This is Who We Are

What a shock to return to city life in Austin, Texas. Things quickly became complicated. It was wise to take a couple of weeks to make the 2000 mile journey back.

I was gone for seven months. Most of that time I was either on the Appalachian Trail, or camping in the woods. Life had become very simple. On the trail, I had honed my pack to a lean 20-22 pounds, not including food and water. That included more than everything I needed: shelter, bedding, clothing, kitchen, toiletry and first aid. Suddenly, with my truck and house, I was surrounded by all this “stuff”. Oddly, I wasn’t any happier.

For the first time in months, I checked the national headline news. I was hoping for hope itself. Yet I was greeted by the sparring and conflict between Greta Thunberg and President Trump. One, a young teen mature well beyond her years. The other a seasoned and chafe con artist struggling for the civil maturity of a middle school bully. The young lady was looking for ways to raise awareness about the future of our global environment. The president was looking for ways to bullishly and usuriously obliterate it. Conflict was inevitable.

I wonder why so many people go about in such a hurry. We’re never happier anywhere else than we are wherever we are, and hurrying to get somewhere else doesn’t seem to help. Also, I wonder why so many people need so much “stuff”. We’re never any happier with “more” than we are with “less”. I wonder if anyone ever looks deeply at the blind rat mazes of hurrying and consuming.

While on the trail, there were periods, sometimes days at a time, when I did not hear any man-made sounds. The prominence of Nature was overwhelming. In the city, I struggle to hear the sounds of Nature, it’s drowned by traffic, sirens, air conditioners, and construction. I get the sense that we’re on a run away hell-bound train that has a certain and inevitable consequence looming just around the turn. On the trail, I was fortunate to participate in the interconnectedness of Nature and Life. From the beauty of the mountains and rivers, to the blessing of my own physical limitations of hunger, and weariness, I felt connected to all that was around me. In this city, as we speed hastily in the roulette of traffic encased in flimsy tin and plastic projectiles with wheels and airbags, we depend on being separate from each other to justify our aggression.

Through it all, I will admit that I’m part of it, I’m not separate from any of it. At this point in our collective history, more than ever before, we’re being called to come together. It’s true for each and every one of the inhabitants of this planet: we’re either part of the solution, or we’re the problem itself. There was a popular TV series called Millenium in the late ’90s that had a tag line I come back to in times of duress: “This is who we are.

The Prison of Self

Along the Appalachian Trail, there are many hostels and other places for hikers to resupply, shower, recharge electronics, eat, rest, and more. Most of these businesses are owner operated, and run on the “honor system”. That means that, when a hiker arrives, a “tab”, typically a sheet or card, is initiated and maintained with a list of all the services and products that the hiker consumes. The tab is often maintained by the hiker, hence the honor system. My first few experiences with this system left me a little uncomfortable, it’s not what I’m used to. The system stands in stark contrast to many of our current establishments, which demand a “credit card number on file”. Many medical establishments ask first, and before the nature of ones ailment, “how will you be paying today?”

I asked about the nature of this system, I received the same answer from more than one hostel owner. First, the honor system is simpler than multiple individual – credit card or cash – transactions. Also, it makes a bit of mathematical sense because, for the percentage of slippage or bills not paid that the owner sustains, it’s still cheaper than dedicating all that effort to engaging each and every candy bar, pint of ice cream, etc. Finally, there’s a continuity within the hiker community such that one’s reputation follows the person up and down the trail. If Joe Quickwalker skips on his bill in Virginia, it’s likely that word of his misdeed will precede him to Vermont. It may seem odd, but I actually saw it happen.

I’ve given a lot of thought to honesty. Where did it originate within human history? How did it develop, and why? In contrast to some trains of thought, I don’t believe that Truth – ergo honesty – is tied to a Divine Law or Ecclesiastical Imposition. I believe that honesty can be traced to tribal roots. Honesty within a tribe was, and still is, key to survival. If one of the scouts came back to camp and said there was a herd of buffalo two hills over, it’s best that they’re really there. This principle isn’t hard to follow. If everyone is leaning, to the best of their ability, toward a common, shared reality life is workable, survivable. If everyone took license to make up their own reality, chaos would pervade human interaction.

