Archive for category Personal

“A Labonza!”

We’re all dying.

From the moment we’re born, we’re all terminal cases. Of course. And shortly after attaining adulthood, parts and systems in our bodies start to break down, if ever so slowly at first. Metabolism slows. Repairs to damage happens slower and slower over time. Cells eventually start to make errors when reproducing. Our vision dims, tinnitus may show up, and we discover the weird and annoying consequences of “sleeping wrong”. Eventually we develop aches that seem to have no specific source at all. This is all very normal. And for most of us, it takes a very long time for one of these systematic breakdowns to lead to actual death.

But there’s another way we are all fading from this earth. Our memories are slowly dying, you see. Not just in our own minds, but really long before any mental issues might kick in, the constantly growing collection of stories and experiences overwhelms our ability to share them with others. At first this is no big deal, as most of the things we experience and then later remember are not really that significant.

But a point comes in life where our specifically cherished memories also begin to lose purchase on the world.

I remember when one of my uncles passed away. It was very sad for me; he was one of the very small collection of adults I had looked up to from my earliest memories. He was a smart man of integrity with a great sense of humor. But as hard as it was for me to lose him, it was a thousand times harder for his two siblings, my mother and my other uncle on that side of the family. And I remember my mother saying something to me that has really stuck in my mind in the many years that have gone on since then. She said that one of the hard parts about losing a brother like that was that the circle of people you shared a very large collection of memories with suddenly shrank. There were things she and her two brothers experienced together that were really just theirs and no one else’s. And now half the people she shared those memories with was gone.

And over time, that shrinking of the various circles of people you share particular memories with continues, a rising sea of human entropy slowly washing away the little islands of shared experience that we build up in the first half of our lives. A few years ago, one of my three best and earliest childhood friends died, well before his time. I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours wandering around our small town, just him and me, playing all sorts of imaginary games, having all sorts of conversations. Whole summers spent with mostly just him. We built up a huge canon of inside jokes and “do you remembers” and weird shared experiences. The time he flipped his bike end over end at the bottom of Cathedral Hill and a woman jogged up to us announcing she was a trained nurse. Weirdly, we laughed about that for years. The complex fantasy world we built up over several summers, in which we were characters in the Star Wars universe.

There were also hundreds of more hours we spent together in shared company with other friends. Playing dungeons and dragons with his older cousins and their friends. Hanging out with other classmates of ours. Getting into pretty serious trouble with adults for various things we did.

And then he died.

I believe in a life after death, but I also really cherish this life here and now. And here and now I am no longer able to connect with my friend. I haven’t for years and years. And that makes me the sole earthly guardian of those hundreds of hours of cherished shared memories, now.

What do you do with that burden? I can share those memories with others, like I am now, or maybe in much more detail. I can tell my kids about him. I can reach out to his kids and tell them about their father’s goofy childhood adventures. But honestly? I’m not sure these memories I hold will really bare any meaning to anyone else.

When I was a teenager, my father took me fishing for bluefish off the New Jersey coast. He did it once a year for many years. It was a trip that he had started doing just with some friends, and I would hear about it but never go. Then one year, I was old enough. We woke in the dark of night and drove to Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. He, a couple of very good friends of his, and the oldest sons of each of those friends, who also happened to be friends of mine. Six “men” off to do a “man thing” at dawn.

Every year was basically the same as that first time. We would arrive in Barnegat Light around dawn after a two hour drive from Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. We’d eat breakfast at a diner, there, and then go find our little chartered fishing boat, and climb aboard with coolers full of hoagies bought the night before, and plenty of cold drinks.

The ship was the Dan Rick, and it’s captain was Joe Burt. The first thing I remember Captain Joe saying was a question to my father, “Did you tell them I yell?”

And yell he did. Once out on the sea, this ancient mariner seemed hell bent on scaring bluefish up from the depths by the sheer power of his temper. I loved fishing, and he hated missing a catch. He cursed and swore but he also hollered and celebrated, as the occasion called for it. When the fish began seriously hitting our lines, he yelled out, “A labonza!” which he gleefully explained to us meant “Gut them in the belly!”

A couple of weeks ago I was back on Long Beach Island. My mother has a beach house, there, and my extended family takes turns vacationing there. I got to thinking about old Cpt. Joe and the Dan Rick, and wondered if there was any way to figure out which diner I had gone to as a kid on those trips, decades ago.

The thing is, Joe Burt is dead. My father is dead. The fathers of the other boys on that trip are also dead. I could call my childhood friends up and ask them about it, but they too had been young teens and after tens of years, the odds that any of us would know where the diner was was pretty slim. Really, the diner probably doesn’t exist any more. Certainly the Dan Rick is gone, I would think.

But I fired up the google machine anyway. I figured if I could find an old reference to the Dan Rick in a newspaper, maybe in an advertisement for Joe Burt’s charter fishing services, then I could figure out where exactly the ship had been berthed. And from there I could maybe begin a search for the old diner.

What I found, instead, was a memoir. Joe had a son. He had been mate on the Dan Rick at one point, but moved on in life long before my father ever sailed with his father. He eventually went to Oxford, and to Yale, and became a lawyer. He moved to London. And now he’s a poet. And he wrote a memoir that had a lot to say about his old man.

