most so that I can get through them (not around then) and on to doing something, just going on. While I can’t undo the mistakes, I can waste as little time as possible doing nothing while denying my culpability or feeling worthless and instead just get on with doing something, anything, that has even the slightest potential for creating options for ameliorating the situation.

I have thought more than once that I am too old to be doing this, that I have crossed the threshold and need just to go home and immerse myself in the familiar, reducing at least slightly the risks that come with the complexities of International travel. I have doubted again and again the possibility of ever learning to speak German. I have thought maybe it is just time to stop doing all this. But I can’t. I feel fully the pain of the failures and frustrations that come because I am putting myself in difficult situations, but I can’t stop. I realize that that is too categorical a statement. Circumstances may bring me of necessity to stay put, or I may simply decide it is time, but not now.

So, here I sit at midnight Madrid time (and body clock time) waiting for the 9am leg in the flight to Pamplona from Basel. Laida and I have exchanged messages. At the moment we are both making this up as we go along. She just said she will pick me up at the airport tomorrow some time after my scheduled arrival, and we will drive back to Estella, along the Camino. She grew up there and has returned more than a decade later to work in support of groups and people making the Pilgrimage. (We haven’t talked in a long time, so I am not sure how accurate that description is.)

The adventure goes on. What will happen next remains to be seen. Shortly after I see it, I will tell you what I have seen (or maybe post a picture of it on Facebook).

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A New Direction!

Finally! A Decision. A new direction.I have been traveling without a plan after visiting friends in Vienna, Austria, and Rheinfelden, Germany. I came to Freiburg, Germany because I like it, but I had not been able to decide where to go afterward. I have more than two weeks before I go to Wiesbaden to visit Tanja and then return to Kansas.  

While here, I thought I would visit some language schools since I had been thinking about coming here for a month or two to study German some time in the future. The future just arrived!  I realized that I could go ahead and take German classes for two weeks. I am here. It is Germany. I want to learn to speak German. Why not? 

After hours of trying to follow the damn (!!!!) iPhone map and Google maps’ directions as they took me in circles, I finally made it to two different schools. I liked the second one very much. It is three blocks away from a University with young people everywhere. The people in the office were engaging and enthusiastic about the school (not so in the first one I visited). The person with whom I spoke sent me the link to the pre-test to assess my level. I have taken it. In my estimation, I did horribly, but I will find out tomorrow the level at which my assessment places me and whether or not there is a class for me beginning Monday. Whatever the level, I have chosen to take a more intense class which includes an hour of conversation study/practice in the afternoon following the four hours of class in the morning. I remember how hard the German class was last year in Vienna, but nowhere did it say that it would be easy to learn a language, especially German. At this point, I still refuse to give up. A fellow named Art Linkletter wrote a book many years ago titled, “Old Age is Not for Sissies.” At this point, I think I could write such a book. 

Any of you who use Facebook have probably seen the pictures and my comments on the first week of this trip. I had a fantastic time with some of the young people with whom I studied last year in Vienna. With such people on the planet, there is hope!! Then I spent a weekend with Camino Kid, Dragan and his wife Slavica who again showed me hospitality, fed me, took me to see Albert Schweitzer’s birthplace in a lovely, quaint village, and were so very kind to me. We had intense conversations about many things. Staying with them were two young people from their extended family, Milos (19) and Mirjana (15). I had the joy of spending time with them, again with intense conversations about much, in great depth. What a privilege to be allowed into the lives of such remarkable people. They have all been through so much! I am humbled by their strength and resilience. 

Just yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with Nadja, her baby (a year old now) and her Mother, all of us having tea next to the Rhine river in Basel.  I met Nadja at the Boston Early Music Festival four years ago.  She is a phenomenal Harpsichordist.  She and her sister perform together.  I visited her in Basel about three years ago.  She is one of the most talented people I know.  We talked about many things, especially life with a little one, trying to balance parenting and a career.  She and her Mother provided a very pleasant afternoon before getting on the train to Freiburg.  

I have booked a bed in a hostel (no WiFi – arrrgh) for the next two and a half weeks, first in a room of six and then in a room of twenty – way cheaper than a hotel and filled with people to get to know! …and so the adventure goes on!    

