In my most recent post I wrote about my mother’s death and the subtle but essential influence she, and other elders and ancestors, have on me and my family. As I continue to grieve this loss I find myself re-experiencing mom every day. Maybe it’s a memory that arrives spontaneously, seemingly out of nowhere. Maybe it’s a taste, smell, or sound that evokes an image or a thought. Mostly it’s intentional thought, simply deciding to think about mom, what she meant to me and our family, her good, bad and ugly (yes, let’s be real; we ALL have some ugly), and I smile or even laugh and then get back to the business of the day. For what choice do I have? Or you, for that matter? Life is for the living; like Auntie Mame said, “life is a banquet!”
My wife pointed out a passage from Tiffany Schlain’s book “24/6,” which I’ve reprinted below. The “Tech-Shabbat” she refers to is the essence of her book, the intentional practice of turning off our devices for a day every week and living an analog life. In this passage she’s musing about the impact of her father’s death on her own living. It’s quite good and informed my grieving and perhaps might help yours. The reference to “Blooma,” by the way, is to her then-newborn daughter of that name.
From 24/6 by Tiffany Schlain
In my father’s last months, I repeatedly asked him, what did he think was the meaning of life?
Here is what he eventually said to me: “Appreciate beauty. Plant gardens. Enjoy sunsets. Help people less fortunate than you. Think big. Nothing is more important than family. Be present.” Much later, I would realize these are exactly the things we do on our screen-free days.
I started doing Tech-Shabbats after the intense period when I lost my father and had Blooma within days. It was as if life grabbed me by the shoulders and stared into my eyes and said, Figure out what’s important!
Here’s the thing that’s most fascinating to me, nearly a decade after my father’s death: he is now infinite to me. While we are all human, fallible, imperfect beings who are all works in progress, if we attempt to live meaningful and purposeful lives and are present for those we love, we can live forever.
Someone once told me: whenever you are doing something that the person you lost loved to do, you bring them back. So while I write this book in the darkness of five a.m., when my dad also loved to write; clap through tears at the end of a fantastic film in a packed theater; thrust my own finger in the air and say “Tradition!” while eating a bagel, lox, and cream cheese; or appreciate the family sitting around the table — all things he loved — he is with me.
Here is the video of that day’s guided meditation:
During our lives we connect repeatedly with people, and some of those connections become quite deep. Using music as a metaphor, we can think of the attraction that begins a relationship as the “melody,” the most apparent part of the music of connection. So, in a way, that is the “first music,” the music we hear most readily.
However there is a “second music” in our relationships, of which we may or may not be mindful. Again, using music as metaphor, think of this second music as the bass line and drumming in a pop song. A song that comes to mind for me is “Something,” George Harrison’s ballad from the Abbey Road album. The melody is sublime, and communicates clearly the feeling of passionate love that his lyrics express. But if you listen closely you can also hear a wonderful rhythm just beneath the melody, a rhythm defined by Paul McCartney’s skillful bass playing and Ringo Starr’s subtle drumming. If we heard this song without that “second music” we would have a lesser experience.
The same is true in our most intimate and important relationships. While it is the outward signs that attract us there is that second layer, something that is constant and rhythmic, that keeps us connected. As a therapist I recognize that the issue or story that my therapy client tells me is that first music, while the client’s history and emotions and world-view constitute that background and underlying second music.
My mother passed away very recently. She died after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for many years. The early loss we experienced was the first music, as her memory deteriorated; short-term memory at first, then gradually long-term memory. In the beginning of her illness she was still mom in character; the second music was still playing. But as long-term memory faded and was lost, so was the feeling of my mother; the underlying rhythm was gone as well.
What stimulated this line of thought in me was a poem, “The Second Music,” reprinted below, that was sent to me by a dear friend shortly after mom’s death:
The Second Music
Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other
lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.
When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it
touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.
I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,
the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,
becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.
I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.
“The Second Music” by Annie Lighthart from Iron String
With this idea in mind, I will pay closer attention going forward to this second music in my relationships and in the world. I think sometimes we pay attention only to the most obvious parts of our friendships. With the gradual loss of my mother, I’ve come to appreciate how much that second music means. Perhaps the next time you’re with your friend, your spouse, your partner, you’ll notice that subtle rhythm that defines the longest-lasting part of the person you love.
