RIP Seamus. 12/30/08 - 12/02/22
Even if it hurts, get up every day and move.
Don’t forget to stop and smell whatever is interesting.
When you’re going up a hill, you can get tired. It’s OK to zigzag, explore side to side, and catch your breath.
If you forget where you are, it’s OK to stand still. You can also go back to the last place you remember.
If you struggle or get scared, find a friendly face and trust.
Sometimes you forget what you used to know. It might feel strange, but it’s OK to discover it again.
Even when you’re tired, show the people you love they’re important.
If you aren’t comfortable, jump up and move.
Sometimes putting one foot in front of the other is the best you can do.
Try to see the forest and the trees.
Protect what matters to you.
Making yourself at home is an essential skill.
When you feel joy, show it with your whole body.
Give a little love to everyone you meet.
Insist on what you want if it’s important to you. Charm and a handsome face can get you a long way.
Never give up on the people you love. Even when they get mad at you, show them you love them anyway.
Find new ways to tell people what you want, and be creative. The more ways you can think up, the deeper your bond with them becomes.
Show gratitude whenever you can. It makes you and everyone else feel good.
Show the people you love you’re happy to see them. Even if they’ve only been gone a little while.
Add your voice to every chorus.
You can be 20 inches tall and still be the biggest presence in the room.
When you become old and confused, people can grow impatient with you. Do your best anyway.
A good friend will understand when you’re grouchy.
When you're tired, you can always take a nap.
It’s almost always a good time for love and affection.
Gentleness can be just as persuasive as force.
If all else fails, there’s always your pack.
Instead of trying to fill it with words, I listened.
So nothing outside me can determine what enough is?
Then why is there a “world” at all?
Is anyone listening?
All my life, whenever I was met with silence, I always assumed I was being ignored. Or that something was being withheld. My focus had always been on what I wasn’t getting – from someone else.
This time I thought, what if I just continued to listen? What would happen?
So I listened. No one else was speaking, after all.
And nothing happened. The only thing “happening” was me.
So I continued to listen.
After a while, I heard “Yes. Only you. Only you can determine what enough is.”
I had answered myself, though. Hadn’t I? It sounded like my voice.
So who had addressed me as “you?”
Reflexively, I still needed confirmation – from a “someone else” – that what I heard was true. After all, what else is the world for?
So I asked again.
“Only I can know what enough is?”
Then, finally: “Why am I here?”
Out of that silence came an idea, though.
"Just keep it simple."
Maybe I was here to listen and to pay attention. Simple as that.
And then, if I paid attention long enough, maybe I could learn who I am and why I'm here.
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler - https://instagram.com/buhlerbuhlerr?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
For decades, I tried to prove to the world I wasn’t just enough, I was more than enough.
There were a few problems with this approach.
First, “the world” is a vague notion. The world is different for each of us. And once again, my aim wasn't true. The scale of my endeavor was all wrong. How does the grain of sand on the shore dare the ocean to acknowledge it?
Second, even if I tried to get more specific, who was the world, really? To whom, specifically, had I given so much power that I needed to prove my worth to them?
There are any number of answers to this question, and each one depends on our lived experience. For a long time I though my “who” was my dad. But then he died, and I was still trying to prove I was enough. Along the way, I also empowered people I admired, and then they’d invariably do something that proved they were just as human as I was. How could someone I couldn’t define actually define me?
There was no one person to whom I could prove I was enough.
Third – and this was a big one – maybe “the world” was God. After all, I had been raised to walk a path of salvation, which meant I had to improve if I ever expected to get anywhere good. Maybe God was judge and jury.
And then I kept remembering phrases.
The kingdom of heaven is within you.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Blessed are the meek. The merciful.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Everything pointed toward a loving God, not one who required proof I was enough.
So chances were good my “world” wasn’t God, either.
I was getting older and running low on options. I was also running out of time.
One day, my striver’s mask slipped. In that moment, I asked myself a question.
“So who gets to determine what enough is??!!”
The answer came through as clear as a bell. For a change, I was listening.
“There is ‘enough’ all around you! Plug into it and decide for yourself! You are the only one who can, and the only one who truly knows.”
I was humbled into silence, because I knew it was true. And that silence was a beginning.
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler - https://instagram.com/buhlerbuhlerr?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
After all, I was the guy who stayed up all night before a paper was due the next day, and still got an A. Zorro with a capital Z, written across the sky by a daredevil pilot.
