Friday, March 16, 2018


     If one drives (or even takes the train) from Denver to Sacramento/San Francisco, the most direct route will take you through the town of Lovelock, NV. Since I have family and friends in Northern California, I've made that trip often enough! The town was founded in 1849 by a gent named George Lovelock, and was a stopping point for folks headed to California (a lot of them, probably, in search of gold!). Within a few years, there was a train depot, and the town became quite a hub for mining activity, as mines were established in the area. More recently, it has attracted a lot of tourists, primarily because of the association of its name with a particular February holiday, as sweethearts will head to Lovers Lock Plaza, and attach a lock to symbolize their love. (And, of course, it being Nevada, it's easy to seal that love with a trip to the local court house.)
     I didn't know that there was a Lovers Lock Plaza until doing a bit of research for this post. I DID know that Valentine's Day was BIG there, because signs on the freeway touted the celebration. (I assumed that the town was banking on its name, much as does Loveland, CO!) But, every time I went by the town, I recalled my family's trip to China in December of 2003. As part of our "tourist-time", we visited the Great Wall of China where . . . there was a practice of lovers coming to the wall, attaching a lock, and throwing away the key! And it was the practice in China that inspired the Lovers Lock Plaza in Lovelock, NV! The implication of the action, whether on the Great Wall or in northern Nevada, is that the love being declared is eternal/everlasting.       After a little bit more poking around, I learned that there are numerous places where this ritual is practiced. Another is Budapest. Within the city, one can go to Erzsébet Square, or to the Szechenyi Chain Bridge over the Danube. And, while some lovers chose a "hardware store" lock, others go "all out", and have them engraved and decorated. The advantage, of course, of the Chain Bridge is that the key can be thrown into the river -- dramatic, and un-retrievable! While some would argue that the practice of love-locking around the world is a Chinese "export", almost all agree that it's a pretty lovely sentiment.
       In thinking about this a bit more, the cynic in me (and, yes, there is a bit of that!) began to wonder what happens to the locks if the couple decided they would part ways. Does someone go back to the bridge/Wall with a big pair of bolt cutters -- somewhat akin to someone having a tattoo of a former lover removed? There is something, I think, in the imagery that suggests that the couple's feelings for one another -- at that moment -- will be static throughout their relationship. They "lock" themselves in a moment in time.
       Extending this line of thought to a different kind of "love affair", I started wondering about how we can often "lock" our thinking in place.  "I took a class on that subject a few decades ago; I know what I'm talking about." "What do you mean research suggests that I need to change my  behavior? My mother smoked three packs a day and lived to be 90!" Or, more currently, "The framers of the Constitution guaranteed . . . ." Thinking like that can't bear the idea of breaking out the bolt-cutters, and the results can be tragic.
       I certainly can understand the symbolism of snapping the lock shut and throwing away the key. But what might it symbolize to use a combination lock instead, which might allow for some growth? Imagine returning to the Great Wall or the Chain Bridge or Lovelock NV, more experienced and wiser, and gently taking down that first lock, and replacing it with something that reflects a new reality. 



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Do-be-do-be-do-be . . . .

      Dear daughter is now three-quarters the way through her first year of college (out-of-state). Dear son is three-quarters the way through his first year of high school. They are both "doing" what they're supposed to be doing, what I as a parent would want them to "do." They're exploring new vistas, new possibilities. And, for the most part (if the reports are true), they're enjoying the experience and doing well. Again, I'm glad.
       I've been surprised, however, by some of the side-effects. For a couple of decades now, dear spouse and I have been "doing" for the kids: taking them to and from school and/or doctor's appointments, making sure they have all the right (sized) clothes, acting as computer tech-support (especially when a paper's deadline looms in 10 minutes!), serving as a cheering section at ballet or tae-kwon-do events. But, with one less kid in the house, and the other increasingly self-reliant, I've found myself with time on my hands.
      Now, you might think this would be a good thing (and I suppose it is, in the sense of training for the "empty nest syndrome"). But, according to my StrengthsFinder, my second-strongest strength is "Achiever". In other words, I live to get things done! But, with about 60% what I formerly needed to "do" no longer necessary, I'm casting about for other things to "achieve". Our financial records are now meticulously organized. I've culled old clothes and cellphones. I've re-arranged all of the stuff in the garage. Given that we're still coming out of winter, I've not been able to devote much energy to the yard, but . . .  just wait! Oh, I can take the lawn-mower to get it tuned up! That's not only doing something, but making it possible to do something better when I can mow!
       Another facet of this, though, has been that I have had the (almost enforced) opportunity to
not do. While I might protest the lack of do-ables, I have found that the additional time has allowed me to peer around corners in my own life that I've ignored while pounding straight ahead in pursuit of a "product". In other words, I've had to question my role as a "human doing" and consider a role as a "human being". Some of the insights have been surprising.
        It is in this new reality that I found the following quotation from Joseph Campbell provocative:

We must be willing to get rid of
the life we've planned, so as to
have the life that is waiting for us.*


* The quotation is used as the epigraph in Dan Brown's latest novel, Origin (Doubleday, 2017).