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Surviving the Impossible

How is it possible to survive the impossible? I have been thinking. Shit happens. When it happens, survival seems impossible. Lots of people have been through stuff that is in difficulty far beyond anything I have been through. While I don’t deny that is true, it is irrelevant. Our pain is what is relevant. Someone else’s situation may be much more tragic than ours when measured objectively from a distance. Yes, whatever it is that we are going through, it could be worse. So what? We still need to figure out some way to get through it. It is our shit.Again, I ask: How is it possible to survive the impossible? I cannot give an answer that is definitive for everyone for all time. I can only describe what I did to survive my experience of the impossible. At this moment, as I write, I am feeling shame that this is so woefully self-centered as if I was the only one who faced the impossible. Mary Ann faced the impossible. Her impossible situation looked far different from her perspective. She survived the impossible for over twenty-three years. I cannot tell you how she did it. I will never understand the brute strength and resolve that kept her from giving up. About two weeks before she died, it appeared that she simply decided it was time. She stopped eating and drinking. She left on her terms. Whatever one’s understanding of death and what follows, she survived the impossible.

I cannot tell you how she did it. I can only tell you what I did. The first thing I did and the most important thing I did was to survive. When things were impossible that was all I could do. I just didn’t stop doing something, anything, to survive. Even in the face of the impossible, there was something I could do. Figuring out what that was took every ounce of energy, creativity, mental calculations, and resources I could muster. That is all I could do. I could not fix the situation, I could not fix Mary Ann. I could only do something, anything, no matter how small it might be or how inadequate in the face of the magnitude of the situation.

In addition to that relentless will to survive, what made the difference in the quality of that survival was writing almost every night for the last almost two years of our life together. I wrote a post of 1000 to 1500 words as soon as Mary Ann was settled in bed. Most nights there was an hour or two right after I got her changed and into bed before she became restless and agitated. I wrote during that time. I think there are five hundred some posts on the blog I wrote then (thecaregivercalling.com). In those posts I described what had happened that day in great detail, too much detail to make for good reading. When I wrote, I gained some perspective on what had happened. It may have been an impossible day, but by that time it was apparent that I had survived the day. The writing shaped my experience. Just surviving became, instead, really living. I chose to drop any pretense and expose my vulnerabilities as I wrote. That allowed me to actually grow and change as a person rather than clinging to pretense, some artificial image of who I should be.

As I look back, I can see some of the reasons survival was possible:

A Dedication: The survival I will now describe could not have happened as it did without many dozens of volunteer Rescuers coming to the house in two or three hour shifts for the last eight working years before I retired to do full time care. I can never repay these people.

First: I never wasted time blaming God or the Universe or whatever, as if somehow we were owed better. Stuff happens. I did not have enough psychic or emotional or physical energy to waste it on determining why it was happening, whom to blame.

Next: I chose to accept each decline and each improvement in the ride on our roller coaster as quickly as possible, name it our new normal, and get on with the task of accommodating to it.

Next: We did not give away to any of the medical specialists full responsibility for making decisions in her medical care. I emailed questions before appointments with the Neurologist. I treated the doctors and other medical professionals with respect, but never accepted specific interventions without question. I became an expert at least on Mary Ann’s expression of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Dementia. I had to be very assertive at times, but most of the time I was treated with respect. I served as Mary Ann’s Advocate. She always had final say in her treatments.

Next: Mary Ann retained her dignity and would not tolerate any condescension by people assuming that she was less than a whole person. I knew better than to treat her as anything other than my wife. She was never a poor and helpless invalid, no matter how debilitated she might be at any moment.

Next: The caregiving tasks that I did, including those associated with what went into her alimentary canal when she could not negotiate by herself getting the food to her mouth to what came out of that canal whenever and in whatever form, became my central purpose. I had the honor of being entrusted with those tasks. I could actually make a difference in the life of another human, one that I loved and promised to love no matter the circumstances. I got to keep that promise to the very end.

Next: I recognized that what I was doing for her, I was actually doing for me. She taught me what it means to love someone. I could not resent her for needing my help because responding to that need was fulfilling me, making me more into a person I could respect. Please understand, I often failed miserably in giving her the kindness she deserved. I was frustrated and angry at times. I developed no illusions about being noble or heroic. I did not do all that I should have done. I have to accept that. She gave me the gift of some soft kisses one time standing in the kitchen when she as still able to do so. When she was almost completely unresponsive in the days before she died, I said, “You know that I love you.” She responded, “Yes.” Those gifts have been profoundly reassuring to me.