It is too easy to forget that we live in a world where Beauty is manifest so vividly and extravagantly. I have two quotes today. One is from a 15th century Italian humanist and scholar. The other is a poem written by a then-5th grade student, which I published on this website several years ago. But reading the quote from Ficino, the scholar, reminded me of this lovely poem. I hope you enjoy.
The internal perfection produces the external. The former we can call goodness, the latter beauty. For this reason, we say that beauty is a certain blossom of goodness, by the charms of which blossom, as by a kind of bait, the hidden internal goodness attracts beholders. But since the cognition of our intellect takes its origin from the sense, we would never be aware of and never desire the goodness itself hidden in the heart of things if we were not attracted to it by the visible signs of external beauty.
Marsilio Ficino, 15th century scholar, Catholic priest, and humanist of the early Renaissance
My friend Julius died not long ago, leading me to reflect on his life and mine, and our decades-long friendship. I’ve written a reflection about Julius, a sort of eulogy I suppose. If you’d like to read it you’ll find it below the Audio and Video of this meditation.
Reflecting on friendship led me back to a favorite poem:
Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
Here is the video of today’s meditation:
And here is the audio:
For Julius by James M. Walsh
It was a cold autumn night in 1973 and I was walking across the Fordham University campus, likely heading back to my dormitory after playing pick-up basketball in the gymnasium. I remember that night: cold and crisp air, clear sky, the lights in the buildings – university and residence halls – shining brightly. Along the way I picked up with a fellow walker, my friend Paul, though he was really more a friendly acquaintance, someone who lived with a friend and whose company I always enjoyed even if we saw each other infrequently. Paul was rather stout, with orange-red hair and a bushy beard, kind of a Santa Claus look in the way that tells you this person is kind and generous. Well, at least Paul was, so I was happy to have him join me for the walk home.
After we greeted each other Paul asked me if I could help him, which I agreed to do of course. I think the willingness to help someone, or not, is baked into a person early in life by a parent or parents who know how important kindness can be. Paul told me that he needed help with a Boy Scout Troop. Specifically, he was the Scoutmaster and he needed Assistant Scoutmasters, an idea that I immediately rebelled against. I had been a Cub Scout as a very young boy but never a Boy Scout; I always had imagined I didn’t like Boy Scouts, but I had no rational reason to believe that of course. Paul went on to explain that the Boy Scout Troop was special as it was sponsored by the New York Association for Brain Injured Children, or NYABIC, as they liked to call themselves. This was Boy Scout Troop 666 and, despite the “devilish” number, the boys were great young fellows who needed companionship more than training in scouting skills and lore. At the time I was thinking of adding a concentration in Education to my degree area of Biological Sciences, thinking seriously of becoming a High School science teacher, so helping with this Boy Scout Troop seemed a good thing to do, not just for the members but for me to see if I liked working with adolescents. I said “yes, I will,” and agreed to come to the next meeting.
Later that week, on another cold autumn evening, I walked into Hughes Hall of Fordham University where the Boy Scout Troop meetings were held. As I walked down the long entrance hallway I encountered a six foot three inch, 250 pound, 14 year old Boy Scout in full uniform regalia. I asked him “where is the Scout meeting?” and instead of answering me he asked “why do you want to know?” I told him I was there to help Paul and he reached around me in a bear hug, lifted me six or eight inches off the ground and said “welcome brother!” This was my first meeting with Julius.
My final three years at Fordham were largely focused in two areas: my studies to be a High School science teacher and my weekly evenings with Troop 666. I can honestly say that I do not remember anything from the Boy Scout manual, but I do remember how much fun we had at those meetings. I remember that the parents of these boys found companionship and camaraderie in their gathering space down the hall from the meeting room. I remember that the six or eight of us who were university students found companionship and camaraderie in our shared commitment to being with these boys, a commitment that translated for many of us into careers as educators and helping professionals.