Each of the hostels along the trail, while sharing some qualities and traits, is unique to itself. Some are more attractive to young hikers, others to the older crowd. Some insist on no smoking – of any substance. Some are warm and relaxed, others have more rigid rules and controls. One particular hostel, that catered to long distance as well as local hikers, was very well maintained by a set of rules that were well beyond the norm. It was run by a young lady who was very much a “take charge” person.

When I first met the gal, I had an odd sense about her. Upon our first interaction, as she introduced me to the place, I got the sense that she was not telling me the full truth, that I could not trust her word. As we continued to interact, that sense continued to grow. I had arrived on Friday, and I was tired, dirty, and hungry. I had explicitly told her over the phone that I wanted to stay for the entire weekend. I was led to believe, at the time, that it would not be a problem. However, after I arrived, she told me that I could only stay for one night. This contradicted what I had been led to believe over the phone. Her apology rang hollow and her reasoning was weak with no personal consideration. After a while, I realized that I had been lied to by omission. For me, from the hiker viewpoint, this was extremely inconvenient. The situation had been controlled and manipulated by half truth to her advantage, at my personal expense. There was something inside me that decided to not resist, and I knew that an argument would not change anything. I decided to challenge her, gently, and it became obvious immediately that she was going to shut me down at any cost. I finally realized that, although inconvenient, leaving the place was to my advantage; more so than staying around to be further controlled and manipulated.

Through my experience, I had an interesting insight into her world. Although she couldn’t see it, she was locked inside her own little world of manipulation, control, and half truth, and it was her world alone. She was bound by her own fabrications of reality to maintaining a construct of reality that must be constantly recreated and asserted, it could not be truly shared with others because it was hers and hers alone, carefully created to manipulate the world to her advantage. She was locked in the prison of herself. Although her business had all the external appearance of success and attractiveness, to one who looked deeper into the resonation of interaction, trust was difficult to establish. I realized, through this interaction, a profound aspectof and the deeper meaning of the saying “The Truth shall set you Free.

 

The Karma of Caring

I have a small back yard that is fenced on three sides. The fence is a 6′ privacy fence. I replaced it a couple of years ago, the original fence that was built with the house is what I inherited, it was about 35 years old. It borders one neighbor on the East side, another neighbor on the West side, and the fence is shared with two neighbors on the North side. The North side was the most debilitated of it all. I could stand in the middle of the fence and grab the top, and when I shook it, it would wobble all the way to each end. Through the 10 years since I bought the house, I had patched, screwed, wired, propped, and otherwise held the fence up with my Breath of Fire as well as good intentions. However, the inevitable day came.

I lived in fear that a strong wind or some other force of Nature (or Man) would demolish the fence in toto. However, the moment of Truth came when a new neighbor to the North moved in with three dogs – big, active, digging dogs. When pitted against my dog, separated by the wishes and hopes of safety of the decrepit old fence, I realized that days were numbered. So, I made arrangements with the respective neighbors on the North & West, made a plan, bought materials, and hired a helping hand. Methodically, we slowly – piece by piece – removed and replaced the fence with a sturdy, stout, new, rigid structure.

Beside the fear of the possible early demise of the fence, I had lived in fear that any of the neighbors would take the initiative to replace their respective sections of the fence. That would have put me in a position of not having a consistent fence around my yard, as well as having lost control of the situation. Alas, my initiative had paid off, and I would not only have the consistency of a uniform fence, but I would also “own” the fence, maintaining a sense of having the upper hand in determining the destiny of the fence,  however small or delusory that sense of control may actually be.

All the neighbors were glad that I was taking the initiative. I didn’t get the sense that they were as plotting as I was in terms of control of the fence and how it was rebuilt. I interpreted their lack of input in terms of resources and assistance as a direct relation to how much they cared about the state of the fence as well as how much they cared about who “owned” it, as well as how it looked once finished.

One of the North neighbors was warm and agreeable. She has done well maintaining her side of the fence since it was rebuilt, and she continues to be congenial.

The other North neighbor is a bit more usurious. He doesn’t maintain his side of the fence, so about once per year I call him up, arrange to hop over the fence, and trim back the saplings and poison ivy.