Next: As wonderful as my life appears now as I wander for months at a time in other countries, carrying my backpack, staying in hostels, meeting fascinating people everywhere I go, it will never measure up to the quality of life, the sense of purpose that filled the last years with Mary Ann. I remember writing in one of those hundreds of posts during the last year and a half that I did not feel as if I was missing something in life due to our circumstances. We were living life from edge to edge, all of life, every moment. Nothing more was needed to be fulfilled. We did everything that circumstances would allow. We even pushed those limits. We did not ask permission, we just did everything that seemed possible to us.

Finally: In doing everything possible, we lived through the impossible. Mary Ann ended the battle with dignity. I remember marveling as she lay on the bed those last days how beautiful her face looked. Other than when we tried to turn her a bit, she was not agitated and did not appear to be in distress, no breathing issues. When the time came, she just left.

The pain of grief was excruciating at first. I chose to lean into the pain rather than try to avoid it. I went through it rather than around it. That way I received the gifts that the grief had to give. There is a gentleness about the grief now. My quality of life has expanded by embracing feelings without fear.

I have no regrets. I can write this feeling at peace with the life we lived together. I now have a life full of new experiences, new possibilities. I am thrilled and exhilarated with the wonder of it all. I am free to take risks, to relate to people openly and allow connections to emerge. I still feel lonely sometimes, afraid sometimes, sad sometimes, but alive, fully alive. Nothing can match the importance of what Mary Ann and I did together. My hope now is that when I meet someone, listen to their story and tell them mine, we are both better for having been connected if only for a time. That hope is what gives me purpose now.

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Whether looking or not

“Everything is connected, the past, the present, the future. It converges on the moment we happen to be living, wherever or whenever that moment is occurring.” I am quoting me. I just said it (thought it…now I said it, although no one was here to hear me do it so I can’t prove that). I have said stuff like this before. I am no where near smart enough to know that what I said is actually true. 

I only know that I seem to experience life that way. It happened last night. Don’t raise expectations, it was nothing exciting to anyone but me. I sat down with the program for a concert by a choral ensemble (Kantorei in Kansas City) and I almost laughed out loud. I turned to a page toward the end that had bios on the featured Artists. There was a picture and a bio that looked as if I had written it. If it had been in German, I could have claimed to be the author.

Ten days ago, I took my German Final Exam at Washburn. It was very difficult and I was painfully stressed as I studied for it and realized (again) I was in way over my head. I struggled for two hours to write essays in German without dictionary or access to any resources other than my brain. All I had was what I had stuffed into my brain in the prior few days. My brain was quite rebellious when I was stuffing it. In fact, almost as fast as I stuffed, it upchucked. I have no idea where the upchucked information went. I am just grateful there was no cleanup needed. (It was German information. They are known for their cleanliness.)

The hardest essay to write was the one in response to the prompt that we write about a famous German of our choosing. We needed to prepare by gathering information about that person so that we could write the required minimum of fourteen sentences. (Have you ever seen a German sentence?) I made a tactical error. I picked a German poet named Rainer Maria Rilke and chose to write about his impact on the genre, his innovative style and the philosophical dimension of his work. I realized the specific nature of my error the night before the test as I tried to memorize the vocabulary and commit to memory the basic outline of the essay so that I would not forget at least in general terms what I had planned to write. The error: I had not written a bio of his life with an obvious chronological order to help anchor the material in my brain. There was not a logical this happened and then that happened.  I entered the room fully aware of my mistake, hoping to find the material somewhere in my rebellious and now hopelessly stressed brain. The room was not quiet and I am easily distracted. After about an hour struggling to concentrate and reclaim any of what I had prepared, I asked to move to a quiet room and finish (barely) the exam. Last Wednesday I met with the Professor to find out how I did. She complemented me on my writing and went through the entire test with me. Surprisingly, I had done extremely well. 

When I went to the concert last night, that experience was still glowing inside. Rainer Maria Rilke was the featured Artist whose bio in that program contained in English the very descriptions I had written in German ten days ago. That is where last night’s experience started.  Then I began to realize how many bits and pieces of my life touched that moment and that place.