By contrast, my friend in the apartment across the hall chipped away at her work and finished at a reasonable hour. She even found time to bake fresh bread in her tiny gas range, bring me a steaming slice slathered with butter and her mother’s strawberry jam, and a pot of strong Kenyan black tea. She shook her head and smiled as she walked back across the hall to her warm bed. I would not see my own until the following afternoon.
I envied my friend’s sense of proportion. She got her work done, and still found time to live her life in a way that included other people. I knew that I was pushing my own life away from me, keeping any sense of fulfillment at arm’s length. And with every grand, desperate gesture, I made sure it stayed there.
I gave the world a story that I did my best work under pressure. That I was a thoroughbred with intense energy levels who needed a challenge before I’d show up. After all, who wants to see a thoroughbred walk around a track? The truth was that behind every dramatic, last-minute lean across the finish line, I gave myself the narrowest possible window for fulfillment.
Why did I devote so much energy to keeping myself from what I wanted? The answer – someone in me did not feel he deserved it. Could not sustain it.
Because he wasn't enough.
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
If what I wanted stayed just out of reach, I never risked not achieving it.
I never had to fail.
The love of God, the blessing of my life, my dreams - they all felt beyond me.
So I kept them out of reach, and instead sought comfort in my visions of brilliant potential.
That way I could keep being clever, and never risk having to be clear.
Now I know. For me, “potential” is as addictive as crack.
If the sky is always the limit, I can perpetuate the illusion that I am already where I want to be.
There’s an old Mexican folk song called “La Bamba” that contains this lyric:
“Para subir al cielo se necesita una escalera grande y otra pequeña.”
Translated into English: “To climb up to the sky you need a big staircase and another small one.”
If all I focused on were big staircases, I was never going to get to heaven.
But how would a small staircase make any difference?
The difference a small staircase makes is that it gives you a chance to practice. To work with scale.
I needed to learn to trust small moves.
Survivorship bias is an error in logic. We make this error when we emphasize whatever "survives" a selection process. So we overlook whatever did not survive, because it's no longer visible.
How often do we discount, or even conceal our mistakes because of how they made us look? How often do we discard rough drafts, or pattern ourselves after someone else who "succeeded?"
A failure is the invisible cornerstone of our ascendancy. A scar is the often invisible survivor of a wound. Only we know the journey from then to now, and every step of that journey is real.
Our experience - all of it - is the most reliable bias there is, whether we succeed or not. Choose you, drink deep, and savor it. It's the best medicine there is.
I lived in Georgia from 1990 through 1993. Each New Year's Day, I rode on horseback in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, four hours north. My chosen steed was a chocolate bay Arabian mare named Ariane. Her regal head was sculpted and massive, her every gait supple and smooth. A few years earlier, she was rescued starving and terrified from a neighboring farm whose owners were divorcing. What Ariane endured there stretched her naturally taut psyche to the breaking point. She never fully regained her equilibrium, but she had enough good days to forbear my inexperience in the saddle. On those good days, she gave me long hours on her back traversing the slopes of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Range.
January 1, 1991 on the trail was sunny and warm despite our altitude. The far-off scent of woodfire reminded me we shared this vast, silent space. With Ariane in the lead - where she absolutely had to be - a group of us traveled a wide level path skirting a pine-covered slope that banked to our left. She stopped abruptly, and looked uphill. I followed her gaze. Just above us on the steep incline lay a pine sapling, staking its tender claim, nearly crushed beneath a rock that had rolled downhill. Its slender trunk bent far over. Ariane studied this for a good 30 seconds, then moved us on.
The first day of 1992 dawned cloudy and damp on the mountainside. It rained for days before our ride, and the rich aroma of damp loam fattened every inhaled breath. For safety's sake, our guide suggested we travel the same wide level trail, reckoning the narrower mountain paths might have washed away. Again, Ariane led the pack, and again, she suddenly stopped. We found ourselves looking at the same young tree, which I had forgotten. The young sapling not only survived, it grew. Farther up the slope, larger trees lay toppled, released by the drenched soil, but this little tree stood rooted and firm. Its thickening trunk now curved up and around the rock that nearly flattened it. Ariane and I took another good long look, and she led us away. I marveled not only that the tree was still alive, but also that the horse stopped again at the same place.
January 1, 1993 was the first day of the year I left the south. My ending there was bitter, and all I could see were the failures. It was a good day on the trail, though. A smaller group of us traveled the same wide level path. It was cold and clear with snow on the ground, and the trails were frozen crisp. Bracing, pine-infused air opened our lungs, and Ariane exhaled silver clouds that disappeared in seconds. All I could think about was the tree. Memory can refract our sense of location, so I scoured the slopes to my left as we climbed. I needn't have worried; we arrived at the spot, and Ariane stopped once more. What I saw took my breath away. With a year of growth the tree had dislodged the rock, which now lay on the ground alongside its distinctly curved trunk. I placed an open hand on my horse's neck and told her I wished we'd been there together the moment the stone rolled away. She acknowledged me with a backward shift of her enormous brown eyes, and carried me on down the mountain.