But mostly I remember the companionship and camaraderie of the boys. There were anywhere from ten to fifteen boys, some Cub Scouts and some Boy Scouts, at most meetings. Paul always had a planned activity and taught them the fundamentals of what it means to be a Boy Scout. Every meeting began with a recitation of the Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight;” followed by the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Though most of Paul’s recruits had no history of having been a Boy Scout (half of us were women at a time way before there were girls in the scouting program; most of the men had been scouts), we all worked hard to live up to the Scout Oath and Law, and helped the boys to connect their behavior with one another to the aspirations of these ideals.
I say all of this so you can picture those meetings, and now picture Julius, all of Julius, at these meetings! He towered over everyone, including the Fordham students, and his height was only matched by his good-natured, gregarious way with all of us, from the youngest Cub Scout to the eldest of the parents. If the little boys were playing “Duck Duck Goose” then Julius was in the middle of the game, scampering joyously in pursuit of whoever had tagged him as “Goose.” If it was time for music then Julius would stand tall and in his booming baritone voice lead everyone in song. When one of the boys became frustrated it was Julius who would speak softly, speak calmly and bring that Scout back to the meeting. Julius was a joy to be with, and I liked him from the moment I laid eyes on him.
It was the following summer when I invited Julius and one of the other scouts, Tommy, on a camping trip to an upstate New York State Park. The three of us piled into my Ford Pinto, which was not much vehicle for someone like Julius to squeeze into! We got to the the park and found a good campsite, one with some privacy but not too far from the park’s amenities. We pitched our tents and built a campfire and made dinner, which was probably hot dogs and a few burgers. After dinner Julius announced he was going to take a walk, which was his way to avoid helping with the cleanup. Yes, he was a good guy, but he was known to duck out from doing the dishes now and then. Tommy and I did the work, and as it began to get dark we set out to find Julius. Soon the dusk was becoming darkness, and I began to panic. I was responsible for his safety, of course; he was sixteen and his mother was depending on me. I remember thinking “how will I explain losing someone as big as Julius?” We called his name and scoured the area, to no avail.
Just as we were about to give up finding him we spotted another campsite with a fire and a circle of people sitting and chatting. Above all of the other voices we heard Julius and headed in that direction. When we arrived he laughed and told the group that “it looks like my ride is here,” and said his goodbyes, and they all said their goodbyes to him. As we walked back to our own campsite I asked him about that group and he said “oh, they’re friends of mine.” I laughed out loud and said “what are the odds that a guy from the Bronx would come to upstate New York, to a forest no less, and run into friends?” But nothing would surprise me with Julius as he was just the kind of person who would have friends everywhere. Then I asked him “so how long have you known these folks?” He looked at me like I had missed something important and said “about an hour.”
“About an hour.” That phrase struck me, woke me up. And then I realized exactly who Julius was, I came to clearly see his way of being in the world. For when you met Julius you met someone who thought of himself as your friend, and thought of you and me as his friends. Not a potential friend, an actual friend. And he treated you that way from the moment you met until the moment you parted. That bear hug he gave me that night at Hughes Hall? It wasn’t just me who got that bear hug; whether literally or figuratively everyone got a bear hug from Julius.
These events happened over forty seven years ago. Julius and I have been the best of friends ever since. As a matter of fact, my entire family has been friends with Julius. My wife and children, and now their spouses, all love and were loved by Julius. My sister became close friends with him as well, and after she married and had four children of her own they all came to know and love Julius. He was a fixture at many of our family functions, a valued and much loved guest. But most importantly, always the best of friends.
I write about Julius today because he passed on a Friday morning earlier this month. He died of a heart attack. Julius suffered much over the last years of his life. His legs always had poor circulation, probably part of the birth injuries he suffered. His heart was also damaged, and in the final years of his life he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. Gradually his kidneys failed, then he could no longer walk, and finally he could barely speak. I do not intend to idealize Julius in this reflection; in those final years he could be very unpleasant, but forgiven for being so as his suffering, and how it limited his quality of life, was awful. When I heard the news of his death from his wife I was relieved and grieved; I spent the day quietly feeling some melancholy and some joy. That night for dinner I had some comfort food (mashed potatoes; I’m Irish after all) and a glass of wine. And I thought about my friend, and told stories about him to my friends and family.