I must fully admit that in the midst of all this action and interaction, the one element that ties it all together is my attitude. I realized early on that I could take the attitude of “they’re not helping, why should I do all this?” or “they don’t care, why should I?” But the fact was, and remains, that I care about the fence, not only the functionality but also the appearance and the overall atmosphere in which it manifests as it ties our lives together. In short, I’ve made a conscious choice to not be a victim, and to “drive the bus” with care and compassion. Herein lies the golden nugget, the “big kahuna” realization.

The karma of caring about the fence comes at a price, and that price is taking care of the fence. Along with the freedom of knowing that the fence is “mine” comes the responsibility of maintaining the fence. The further price is the attitude with which I apply myself to the process. If it’s done selfishly, I have no doubt that there will be selfish returns. However, when done non-judgmentally and with openness, we have an opportunity to be closer neighbors. We all now share a wonderful, rigid, beautiful fence that serves us well.

Having become aware of the process of caring has me wondering about many of the other areas of my life where I have the attitude of “I don’t care”. What karma am I reaping elsewhere?

The Road of Intention

I stand alone. I am without defense. I can hear voices that I vaguely recognize. I feel a sense of determined doom, damned to do and damned to do not. They are afraid, and they know they must move forward. They struggle for the right path.

I stand in the middle. I am marginalized on all sides, an alien among the alienated. I seek acceptance and normalization. I receive threat and scorn at every turn. I struggle for recognition, I thirst for the right way to receive.

I stand on the edge. We have been wronged and we are persecuted and we can tolerate no more. In desperation I have done much wrong and caused irreparable harm. In the twisted wreckage I slither away from right and cloak myself in darkness.

I stand on no ground. There is nowhere to turn, and the familiar search for the right thing to do fades and recedes all around me. All those I love have left me to the inevitable eternity of the fate that I have created. The cloak of my search to do the right thing is a thin and fading veil of illusion. I only intended to do the right thing, I only know damnation.


Dedicated to the memory of Joe Carnaghi (1890-1931)
“May his struggle serve to illumine our path.”

Run, Rabbit, Run

“The man turn rabbit ‘n run.”
The Warden (Strother Martin) from the movie “Cool Hand Luke”

Most of us don’t want to face our issues. We say we do. We may even attempt to face them through counseling or reading about the latest psychological trend or watching a popular TV show. We go to 12 Step groups and self help programs. But the truth is that, deep down, we don’t want to be exposed, bare, vulnerable.

We hide. We hide in many ways. We hide in drugs and alcohol. We hide in our TV shows, we surf the Internet, we stay socked in to our electronic devices. We hide in our lifestyles of busy-ness and importance. Some hide in their religion, their dogma, their commitments or vows. Some even hide behind a meditation cushion.

I can write this because I’m guilty. I’ve been guilty of all of the above at different times. And there’s nothing, no guarantee whatsoever, that I won’t “turn tail and run” in the future. There is no insurance that I won’t ignore my own inner calling and crush right through an issue that’s been nagging for years to be dealt with.

It’s usually pain that forces us to take a look at the true cause of the effect of our actions. It’s the deep excruciating pain that can no longer be squelched that motivates us to stop the grinding wheel of recurring agony and running and hiding to take a responsible look at our own actions. Perhaps it comes as legal problems. Perhaps it comes as a personal trauma, financial disaster, or the death of someone close. Maybe the final straw is watching how our actions affect another human being and the pain we cause a loved one. Guilt and shame are embers that leave deep, permanent wounds that won’t stop festering by continual application of salve and bandages.

Whatever the cause, it finds us. Often it finds us in the middle of the night. Perhaps it finds us by invading our deepest lair of pseudo-safety. Whatever the cause, it finds us because it’s there. And if we’re bound to it, we can’t escape it. If it’s our karma, it’s our karma to deal with.

Getting out of this hole is not easy, and not without a price. The first piece is a simple recognition, an acknowledgment that there is a problem. There’s a saying: “When you realize that you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” This usually comes by accepting that the hole is self generated. This means that I’m not necessarily responsible for all that has occurred in the past, but I am responsible for my part in it today. I’m responsible for what I say, for what I do, and for where I go. And if running is my choice of where to go, then I’m responsible for continuing to dig myself into the hole.