Among the singers was one who had studied for a time in Wellington, New Zealand. After the concert we had an animated conversation about our respective times in New Zealand. One of the singers had performed in a concert I attended a week ago. Others in their bios revealed connections with people and places that have been a part of my life.

The venue was St. Andrew’s Episcopal church in Kansas City. I had led a service of evening prayer for area Lutheran churches in that sanctuary around thirty-five years ago when we were learning services from a new hymnal. As I sat there last evening, I had flashbacks to that service and the people involved, many of them much respected, some now deceased. That was also the place where an AGO (American Guild of Organists) choir of which I was a member rehearsed. Thoughts of the choir members and the concerts joined me as I sat in that room awaiting the beginning of the concert. All of those times and those experiences and those people were with me in that room at that moment.

The choir sang a thoughtful poem filled with imagery from nature that Rilke had written during the years he wrote in French. The music was by a composer named Morten Lauridsen and was so beautiful as to stir feelings. During the last piece a new awareness sprung up in the freshly tilled ground of my feelings. The words were a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” Berry describes the struggles of life and his visits into places in nature where he finds peace. It was in that field of sprouting feelings that I remembered that where I was sitting at that moment in the Nave of St. Andrews is only blocks away from where Mary Ann and I spent fifteen years raising our children. It was there, on a phone call from a doctor’s office almost exactly thirty years ago that Mary Ann learned of the diagnosis of her Parkinson’s. I had been and was still in Oklahoma City at that time for six months starting my ministry there while she stayed with Lisa and Micah to finish out the school year. Lisa was graduating from high school and Micah from the Eighth Grade.

This is always a time of the year when Mary Ann is especially in our minds. Mothers’ Day and her May 15th birthday come together, along with remembering the last days before her death on June 14. In that moment awareness of the thirty years of life since then settled in. It was not distressing or even uncomfortable. The feelings were strong, but worthy of savoring as signs of love and a full life together. Even the grief has nourished the quality of life that has been growing in the last thirty years.

 As I sit here at the table writing this, in front of me is the fused glass art piece Stacey made, the one that reminds me of the scene in Tobermory, Scotland that stirred me to contemplate the journey I am on from its roots to an unknown future. The piece is titled “Endless Horizons.”

The present, past and future all connected last evening. It contained them all. It is always so, in every moment, whether we happen to be looking for it or not.

After describing his retreats into nature among the wild things, Berry’s poem and the song conclude with these words: “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

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Treadmill Musings

I have begun regular treks on a treadmill in preparation for future travels, especially doing one of the Great Walks in New Zealand again, this time with my Granddaughter, Chloe.  The treadmill treks (five to six times a week) are usually 50 minutes in length, including the last few minutes with a 15% incline and a 4.0 walking speed pushing my heart rate from resting (48-49) to about 130-140.  I think I am becoming addicted to the endorphin rush.  While those numbers are hardly impressive, for this soon to be 74 year old (in a couple of weeks), they are acceptable.

I usually listen to a podcast to take advantage of the time on the treadmill and the alertness that is a side effect of the physical activity.  I am currently listening to the audio version of a book by Krista Tippett who produces the OnBeing weekly podcasts on NPR.  The book includes parts of a number of interviews she has had with people who are thoughtful and deep and reflective in a way that resonates with my spirit at this point in my journey.

Today’s listening took my thoughts to some discoveries in the last years of Mary Ann’s and my life together.  Themes of a couple of recent OnBeing podcasts and this morning’s thread wove into the tapestry of our last years together.  The people Krista chooses to interview all seem to have emerged from the complexities of life with the ability to put them together in a way that transcends the complexity and discovers Elegance.  Those Interviewees do not sugarcoat the painful realities nor do they let those painful realities slip away without first giving the gifts buried within them.  Those words come easily to me, since they flow from my experience.   For all of them, Krista and those she interviews, the pain and joy are not opposites but part of the same tapestry.

Today what I heard took my thoughts to the physicality of Mary Ann’s and my relationship. There was reflection on the role of our bodies in what we often relegate to the mind exclusively.  Krista made quick reference to a favorite Hebrew word (nephesh) for a living being, a sentient being, one that includes body, breath, thought, feeling, a whole being.  She referred to a paraplegic who survived a tragic injury and had to reconstruct his life while enduring severe physical and mental battles.  That paraplegic realized that even the PTSD was deeply entrenched in his body.  Through a version of Yoga, he reclaimed his body and his sense of wholeness both physically and mentally. Another Interviewee suggested that many have lost the connection with their bodies, the connection that comes naturally in the first years of life.