Julius used to kid me about having a doctorate and still not being able to do things he could do, like fix a doorbell or whip me in a game of backgammon. Julius did not graduate high school; rather they gave him a certificate for successfully completing his four years there. But Julius had a doctorate in humanity and lived that doctorate to the full. I miss him terribly, and will always feel deep gratitude for the universe connecting us. I can still feel in my imagination that bear hug, still hear that sonorous voice saying “Jimmy you’re educated by not real smart,” and then laugh and let me know that he was glad to know me. You see Julius was a friend, and he taught me how important it is to be a friend to everyone. Sometimes I imagine what my life would be like if I was as skilled at being a friend as Julius was. I miss you Julius; I hope you’ve been able to cast off the travails of that body that failed and are living with a smile on your face and a bear hug embrace for whoever happens to pass your way in that life eternal to come.
Let’s keep it simple today: it’s spring! Whether practicing focused concentration or open awareness, let’s simply pay attention to the returning life and beauty of this world. Here’s a poem that perhaps can put you in the mood:
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
There are times in any life that are very difficult. Perhaps we are struck with a dreadful illness, or chronically painful condition, or severe job/career loss, or overwhelming financial calamity, or societal injustice, violence, defeat. All of us face times of tremendous trial.
During these times of trial there is the inclination to escape. These times in our lives bring a chronic state of bodily stress, that can wear down the body, mind and spirit. We reach a point where we turn away from our difficulties and say “enough!” “I can’t take this anymore!”
In these times of trial I have seen many relationships fray around the edges, sometimes even deteriorating to the core. In our suffering we lose patience, and with it our capacity to express our love. The same is true for caregivers witnessing the suffering of a loved one. Anger, fear, shame and guilt, sadness. All of these emotions overwhelm, and quickly we can say and do hurtful and regretful things.
Our mindfulness practice teaches us a counterintuitive and somewhat paradoxical response to times of trial: leaning in. Rather than avoiding the difficult, the uncomfortable and unpleasant, the painful, we lean into these trials. In so doing we intend to form a new relationship with our suffering. Yes, it may sound unusual to put it that way, but you and I both have a relationship with our suffering (as well as with our joy!). This relationship with our suffering is one based on the attitude we choose to have with pain and difficulty. Often, as if on autopilot, our attitude toward our suffering is antagonistic. Noticing our suffering and our attitude, we can form the intention to bring acceptance, receptivity, and equanimity to our relationship with our suffering. And that can change everything!
Today’s meditation is a body scan. I can only speak for myself, but every time I do the body scan I inevitably come across parts of my body that are tense, uncomfortable, or painful. And that is where I get to practice “leaning in.” You can do that too! Using your breath as your anchor, your foundation, turn to those parts of your body that hurt in any way, and see what you can learn from them. You might be surprised what they have to teach you.
So here are some words of wisdom from Pema Chodron. Below that is a poem from Mary Oliver. It’s a very pleasant poem filled with very pleasant images. Sometimes we need a little food for the journey, especially when the journey is difficult.
When Things Fall Apart (Excerpt)
Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors, people who have a certain hunger to know what is true, feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back.
They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate therm. We run like crazy.
We are use to all kinds of escaping — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it.
There are so many ways that have been dreamed up to entertain us away from the moment.
— Pema Chodron
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Oh the effort we put in to “changing our selves”! Think of the time and money wasted on New Year’s resolutions, magic diets, fad-fueled workout regimens, and miracle cures to problems that may not even be problems. We strive for our version of perfection, usually an illusion, usually another way to squander a perfectly fine day.
Yet at the same time we feel pulled toward something greater than our selves. When we sit in meditation there are moments that feel serene, during which a sense of mental clarity absorbs us. If we strive for these moments, they are elusive. If we settle into our posture, into our breath, body, and mind with the intention to simply be present, receptive, and aware, then these moments may arise. I am not sure exactly what is meant by the word “enlightenment” when used in the context of meditation and a spiritual point of view. But if it means to “see more clearly” (i.e. with greater mental light) and to feel less of a burden in life (i.e. to have our mental load “lightened”), then perhaps enlightenment is a momentary awareness, a guest dropping into the guest house of our mind. And perhaps just the memory that this guest is always invited and always welcome can make each day feel even more full and alive.