Our gradual descent and Ariane's easy gait lulled me into pondering. The pine tree's misfortune became its distinguishing feature. The rock's assault left a scar - a permanent downhill cantilever in the tree's young trunk - that suited it perfectly to life on the unforgiving pitch of a mountainside. This was one outcome I had not foreseen.
Another unforeseen outcome was the painful sundering, two years later, of the same household that rescued Ariane. In June of 1995, the woman who saved her called me in Ohio. Everything was falling apart. A barn burnt down. The farm was losing money, and there wasn't enough to rebuild or even maintain the place. The strain broke her relationship with the woman who helped her run it all, and she had to sell or rehome sixty horses. The heartbreak was audible in her voice as she offered me Ariane for $1500. It was a steal, but I lived in an apartment in Cleveland then, and my good days were years ahead of me.
Ariane would be 38 today, so it's likely she's gone. I still wonder what drew her to that tree. I still wonder what she saw, and what she reckoned, if she did. In my wondering, I can glimpse a tendency to ascribe noble motives to her. I imagine, for example, that she taught me a lesson about survival. Or that she showed me her own survival. Even that she recognized a kinship between herself and the tree. The facts are simpler and more compelling. Alert as she was, something caught her eye, and she stopped to look. That's what horses do. Pinned under a rock, the tree did what trees do - root down for food and foundation, and grow toward the light.
What do humans do?
What I call my life is a series of characters and events that occur in apparently random order. As it turns out, though, there's a design. Within those plot elements lives a pattern that has resonance - if I remember to stop and look. The horse, the tree, and the rock all have meaning because I was there too.
Perhaps what humans can do is to pause within our lives and look for evidence of a design. So every experience has value. So everywhere I go has meaning because I am there too.
A horse's alert stillness along a mountain path thirty-one years ago revealed a design. I was there too. The path exists because I do, yet it neither begins nor ends with me.
for Thich Nhat Hanh
When I stand in a river, I can feel the current's force.
It takes will to remain standing. I widen my base and adjust my footing. I engage my core. I meet the resistance. The onrushing water must account for me.
Then something truly magical happens.
I change the river's shape. I find my equilibrium, and the river senses me. It allows for me. Accommodates me. It becomes itself because I become myself.
The onrushing river of circumstances I call my life needs me to shape it. I stand in the river to make my life my own.
When the river and I learn this dance together, the tension we hold between us reminds me I'm alive. I learn to embrace my life. My life returns the embrace to remind me I belong, and the embrace is unconditional.
I can always let go, float downstream, and subject myself to the law of accident.
Or I can stand in the river. Stand for my life, and join the dance.
Happy new year.
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
Someone dear to me died at 3:10AM on Saturday, July 17, 2021.
She was also one of an estimated 178,000 people who died on earth that same day.*
By that measure, some 7400 people died in the same hour, and 120 within the same minute.
One other person on earth died the very second she did.
Because of our bond, her death was uncommon. What strikes me, though, is how common an occurrence death was that day.
What distinguishes her? What distinguishes any of us?
For most of us, death is personal. If I had been among the 120 people who died between 3:10 and 3:11AM on that day, however, and if for an instant we all somehow found ourselves in the same place, there’s so much I’d want to know.
Who are you now? How did you know you were dead?
I could ask the same questions of myself, while I’m alive.
Who am I now? How do I know I’m alive?
And any attempt to answer invites a connection with others.
The hallmark of our humanity is what we share. Our lives vary, but the fact of our death unites us. For most, though, death is only real when it’s imminent. Until then, we keep it at arm’s length.
Fear grows in the gap I keep between me and what I know is inevitable.
Or, my life can close that gap. After all, every day I’m closer.
I know I will die; a good friend just reminded me. And I know that the second I die, I will not be alone.
*Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Bioethics Research Library
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
Our death and we are promised
Our lives a dowry
Where we give everything
To become nothing
Our kingdom’s past knowing
And before believing
Where now is always then
And never becoming
We reign in wind
Emperors of air
Our just deserts
Are ever becoming
Full into empty becomes full
All into aught becomes all
Captive into free
We are always becoming
All antecedents naught
There is only becoming
My beloved and I
In our becoming
I vow to you each living memory
And silent evening prayer
For nothing fulfills like nothing
And nothing costs as dear