Friday, March 2, 2018

"You can't take it with you."

      The other day I was listening to a fishing-oriented podcast. The podcaster is a professional guide and devoted the last episode to answering the question:  "What do you pack to take with you on a fishing trip." I don't know what kind of answer the questioner expected, but I doubt s/he anticipated ALL of the information that filled the hour. The podcaster covered just about every possible trip:  solo road trip (he could fill the car with the equivalent of a fly shop); family trip by air (maybe one rod); Guide trip (many rods, specific gear); winter trips (lots of layers and a heater); summer trips (chaco sandals); camping or lodging (sleeping bag? food?). In short, the kind of trip dictated the amount and type of "stuff" he took with him.
      This got me thinking about the "stuff" that I accumulate, and what I can "take with me". And I was reminded of the "de-cluttering" industry that seems to have gained steam over the last several years.  You know,
Clear Your Clutter with Feng-Shui (by Karen Kingston) or Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of De-cluttering and Organizing ("Does that pair of socks give you joy?"), or, moving from Asia to Scandinavia, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. Every so often, I find myself on a tear, trying to get rid of stuff I no longer need (and maybe never did need), so I find these "systems" somewhat intriguing.       But, then I started thinking: "If I'm ever successful in "getting rid" of extraneous stuff, what would be left?" (because I'm certainly not in the position -- being a husband and parent -- of being able to divest myself of everything and retiring to a cave). If I assent to Marie Kondo's mantra ("Does it give you joy?"), it would seem that "what's left" should make me happy. I think, too, that what was "left' would say something about who I am or what I value.      Reflecting on the kind of stuff I keep around me led me to start thinking about the kind of people with whom I associate. And I recalled a fun conversation my wife and I had several years ago. We were dining out, and, for some reason, I asked: "If we 'construct' a cul-de-sac that would be populated by the people we enjoy most, who would have in our neighborhood?" Now, we'd been married a long time, and had lived in many different places, so we had a LOT of folks from which we could choose. It made for a VERY enjoyable dinner discussion, as we were "forced" to think about the qualities of our "future neighbors".  Of course, we couldn't "take them with us" and create that kind of neighborhood. But, even the mental exercise of thinking "who was left" revealed something (to me at least) of what I value or who I am.
      "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back again", declared Job, after most of his family and wealth was "taken" from him (Job 1.21). He knew that, ultimately, he "couldn't take anything with him". It's true . . . we can't. But (mixing religious metaphors), what kind of karmic dust from our "stuff" and associates might we wish to be remembered by?


Friday, February 23, 2018

"I know it by heart"

      Earlier this week, I hosted a book discussion on The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships, by Ethan Nichtern.* It seemed to be a good choice for a book discussion in February, this relationship-fueled month. And, it had the "hook" of being grounded in that "cool fairy tale" that is now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Thirty years! Memorable characters (Fezzik! Miracle Max! Rodents of Unusual Size!) Unforgettable scenes (Cliffs of Insanity! The Fire Swamp! Count Rugen's Torture Chamber!) And of course the bits of dialogue most of us can quote from memory:
      "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!"
      "You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means."
      "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead."
      'As you wish."
Here are phrases that we can not only quote from memory, but that have become part of the cultural linguistic inventory of our time.
     In the course of our discussion of the book, the characters, and these memorable phrases, we began to wonder WHY some movies/books have had such lasting power. We thought, too, of the "Star Wars" juggernaut, now forty years old and counting. I mused that part of the reason might be that a good portion of the population that has grown up with Princess Bride and Star Wars are also the same folks who've grown up outside of any religious tradition. In other words, the stories that helped form many prior generations were NOT part of the last couple. And, without those "old" stories, new ones necessarily had to be found to help make meaning out of life.  
I'm not saying this is bad, it's just . . . is.      That said, I've been thinking about those things we have memorized and those things we "know by heart". It began last Sunday (prior to the book discussion) when a grandfather and his granddaughters slipped into the pew behind me at church. Given the conversation I overheard, it was clear that the girls were not accustomed to being at this church with grand-dad. As the service progressed, we reached a point at which the congregation joined together in reciting a relatively long confession of faith. Grand-dad handed the bulletin to one of the girls and said, "Here, you can have this. I know it by heart." Whether he was just using that phrase instead of "I have it memorized" or not, I don't know. But I'd like to think it was more than just a series of memorized sentences; I'd like to think it was something he knew by heart.
      What we know "by heart" not only forms us, but sustains us. It is no surprise that those suffering from Alzheimers Disease (or other forms of dementia) can join in singing old hymns, even when they can't string together words for a complete sentence. Hospice workers know that, when they visit patients, the Lord's Prayer or the Shema come fairly easily to folks who often seem "out of it." These "series of sentences" were learned over years, in particular contexts, and became deep-seated . . . "heart-known".  I can't say for certain, but I would hope that the words from the heart at that time provide some internal comfort, a re-connection with a more "normal" life.        So I wonder . . . what do we know by heart?  "As you wish" may win a trivia contest, but does it sustain us?