Here are two poems I really like, and which I used in today’s guided meditation:
Forget About Enlightenment
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
Our mindfulness practice opens up a world of possibilities. Sitting, listening, noticing, not judging; always receptive, never rejecting anything, endlessly curious as to our own experiencing. And what a world our inner being presents to us! Fleeting yet seeming to be solid and permanent, always a new thought and a new drive, yet coming back to the breath, mind and body feels like a homecoming to something old each time.
Wisdom and delight can be found in so many places. Having grandchildren has introduced me once again to the wisdom and delight of the very young child. It has been a joy to become reacquainted to that wise old sage, Winnie the Pooh. Today I offer to you a few wise quotes from Winnie and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood:
“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
“Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more… to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”
On Your Self Worth and Dignity:
“The things that make me different are the things that make me me.”
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”
And on how to be patient with the other guy!
“If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in this ear.”
Today’s meditation is a modified body scan. I hope it helps you to reestablish the delight that is available to us each moment of every day.
From the materials furnished to me years ago from the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, as part of the teacher training I received in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction:
WHAT IS STRESS?
“Stress is the nonspecific response of the organism to any pressure or demand. A Stressor is any stimulus, whether in the external or internal environment, that produces the body’s stress response. For example: An overwhelming stress response (caused by prolonged starvation, worry, fatigue, or cold) can break down the body’s protective mechanisms. This is true both of adaptation which depends on chemical immunity and of that due to inflammatory barricades. It is for this reason that so many maladies tend to become rampant during wars and famines. If a microbe is in or around us all the time and yet causes no disease until we are exposed to a stress, what is the “cause” of our illness, the microbe or the stress? I think both are – and equally so. In most instances, disease is due neither to the germ as such, nor to our adaptive reactions as such, but to the inadequacy of our reactions against the germ.”
– Dr. Hans Selye
Exposure to Stressors → Stress Response (release of Cortisol)
Over a period of time chronic stress, initiated by a chronic stressor, can take on a life of its own as the mind stays in a state of hyper-vigilance, causing the body to go into a stressful state even when the chronic stressor is no longer present.
We often try to escape this stress cycle by trying to think our way out of it. This usually fails, absent doing the work of bringing the body back to a relaxed state. Today’s meditation is a hybrid of the classic body scan and a technique called Progressive Muscular Relaxation. The intention is to teach a tool that can be used to help us recognize when the body is being held with stressful tension, and having an easily applied antidote to relax the body and the mind.
Can finding contentment be so simple: find more light every day. Without light there is no life, at least not life as we know it. Light warms and energizes ourselves, our planet. If “to love” is to hold dear, to cherish, to nourish and care for, then perhaps light is the most primal manifestation of “loving” that we experience.
Our practice of mindfulness is quite simple, in a way. We learn to notice what is happening in this present moment, and we notice it openly, honestly, authentically, and, most important, without judgment. To be mindful is to be receptive. Looked at from a different perspective, to be mindful is to form the intention to love life as we experience it, moment to moment.
What could be simpler than to notice the light, both literally and figuratively, that surrounds us every day? And in doing so mindfully, we love the light in return; love after love.
Today’s meditation includes some brief quotes:
Excerpt from The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
Excerpt from Lights in the Windows by Naomi Shihab Nye
Years ago a girl handed me a note as I was leaving her proud town of Albany, Texas, a tiny, lovely place far in the west of our big state.”I’m glad to know there is another poemist in the world,” the note said. “I always knew we would find one another someday and our lights would cross.”
Our lights would cross. That girl had not stood out to me, I realized, among the other upturned, interested faces in the classroom. How many other lights had I missed? I carried her smudged note for thousands of miles.
To me the world of poetry is a house with thousands of glittering windows. Our words and images, land to land, era to era, shed light on one another. Our words dissolve the shadows we imagine fall between.