By the gods in my soul I am grateful for you

I am with JJ!

We laugh when I say these words, shaking our heads at a beautiful inside joke.

My beloved wife, those words have become a deep and almost mystical mantra of gratitude to me.1061664_10200136395952500_17568912_n

I am with JJ.

So filled with mystery and wonder and joy, and even puzzlement, those words, to quote the Buddhist master, make me walk like my feet are kissing the earth.

JJ, it is fitting that we were married at Thanksgiving.

I am not a strong man but you find strength in me. I am not confident but when I touch you I feel the gods in my soul. I am not a man of deep faith but when I ponder you walking at my side, hands and strides entwined, I can’t help but offer a prayer of thanksgiving to a higher power somewhere.

JJ, I don’t have treasure. I don’t have words. I love you never seems enough. I will keep saying I am with JJ and we will laugh and remember the story of how we came together. I will keep praying my mystical mantra of gratitude. I…am…with…JJ…

I promise you on the gods in my soul that I always will be.

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The X’s and O’s of mindfulness

It’s disconcerting when the messages from my brain stop reaching my feet. My gait slows until I find myself standing mid-block overwhelmed by a zombie horde of thoughts. I turn lamely in the other direction, guided by puppet strings. My arms drop heavily at my side. In the stillness I look longingly at the sky, listen to the breeze in the branches and glance at a car approaching a block away. I wait for a single voice to quiet the others in my head. Scraps of conversation that could have gone better, song563730_10200900903184703_820030752_n lyrics, basketball drills I need to remember, a grocery list of things to do that I’ll quickly forget. Why don’t I remember to carry a pen and paper? I need to exercise more, read more, stop procrastinating. I press my hand to my stomach to stop its rumbling. The potato chips and spoonful of peanut butter I ate in the darkness this morning aren’t cutting it. I need to eat better.

After more than five years of working at this, I wish I were better at intentionally stopping my brain, at finding moment’s of peace, better at what the Buddhists call being mindful of the moment. But sometimes my mind blissfully does it on its own, but not at the most convenient of times.

The sunshine makes me sleepy. As the stillness quiets my mind, gravity tugs at my heartbeat. The squeak of the car braking at the four-way stop wakes me from my reverie. I look around, with a twinge of embarrassment.  I shake off the comfortable stupidity and head for home.
Sometimes I wonder how I make it through our neighborhood without tripping or walking into traffic. There are times in the morning when I come to, surprised that I am fully dressed.  I remember digging the clothes out of the drawer, vaguely recall pulling on the jeans…and then suddenly I am dressed, and I sort of match. I’ve heard it called “The Committee,” the voices I must choose from in my head.

They are the reason my driving record is spotted with speeding tickets, why I need pills to sleep. The messiness of my desk matches that of my mind. Pull my attention from one task to another and my original, more important job, ceases to exist, until it catches the corner of my eye with a jolt of panic.

Sometimes two, three and four thoughts crowd into my head at one time. Recognizing the puzzlement in my eyes,  my wife asks, “What are you thinking?” Unsure how to answer, I say, “Nothing” when “Everything” would be closer to the truth.

There is wonder in this hurricane of thoughts. When I first stood before my wife, I couldn’t decide whether to babble on about her smile, or her hair, or her scent, or the way blood was throbbing through my heart. Call it indecisive or eclectic, but I can’t turn the shuffle off on my iPod and stick to one artist. A romantic moodiness leads me from Hank Williams to Bob Marley to Led Zeppelin  and back to Johnny Cash by way of Nirvana. Deciding what book to read is an agony of indecisiveness.

I remember as boy, my mom told me to go out an mow the yard. I stood on the back porch in the heavy summer heat, looking for inspiration. It didn’t take long. I yanked the mower to life, pushed it near the house, kicked the garden hose out of the way and carved a vertical path from north to south.  I mowed another  path parallel to it, and then two more paths crossing from east to west. I stepped back and admired my creation — a gigantic tic-tac-toe board.  I stuck my tongue out, concentrating, and started mowing X’s and O’s into the lawn. I grinned as I watched more and more grass disappear beneath the mower. As I moved from one square to another, my monotonous job became fun. But before I could see who would win, Mom burst out the backdoor, her face twisted with anger.  I stared blankly as she demanded to know what I was doing. I was puzzled. After all, the lawn was getting mowed. As she yelled at me, I looked around, dispirited, and realized that my tic-tac-toe game had turned into haphazard lines and patches of unmowed grass.