Oddly, the way out is to not try to get out. The way out is to stop, right here and right now. Perhaps there are steps to be taken, but they will be taken in their own time. In the present moment there is an acceptance not only of the problem, but of the solution. And that solution calls to be released from inside. In looking at and seeing the problem, and stopping the wheel of recurrence, the clarity of something greater than the problem surfaces.

May we find the grace to stop.

The Trunk

There’s an object in our family that’s of dubious character. It’s a trunk, an antique that dates back at least 120 years, probably more. The trunk itself is a very nice piece, but the contents – as well as the way we have come to relate to the contents – are of another ilk. We’ve come to call it “The Trunk”.

My first recollections of “The Trunk” came through my maternal grandmother. She was the keeper of “The Trunk” for many years, probably all of her adult life. She had a way of collecting memorabilia from the family and storing it in “The Trunk”, and she would constantly preach to us the importance that it all had. For those of us who remain, long after her death, whenever we see or mention “The Trunk”, memories of her are prominent. Unfortunately, along with memories of her, as well as projections of the contents of “The Trunk”, comes a heaping helping of dread.

None of us (who remain) have been to the bottom of “The Trunk”. It’s a journey that no one wants to take. At the least, I am sure that it contains letters that date to the depression era and beyond. There are some tin-plate pictures that date to around 1880 or so. There are also some letters from that time. On the one hand, it would seem that digging through the trunk might be an opportunity for exploration, a journey, an excursion into our past. On the other hand, there’s a sense of trepidation for what we may find. You see, not all of our history is lily white.

We recently did a major cleanup of my mother’s house when she moved. She became keeper of “The Trunk” after my grandmother died. However, she clearly stated that she did not want “The Trunk” in her new place. So, my brother agreed to keep “The Trunk” temporarily. While we were moving “The Trunk”, I looked at my sister and said “You know that there are dead bodies in there?”. She said yes, she knew. And it’s true, at least figuratively – it’s the elephant under the rug in the living room that everyone is stepping around but no one will discuss with honesty. Any time I look at it, or move it, I feel like the undertaker at the funeral who is charged with moving the casket in and out of the funeral parlor.

I fully realize that dread of and resistance to a situation is most often more burdensome than actually facing and dealing with the situation. Also, I have the sense that what “The Trunk” represents, emotionally and psychically, is the true issue. It’s difficult to allowing a passing, because any passing is a death of sorts. There are those among us who are constitutionally incapable of emotionally releasing or letting things go. Indeed, at certain moments we are all guilty of longing, clinging, and attempting to become something other than what we actually are.

So, for today, “The Trunk” sits. It has a new corner, and it’s collecting a whole new layer of dust. But it’s there, and we’re aware of it. If we deal with it, we get the karma of dealing with it. And if we don’t deal with, we get the karma of neglecting it.

Ancient & Twisted

Occasionally I am overcome with regret. Yes, I know that it’s fruitless. Indeed, one of the greater pieces of wisdom I’ve ever encountered is that “happiness is giving up all hope of having a better past.” Nonetheless, I occasionally get hooked into a mental encounter with Regret.

It’s important to learn from past mistakes. I couldn’t begin to see a future re-investing in some of the foolishness that I’ve embraced in the past. However, learning something and retaining the memory of the lesson is far different from wallowing in wishing that things hadn’t been that way. Nonetheless, Regret will often persist – despite my best effort and most logical defense.

Sometimes Regret leads me into a state of anger. I’ve long since given up on being angry at “the other person”. Even if the regretful situation wasn’t my making or fault, any anger in the present moment at the memory of someone from the past is a fully losing proposition. Perhaps I become angry at Life at large, or one of the turns it’s taken. Most likely, when I look deeply, I’m angry at myself.

The beginning of seeing myself clear, freeing myself from this burden, appears to be in taking full responsibility for my actions, so eloquently embodied in this Buddhist aphorism:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

In other words, all that stuff that I did: yes, I did it. However, it does not have to own me, not now. What I really want is a clear and meaningful day, today.