My thoughts went to those last years of Mary Ann’s and my life together, when our relationship was a tactile one.  Her needs were basic physical ones.  I had an intimate involvement in all her bodily functions.  I remember feeling as if I was her body, a body that could still do the things that the Parkinson’s had taken from her.  I remain in awe of the depth of our bond, a bond that physical contact strengthened.

There is one other thought that came from an offhand comment by Krista or one of the Interviewees.  I don’t remember the specific words spoken, but those words suggested that simply our physical presence has value by itself and in relationships with others.  Mary Ann’s and my relationship was not sweet and pretty as in the story books.  It was real.  There was a strength to it that endured for the 48 years from our first meeting to her death.  I wasn’t always wonderful and neither was she.  The words that I heard today helped me as I remembered the times I was far from wonderful.   I think that through it all, each of us, Mary and and I, both were better people and have had better lives on account being so fully present with each other.   I find comfort in that.


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Alone?“You are never alone,” a friend from Australia (Queensland, half way between Brisbane and Cairns) said to me in a comment on a recent Facebook post. I had planned a quiet New Year’s Eve carefully, visiting Trader Joe’s in Kansas City for some really great Creamy Danish Blue Cheese, some Trader Joe’s aged Gouda, marinated Greek olives, a jar of olives stuffed with Blue Cheese, a tin of smoked Herring and a nice Beaujolais. I lit a couple of candles, put on some Renaissance music and settled in for an evening celebrating the coming New Year by myself.

Then my phone pinged. I was excited to see that Tanja, one of my Camino Kids, sent via WhatsApp a silly Happy New Year Cartoon, followed by a selfie of her toasting the New Year with a glass of Prosecco and a “Happy New Year” wish. I sent her a “Happy New Year” reply and attached two pictures. One was a selfie of me toasting with a my glass of Beaujolais and a picture of the opossum that had been eating the birds sunflower seeds on my deck. I was not alone. Two joined me in my celebration, one very lovely and the other not so much (verifying evidence on my Facebook page).   

I have found contemplation, mindfulness, to be a helpful tool in dealing with a life that is sometimes out of control. (Is it actually ever in control? I think not.) One of the Monklings in Galway, Ireland, with whom I spent a week last September has recently asked for thoughts about doing contemplation in community and alone. That issue touches a nerve for me since I have spent many years constantly immersed in the lives of others longing for the rare times of solitude and now spend almost all of my time alone.   

As a child, I played alone most of the time. My four siblings are all much older than I. I had an affinity for nature, worms and caterpillars, moths and butterflies, tadpoles and water bugs, weeds and wildflowers, puffy cumulus and wispy cirrus clouds, sun and rain and blue sky and wind. At the same time, while during my young years my parents did not socialize with the neighbors on the block, I was not shy about going down the street, getting acquainted, even if it meant knocking on the door and introducing myself. Before Dad broke down and got a television (not until I was eleven), I spent time watching television at a house down the block with an older couple who had a dog with a missing eye (result of chasing cars). 

The need for solitude and community seem to be securely bound together in my DNA. That is hardly unusual. While some feel more at home with one or the other, it appears that the human species is wired for both. That is how we have survived and populated the planet.   

We were sitting on an outcropping of rocks at about 9000 feet in a remote spot in the Rockies accessed by gravel and dirt roads outside of Woodland Park, Colorado. It was very late on a clear night. The stars were bright. A ribbon of stars clustered together to form the Milky Way. Occasionally, one of the stars, manmade, moved steadily, without wavering, from one horizon to the other. We were mesmerized by the stars. We had spent the day with full responsibility for the activities of about sixty high school age people, seeking to engage them in nurturing activities, deal with the intensity that comes with adolescence, the energy, the quick minds, the silliness, the relationships building and breaking and building again.   