* North Point Press, 2017.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A River Runs Through You

     Many years ago, my wife and I took up bird-watching (or "birding"). A close friend of ours had been a long-time birder, and offered to take us out, and we were at a point where we believed that some sort of joint outdoor hobby would be fun. So we got in the car, picked up John, and headed to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. John had a specific lake in mind and, once we parked and got out of the car, he told us not to look at anything until he pointed.  Walking across the street without "looking at anything" was a bit of a challenge, but when he told us to look, we were looking at . . . a duck. Well, that's what WE thought; it certainly looked like a duck. John told us, "I wanted you to have THIS bird as #1 on your life list. It's a Eurasian Wigeon." That was the first of about 50 birds we identified that day, driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area. And it was the beginning of a life-long hobby.
      We were so surprised by the variety of birds -- ducks, gulls, hawks, pigeons, songbirds. And the diversity of colors -- astonishing! We couldn't believe that we'd never really noticed before! But something else happened; I think we realized it a few weeks later walking through some meadows at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore (north of San Francisco). In our efforts to locate elusive birds, we started noticing other things:  butterflies, snakes and frogs, different kinds of grasses. In other words, once we started paying close attention to one "family" of wildlife, we started seeing a lot of other things . . . and, of course, the variety there was equally astonishing.

       Our experience was not unique, of course. While living in North Carolina, we learned that a lot of birders turned to butterflies during the summer when bird life was slow and "predictable". And, of course, it's helpful to know an aspen from a ponderosa pine when following someone else's directions in where to locate a bird. Then I learned earlier this week from a podcast from the American Birding Association that, given the portability of lots of field guides (i.e., on one's smartphone) many birders are branching out beyond avian life.
      The realization, however, that by carefully looking for one thing, one finds many others was a bit of a su
rprise. We've asked ourselves numerous times, "How could we have been so inattentive?" The easy answer, of course, is that we weren't trained to pay attention. 
       I've had a similar set of realizations as I've become more obsessed with fly-fishing. I'd seen "rivers" before; I grew up in Portland, OR where there are a LOT of rivers, big and small. But what I'd never noticed were all the various characteristics of the rivers:  pools, back-eddies, places where the current was faster than others, the slack water behind boulders, etc. All of those hold (or don't) fish. But it goes beyond that -- there's the whole question of the water's depth, and whether the fish are holding towards the bottom, or if they're taking food from the surface. AND, there's the question of what they're eating. One way of checking that is to seine the water with a fine mesh net. One finds twigs, insect larvae, perhaps a minnow. There is A LOT of stuff going on in the river that I never noticed . . . until I started paying attention.
       The other day, I started to think about this in the context of a "life", in particular, my own. I can look in the mirror and see . . . me. Yet if I start paying attention to what's going beyond the "big picture", I can see that there are "eddies", "swift currents", "twigs", "larvae" that are also significant in making me who I am. I'm going to have to take time to really pay attention to understand what all those things have contributed to who/what I am. I hadn't thought that there's a River Running Through Me.



Friday, February 9, 2018

Oooh, look! Shiny Stuff!