I learned some important lessons that day.

Even though mom made me start over and mow the lawn her way, I had already figured out that when a task seems too big, the best way to knock it down to size is to set short achievable goals — even if they are tic-tac-toe squares. If you can have fun while you’re doing it –BONUS!

I learned that mumbling “I uz playin’ tictactoe” isn’t a strong enough argument when a pissed off mom has a clear opinion about the “right way” for a yard to be mowed. I also learned that the “right way” can sometimes be the “wrong way.” We’ll get back to this.

Life, like Mom’s back yard, has often been too big for me.

As far back as I can remember I felt alone in a crowded room. I never felt like I fit in. In a classroom, with my closest friends, with family, even alone, I always felt on the outside looking in. Every moment of every day I measured myself–and came up short–against what other people thought.

That changed when I drank my first beer at age 17. More accurate would be my first seven beers. In the haze between the first beer and my first blackout — I felt freedom. I didn’t become an alcoholic that day. I became a practicing alcoholic.  I was–I believe in my heart–always an alcoholic.

With alcohol in my system, the nervous kid who cared so much what people thought disappeared.  I paraded out of the corner to the center of the room. The anxious edge went away. I could talk to girls, I could laugh and tell stories to a room full of people. I could share my emotions. Pardon the cliché, but I was comfortable in my own skin.

Those voices in my head–they started singing in beautiful harmony.

I was falling in deep, passionate love with alcohol.

But alcohol is a cunning baffling lover, who whispered in my ear that I could do anything I set my heart on, and then slipped away in the night, leaving me alone to clean up the mess.

Twenty-three years later, I was literally dying to keep this passion in my life. But I knew it would kill me to give her up.

Then she left me on a highway in handcuffs.

The thought of never drinking again was impossible. It was too huge.

I was born an alcoholic. But at 10 years old, before I had every touched a drop of alcohol I had seen my first glimmer of hope, playing lawnmower tic-tac-toe.

Not long after I got out of jail, a friend spoke the words that would save my life, “You don’t have to stop drinking forever. But can you stop drinking for today?”

There’s not a lot of mystery behind 12-steps programs. At its most basic it’s really about setting short term goals. Just don’t drink today. Make mole hills out of mountains.

I had a big yard to mow. I broke it into small squares. To most people, Mom’s way might have been right and proper. But to a budding alcoholic, my way was right. Whatever works.

On a basketball court, I tell novice players that the only thing you can do wrong is nothing. Don’t get paralyzed by fear.

I walked out of jail, angry, afraid, humiliated, a hot mess with a world of shit awaiting me.  I went to a meeting. I asked for help. I went to another meeting. I didn’t drink–that day. People nudged me to take small–no, tiny–steps. As I progressed 24 hours at a time, I found that this program worked on everything else in my life–divorce, tax problems, unemployment, financial crises, raising teenagers.

One night, when the craving to drink took a hold of me, I found that even 24 hours was too big to get through. So I prayed a Serenity Prayer and determined to get through the next song on my iPod. I made it through one song without drinking. Then another. I kept doing this, three minutes at a time, hoping Stairway to Heaven wouldn’t pop up. I didn’t know if I could handle eight minutes.

The Catholic priest and writer Walter Elliot wrote, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”

I learned to avoid words like “never” and “forever” and the hollow feeling they carried.  A lot of 24 hours have passed and I’ve learned to be patient with those empty feelings. Everything in life passes like a breath.

The voices in my head, The Committee, still take over and all too often carry me into a future of anxiety or a past of regret. I prefer to stay here in the present, because it is a place where I’m sober and fairly happy. I have no control over those other places. In the past I most certainly was in the grasp of my old conniving lover, and the future holds no guarantees.

Today, my iPod is playing a little John Hiatt as I head out for a walk. Hopefully I won’t get lost in my own neighborhood, but if I do the embarrassment will be short-lived.  I pass a large, unmowed lawn. It is ripe for a game of tic-tac-toe.

Looking for Bigfoot–delighted by random moments of mystery

field-guide

My friend Lisa sent me a Sasquatch Field Guide published by the company she and her husband own in Northern California. It’s perfect– sturdy and pocket-sized, easy-to-to fold and fit in a backpack. Across the top margin: a nice long ruler for measuring footprints. Loaded with anthropology, examples of sign,  tracking advice, notes on distribution and habitat, pictures of the creatures stride and gait. I looked eagerly for the “Communication and Vocalizations” tab and giggled quietly.

“I knew it,” I whispered.

Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) are known to scream, whoop and whistle. But it was the wail I was looking for. That’s what my kids and I heard from our tent on the Teanaway River in the Cascade Mountains. Lisa’s little guide nailed it: “Mournful wails or the sound of a woman in distress are attributed to Sasquatch.”

It came from high up on a ridge where there were no trails or roads. We didn’t know what it was, only that it was spooky as hell, and it made the night darker and more bracing.

I don’t know what the wail up on the mountain was and I like it that way. I’m not invested enough in Bigfoot lore to get too passionate about his existence, but I’m just invested enough to read a field guide with a big grin on my face.

I don’t get enough of these little thrills in my life any more. Moment’s where I fall in love with mystery. Or I’m surprised by an unexpected skip in my step. Or I’m suddenly unconcerned with how the world sees me. Or better yet, I’m delighted by random pleasantness.

It happened last week on D Street in Petaluma, California, with my iPod pumping an old, old country song on into my bones. The deep whine of steel guitar made me smile. That a musical instrument and a long dead musician could make my heart feel sad for no reason at all was the most alive I had felt in weeks.

It’s that rush I felt as a kid before jumping off the roof with a cape around my neck. Or the thrill of scientific exploration as I raced my bicycle across the front lawn with every intention of driving it up the trunk of a tree. That experiment did not pan out.

Too often my adult version of surprise is being startled by a motorcycle roaring between the cars when I’m stuck in traffic on Highway 101. And sadly I don’t daydream about the rider’s freedom, but rather grumble parentally, “That kid’s gonna get himself killed.”

I heard on the radio this morning that some guy wrote a book about the ’85 Chicago Bears, the outrageous team that made Super Bowl run when I was senior in high school. Walter Payton, their leader, was hero to me. Rick Cohen, the author, is a year younger than me. The journalist interviewing him was born the year after Bears’ magical season, when I was 18. I immediately started searching for reasons not to feel inadequate. I wonder often if I should be making more magic with my life, perhaps writing books about my heroes.

Like so many people the biggest mystery in my life is where my money goes. The greatest magic trick I have witnessed lately is how suddenly 46 years have gone up in smoke.

It’s not too late for magic. I can still occasionally descend into a forested valley and block out enough of the outside world with my imagination that for a few seconds I believe I’m the first person to lay eyes on it. Then civilized thoughts of responsibilities and what lies over the next hill swirl back in and I have to set off looking for the next speck of magic.

I don’t have to look far for mystery, if I only pay attention. What is that mixture of grasses, flowers and herbs that gives a Northern California morning a distinctive smell? It is light and fresh, sort of has a vegetarian scent to it. It is different yet not more pleasant than the scent of morning back in Missouri where I grew up. Just different. The morning aromas there are heavier with dew. Sweeter smelling. Hay and black dirt hang in the air. Perhaps someone knows what elements give the air of a particular region its distinctive smell. But I’ll just settle for a nice deep breath that stops me still.

When you’re a kid you seem to hop from magic moment to magic moment unaware that you’re doing so. It’s what kids do.

You lay down in a field looking at clouds until it’s time to not do that anymore. Then you figure out how to get  where the cute girl down the street can see you. Then you throw rocks at a pond. Then you pick your nose. These events happen without any thought at all.

Now I find I have to be intentional about such things. I have to stop and think about throwing a rock. Getting where my wife can see me isn’t enough. I have to think about how she sees me (those darn insecurities). I have to pause to look at a cloud. And I have to remind myself NOT to pick my nose.

I used to have a coon skin hat that my Aunt Carole gave me so I could play Daniel Boone. Then I grew up and learned that Daniel Boone never actually wore a coon skin hat. I used to find amazing hiding places and nobody could find me. Eventually I had to come out because I had to  pee. Today, when I find an awesome place to hide, my wife asks me if I’m depressed.

I used to make a microphone out of aluminum foil and turn a tennis racket into a guitar and I would rock out in front of the living room mirror in my underwear. But yesterday we ran out of aluminum foil.

I slip on the coon skin cap and hike off into the Sierra Mountains in search of Sasquatch. It is 18th Century America and  I follow deer trails in my buckskins moccasins. I spot scat and Bigfoot sign. I discern a wail across a foggy canyon. The ancient beast eludes me and I will drift into ignominy.

Perhaps someday someone will stumble upon a skeleton of Bigfoot– proof. The skeptic in me is pretty sure that won’t happen.

The kid who tried to ride his bike up a tree hopes it will.