We talked quietly for a while, in the dark, hoping to hear no young voices of cabin escapees armed with flashlights coming up the steep hill to break the quiet and steal the darkness from us. Soon we settled into complete silence. It was dark and silent and serene. Each of us, separate from the other, sat in utter solitude, alone. We were alone together. I will never forget that moment, that place. The people sitting near me were college age then. They are now in their fifties. I still feel a bond with them even though the time between face to face encounters can sometimes be measured in years.

My wife Mary Ann was in a terminal battle with Parkinson’s Disease, a battle that lasted almost 24 years. Parkinson’s is not a terminal disease, but a disease that once it comes, stays to the end. My job as the Pastor of a congregation had no boundaries other than ones I set. I remember often taking comfort in the fact that there were only 24 hours in each day, providing one clearly identifiable boundary, firmly fixed. I was technically on call all of those 24 hours in my work, although it was not often that I was called out during the night. In a strange way Mary Ann’s clearly defined needs provided some freedom from the constant work responsibilities. People understood and very many came to our rescue and volunteered hours each week to be a present friend to her while I was working. There were times that I was able to be gone for two nights by myself.   

St. Francis of the Woods is out in the country in North Central Oklahoma, on a 500 acre working farm, a place set aside for those seeking solitude and silence and Spiritual renewal. I drove through the expansive prairie in Kansas called the Flint Hills and after five hours of music, shedding all the clutter that had gathered in my mind, I arrived at the cabin. There are many acres of woods with a pathway through some areas, an occasional bench for reflection and reading. I was the only person there other than the Director and a few of those who worked the farm. I saw no other human until the third day. There were birds and deer, an Armadillo so busy nosing around for grubs that he was oblivious to my presence.   

I found my way to a small field that was completely surrounded by forest. It was my favorite spot. I set up my three-legged camping stool and sat in silence in a corner of the field, ten or fifteen feet into the forest. Some turkeys wandered by about 50 feet farther into the forest. A Pileated Woodpecker landed on a nearby tree. That species is about 17” tall and looks like a feathered Pterodactyl. I read, I thought, I felt fully present with everything around me, just part of the landscape.   

I decided to move out into the open in the center, the highest point of that five or ten acre field. A Turkey Vulture soared from over the woods, so low over my head that I could hear the swishing of its wings. Three of them circled over the field for a few moments before gliding away to find prey that was not so large and mobile as I. I sat on the stool, ate a granola bar and an apple, and poured a bit of coffee into the cap of the thermos. Then I settled again, this time in the sun, to think and meditate and read and become fully present with that place.   

I began to think about Mary Ann. Contemplative mode seeks to calm the raging river of thoughts and words that just refuses to stop flowing. The goal is to move deeply into what is most basic to one’s existence, fully human, no frills, nothing to prove or accomplish to have value. At its best, it does not separate and isolate. It is an inward journey and an outward journey at the very same time, allowing the someone who lives under all the layers of busyness to feel secure enough to open him/herself to others. As I sat there, I realized that Mary Ann might wonder why I wanted to go off by myself, away from her. I had never done it before. Turning off the cell phone had been an important part letting go of the busyness. I called her from that hill. We just talked for a bit. Mary Ann hated talking on the phone. She never had been very verbal and the Parkinson’s had made her even less so. I wanted her to know that my need for solitude did not signal a need to be away from her. On the contrary, it drew me closer to her.   

Last September, when the fifteen of us rode out to ancient thin places in Ireland, where people for thousands of years had come seeking to engage mystery, to experience Spiritual renewal, we grew into a community. We spent times in silence, sometimes in close proximity to one another, sometimes distant, even out of sight of one another. At times we were alone together. At times we talked and laughed and sang and even danced (sort of) together.   

When Tanja messaged me on New Year’s Eve, the bond that had come from walking the Camino together was palpable. We were together (including the opossum). When I spent the time as a child in nature, I was connected to what lay around me there. When on that outcropping that night in Colorado, looking at the stars, we truly were alone together, bound to one another by the darkness and the silence. When I was sitting on that hill in Oklahoma in utter solitude, Mary Ann was as close to me as she would have been were my arms wrapped around her transferring her from sitting on the side of the bed to her wheelchair. Yes, even when people to whom I feel connected respond to a Facebook post, it is an expression of community.   

I am wired for solitude and community. I think we all are. Solitude and community are not mutually exclusive but they are woven into the fabric of life. Some of both are necessary to make the fabric strong and beautiful.   

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