     My colleague, the university ombuds, always has a tray of very shiny wrapped candies at her table at resource fairs. She told me, at one of these events very soon after I arrived at DU, that studies have shown that people are drawn to shiny objects, and, since she wanted people to be aware of her office, if shiny candies got them to her table, she'd take advantage of our predilection! Of course, for humans, "shiny stuff" goes far beyond candy wrappers.      "Shiny stuff" (or some comparable phrase) came up in a podcast that I recommended in "Listen Up" (below) last week.  The suggestion in the podcast was that folks might want to consider, what David Cain (the interviewee) called, a "Depth Year." Instead of indulging in the acquisition of every new thing that "shines" (whether that's a hobby, a new car, or a new book, or something like that), Cain suggested revisiting all the unfinished things that are found in our lives.  In his case, it was a guitar gathering dust, unlearned French (despite the books) and dried-up water-colors. That interview struck a nerve with many people, as the following week's Tapestry show contained a lot of suggestions that listeners were going to try.
     "Stuff", whether "shiny" or not came up in another podcast (Common Knowledge*) I heard early this week.  But in this discussion, the context was quite different. The two hosts were discussing "identity", and one suggested that they share something that represented their "identities". I was expecting that they would bring an object, but one "brought" a blog that represented her "Hindu-American-Mommy" identity; the other mused on the phrase "thoughts and prayers". The "stuff-ness" of the conversation was really that there was something relatively "concrete" (even if only virtually so) to which they could point that said something about them.
      Virtual "stuff" then appeared in an article published (online) in Tricycle magazine: "Drooping Distraction" by Leo Babauta. Babauta observes how much we are distracted by the "stuff" (he doesn't use that word) that we use everyday, particularly with our technology.: multiple open browser tabs, constant email/newsfeed notifications, iPhone trivia games, social media, etc. And, the distractions that we find there often lead us to new ones ("In-app purchases" of another iPhone game!).       So, what is it about "shiny stuff"? As I thought about this over the last few days, the notion that stayed the longest was that, as suggested but the Common Knowledge podcast, "stuff" can tell us a lot about who we are. AND, that can be a good, or not-so-good thing. Identifying with by a "Hindu-American-Mommy" blog is one thing, but do we want to be identified by the "Tune Blast" iPhone game? A cherished family photo album can tell us a lot about who were are, and from where we came -- a good thing. But do we really want to be identified as "that person" who can't live without the newest thing?     Given all this, the idea of a "depth year" really has begun to make a lot of sense . . . in a couple of different ways. In the most material sense, for example, do I really NEED to buy new fly-tying materials for one fly pattern, OR should I spend more time creatively with the materials I have? But, in a more "spiritual" sense, should I simply go deeper to try to understand WHY I am so attracted to the "shiny stuff"?  They're not mutually exclusive, of course; perhaps even complimentary. That said, however, I don't think I'm quite ready for a depth year. On the other hand, like many western Christians, I'm staring at Lent beginning this-coming week. I might be able to commit to forty days . . . .


* Available on iTunes:  Podcast:  "Common Knowledge"; Episode from 2/1/18: "Identity: Moving Through the World . . ."

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sometimes a cigar . . .

      The other day I was driving my 9th-grader to school. As is often the case, we were driving in silence (he doesn't like having the radio on). But, as is also often the case, out of the blue, he said "I'm wondering . . . ." "Yes? You were wondering?" I prompted. He said, "I'm curious as to what it means if someone has the same dream over and over?" I said that I thought it probably meant that the person was trying to "work on something" in their subconscious, but that it wasn't getting resolved. And then I asked him, "Are you having the same dreams over and over." "When I was a kid, but not any more" he replied, "I was just wondering" (which he often does).
       "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar . . ." Sigmund Freud is reported to having said when asked about a cigar in a dream. (I didn't go into that whole thing on the way to school!) But the question of dream-interpretation has fascinated me (and others) for a long time.  I remember many years ago, when I was in seminary, that one of my psychology classes had a session or two on dream-work. I think THAT particular psychological "school" believed that the "important" message from a dream was found in when the "dreamer" exited the dream. That is, the point at which the dream ended held the meaning (i.e., the cigar gets lit). Then, there's a Jungian theory that the various people in a dream represent various parts of ourselves, and the interactions (and resolution) have something to say about what "we're working on" (i.e., the man smoking the cigar represents a certain part of me that is "smoky"). And, then, of course there's the theory that sometimes a cigar ISN'T a cigar.
       But there is an entirely different kind of dream interpretation, one that has a much longer history than those suggested above. And that, of course, relates to dreams being messages from outside the conscious (or subconscious) self, i.e., from a divinity. Ancient texts are full of these kinds of dreams. And usually they're "interpreted" as predictive or calls to action. In late antiquity, Plato and Aristotle discussed dreams; Artemidorus wrote a manual of dream interpretation, the OneirocriticaIn the Joseph account in Genesis, Joseph is given insight into the Pharaoh's dream -- predicting that there'd be years of good harvest, followed by famine (Genesis 41). Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod murderous intent (Matthew 2.13). 
      Dreams were so important that their absence was not a good thing, and indicative of wider problems than just those of the individual dreamer. This is so clearly illustrated in the 5th-century BCE prophet Joel. The situation to which the prophet speaks is one in which a locust plague has decimated the land (described as a day of darkness and of gloom). But, the prophet says that, after the destruction, God would restore the land and its animals. AND, after that God would "pour out [God's] spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions (Joel 3.1). The picture is one of hope for the future; the presence of God's spirit, dreams and visions presaged good.

       I continue to wonder about dreams. And I go back to my son's question about dreams in general, and, in particular, about multiple iterations of the same dream. What if they weren't just windows into the subconscious?  If we listened to them differently, might we a look through a window into a possible (good) future. In a culture filled with dystopic "bad dreams" filling our "big screens", how might some positive dreams presage a better future? Of course, we'd have to take action . .  .
        What are the dreams we dream?