I had known Joe Burt as a wild character. The stories he told while we chummed and fished were colorful and fascinating, especially to a young teenaged boy. But they were just a tiny sliver of the man. He had been a boxer as a youth. His family had connections to Jewish mobsters in Philadelphia on his mother’s side, and the previous generation on his father’s side were all wiped out in a single day in revolutionary Russia. And he was a difficult man to be the son of. The Cpt. Joe I knew was an elderly shadow of the violent tempered man that had come before.

Joe died taking with him many more memories that were never captured in his son’s writing, I’m sure. And I have my own personal memories made with the man that are not in the slim book, that I share with a couple of friends, at least so long as they continue to live. And myriad swirling jumbled-up recollections and experiences live in my mind, unshared, even now. And I now understand what compels older people to push their stories on the younger generation, even when the audience seems politely bored at best.

What do you do with them? They are treasures, in a way, but they hold no currency with most of humanity. Some I value because of what they represent, but many more I value merely because they are mine. A part of me wants to share them with my children, an endless stream of remembered hopes and dialogues and feelings and events. But to what end? And who has time for the past when the present is already so full and insistent on being lived? I think allowing the past to crowd out the creation of the future is a mistake. And so my past, like everyone’s, is slowly dying ahead of me.

John Dunne wrote that “no man is an island”. But Matthew Arnold (one of my favorite writers ever) took issue with that notion. Read his “To Marguerite: Continued”, or (even better in my opinion) “The Buried Life”. Arnold beautifully and sadly shows us that each person is a vast realm of thoughts, feelings and experiences that we only ever catch a bare glimpse of. Only with great effort do we share a small piece of our true selves with another person. Read James Joyce’s The Dubliners, especially its final story, “The Dead”: the dramatic stories that unfold just in one person’s mind, unshared and maybe unsharable with the world around them, despite a desperate need for connection, are a very real part of the universal human experience.

All that we are is constantly fading away. We forget so much ourselves, and so much more is never known to any but a few, and they too are passing, as Roy Batty said in Blade Runner, “like tears in rain”.

And so I write.

Like I said, all adults are dying. Of course we are. Cells don’t repair and reproduce as quickly and as well as they did when we were kids. Memories fade. Eyesight dims and eventually we start waking up with little aches every day. But that’s not all. Our stories are slowly dying, too. Memories of special times that have not faded from our minds are nevertheless fading from the world. Slowly, the characters who were there are themselves dying. The diner where we had that memory no longer exists. The person we could always say, “Remember that time?” to, is gone.

And the things we once thought would be important are perhaps still important, but also so unreachable that we slowly let go of their importance because…what else can we do? Dreams of our childhood were not all significant, but some were.

I have a million private joys and hopes and dreams, and a bare fraction of them have been shared with my children. I’m not at the age, yet, where I feel compelled to tell stories of my youth to the uninterested generation that follows me, but I can now feel where that comes from.

We all contain worlds. And those worlds are forever disappearing.

And perhaps that’s because those worlds are not what matter.

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Happy Holiday

I hope you had a good Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Et Cetera Day Weekend. Personally, the pandemic has pretty much flattened whatever significance these days may have once had for me. Not that I was ever big into either. But for me, they both passed with hardly a notice. The days and weeks kinda just blend into one another.

That’s the post.

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Life Gets Complicated

So, my publishing plans at the end of the year didn’t work out so great. Partly because I skidded from the end of a Christmas vacation into the beginning of an unexpected period of quarantine when a member of my household came down with COVID-19.

Don’t worry, they got through it with minimal difficulty, and they successfully isolated within our home to such a degree that no one else was infected. They’ve recovered and we’ve all tested negative, and we’ve waited out our timers and life is now (finally) getting back to normal.

Sort of. Like it was normal before, right?

But that’s not the only reason I fell behind. the weeks leading up to Christmas turned out to be more complicated and stressful as well. It turns out that planning and executing safe and responsible church celebrations of Christmas during a pandemic can be like that.

Anyway, the podcast episode on why resolutions fail never happened (some irony there), and I put a general pause on writing and producing new material apart from the weekly newsletter I do for the church. In fact, I even went three Sundays without preaching–something I haven’t done in my 15+ years in ministry. The only content I produced was the beginning of a long series of short videos titled, Let’s Read: the Gospel of Mark. (By the way, you can check that out here.)

So now I’m trying to get back on the various saddles. I have no idea what to do with the podcast this week. If an idea comes to me in the next 24 hours, that’d be great. Otherwise, I may just let it go one more week. Alternatively, I may just record another chapter of my novel in progress.

I’ve got scripts for more Gospel of Mark videos already queued up, so at the least I’ll shoot a couple more of those this week, but I’m also hoping to produce something for my own channel. (The Mark series is for the Washington New Church channel, which I am the primary contributor.)

And, of course, I need to come up with a sermon for this Sunday…and in fact I’m hoping to map out a plan for the next six months of Sunday sermons by the end of this week.

Church should be about more than just preaching and teaching and information transfer. But the pandemic has made it really hard to act like a community. So, while I’m looking for alternative ways of leading the church in its community uses, I’m also using this opportunity to double down on strengthening those parts of the work that are still very possible. Hopefully when this is all over, we will be able to both benefit from this period and get back to the real work of being a church.

In the meantime, I still need to move all of my studio equipment (camera, lights, tripod, various mics and stands, miscellaneous electronics, etc.) from my home back to my office, and I’m not really looking forward to that. But at least I will have a quieter (and less echo-y) space to record things in again.

So that’s the update. Nothing fancy or thought-provoking or important. But for the curious, that’s where I am at the moment. Talk to you next time!

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Grooves, Ruts, Water, Ice, and Tracks of Various Kinds

Billy Joel has a song that unfortunately has really spoken to me at various times: “Running on Ice”.

As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There’s another building burning down

That sense of running as hard as you can just to keep from falling down, not actually getting anywhere…it’s very real. That’s not where I am right now, thankfully. But I’ve been there.

Ages ago I saw an old black and white one-panel cartoon (maybe from the New Yorker?), in which a person says to someone sitting next to them, “I’m not sure if I’m in a groove or just stuck in a rut.” I went looking for it today, just to discover (unsurprisingly) that this groove/rut dichotomy has been cartooned (and later memed) to death by pretty much everyone who can draw at one point or another. Which I guess is fitting.

I’m not stuck in a rut, myself, as far as I can tell. But I don’t really feel like I’m “in a groove”, either. I’m definitely not experiencing a lot of “flow state” these days, but then, I’ve only ever really been able to achieve flow in highly competitive environments, like chess tournaments, hockey games, and certain online games. Well, and when practicing tai chi and other forms of meditation, I suppose, but that flow feels different.

From the outside, though, I imagine I might look like someone either in a groove or a rut. I have a ton of routine in my life these days. All of it very deliberately crafted. My brother Pearse got really into the science and practice of habit formation awhile ago, and then got me hooked. James Clear’s Atomic Habits is my current go-to book on the subject; I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t already. So I have routines. I have a daily routine, a weekly routine, and mini-routines that kick in when I am working on specific kinds of long-term tasks. And I’m pretty consistent about them.

I have also been diagnosed with ADHD-I (which probably has a different designation, now–they keep changing them), which means my brain has a powerful tendency to try to smash routines in order to feed its need for novelty. My whole process, these days, of habit formation, routine development, and self-discipline (which is NOT the same as “will power”–it’s MUCH more useful), is a combination of a war and a compromise–an angry sort of dance, if you will–with my own neurochemistry. And it gets me through and helps me accomplish quite a lot.

But sometimes, when I have been sustaining my intentional routines for a long time, I get this sick, breathless feeling in my chest. It’s like I’m treading water, but can feel the energy that it takes to do so slowly dying, and my need to breathe increases even as I can sense the water rising higher and threatening to cut off my access to the air above, which makes me tread faster and burn energy faster and get more out of breath…

Well, maybe that’s more dramatic than it needs to be. But there’s an impending sense of something, and it feels like waiting for a house of cards to come down. Interestingly enough, being on Ritalin for an extended period of time gives me a similar sensation. I don’t take anything for ADHD these days, but back when I did, I could sometimes get into these–grooves? ruts? routines? rushes?–in which I kept getting stuff done, getting stuff done, and on the outside it just looked like a fairly even-paced efficiency, but on the inside it felt like an engine slowly over-revving.

So it’s interesting to get a similar feeling without drugs, just from my personal behavioral disciplines. It’s like, I’m “on track”, but maybe those tracks are roller coaster tracks and I’m getting a little tired of the whooshing. This is still too dramatic, though. I don’t feel panic, or fear, or exhaustion, even. But I do feel a quiet sort of alarm going off that really wants to break the routines and habits, just to get a break. I wonder (I really have no idea) whether this is a false alarm, or if it’s something I should actually attend to in some way.

I do know this: I don’t really have a lot more room in my life for additional stuff. Partly this is because it’s December and I’m a pastor, and my professional life gets really full for me every Christmas season. Partly, it’s because life under COVID has taken away from me my psychological reserve tank just as it has for so many others. I’m handling the stuff I need to handle quite well, but if you try to balance one more plate on top of the stack I’m carrying, it might all come crashing down.

Or maybe not. Human beings are remarkably bad at estimating their own breaking points. Just ask a Navy Seal. Or anyone who has trained to overcome those built in stops we all have, to discover that their actual capacity for hardship is far greater than they first thought.

Anyway, I’m okay. But in my self-reflections, I do wonder if I’m building up new normals that I can eventually relax into, or if I’m smoking my pistons a bit and need to either find another gear or ease off the gas a tiny bit.

I’m not sure if these ramblings will be of use to you. Maybe you identify with this feeling I’m describing, and if so, then know that you’re not alone. Or maybe this is all very foreign; in that case, isn’t it interesting how different people can be?

Next week maybe I’ll talk about my actual system of habit formation, routine building, and self-discipline. I swear it works with no bad side effects! 😉

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Dealing with Social Distancing During the Pandemic

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