Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Keep Flossing

My wife's aunt was killed in an auto accident almost two years ago. She was young and in good health, so her death was unexpected and shocking to the whole family. She provided a lot of care for her older husband and 93 year old mother, so her loss left a big hole in many places.

Caroline had no children, so many of her effects were given to her five nieces, including my wife. Our closet now has a lot of her clothes in it, and when my wife wears them I sometimes feel a wave of regret that I hadn't appreciated Caroline when she was alive.

When we would visit her, I was often frustrated by what I perceived as her lack of time awareness and unconcern for the hour when we ate dinner. I was more focused on getting our kids to bed "on time" than appreciating the languid pace of life in Caroline's world. Dinner was not to be rushed, neither in preparation nor in consumption, but rather was to be savored as a meaningful time for conversation and shared work.

Unfortunately, I let that frustration color my attitude toward her, and I never really appreciated how she lived her life. I fervently wish I had another chance - a "do-over" - so I could make that right and express my appreciation and admiration of her. Because I don't, I floss.

One of the things we got from Caroline's effects was a huge supply of dental floss. My first reaction when I saw this large bag of little plastic boxes was to muse what a pointless activity flossing is when you could get run over when crossing the street on any given day.

While I was in Iraq, however, I rethought that attitude. I decided that Caroline must have been on to something - that flossing is about more than healthy gums. Flossing expresses a confidence in the future, a belief that there will be another day for flossing, and that flossing itself is as important as any other activity that could be undertaken. I started using the dental floss I'd been carrying around for so long, and it became a habit.

I've continued this habit since my return - religiously, you might say. There are many times when I think "I don't have time to floss right now" or "it's just too much bother - what will it hurt to skip this time?" Sometimes I don't do it, but for the most part it has become an important part of my morning and evening ablutions. Flossing is an undertaking that is congruent with my desire to do all things mindfully and with a focus on the process, not the outcome.

Oftentimes I think about Caroline while I floss, and this morning I realized that I don't even know if she was a regular flosser. I bet she was - maybe only because it was the sensible thing to do - but I think also because she knew at some level what I'm learning so slowly - life is a journey, not a destination.

Yesterday I had my teeth cleaned, and for the first time ever I was praised for my healthy gums, rather than lectured about the importance of flossing!

Thank you, Caroline.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Blowing Hot Air

This morning as I was heating a drink in the break room microwave, I watched Fox "News" for a few minutes. I usually avoid watching this (or any other TV, for that matter), but the picture really caught my attention: a man in a blue raincoat in a hotel parking lot, leaning into Hurricane Katrina, valiantly speaking into the microphone as rain lashed past.

I thought "he must really have something important to say," but when I started paying attention to his words, they were more like "well, it's really coming down now - the rain and wind are getting heavier - we're all cut off from the outside - WOW a section of the hotel gutter just went flying by."

What? There is heavy rain and strong wind in a hurricane? I'm sure glad that reporter was risking his well-being and perhaps his life to bring us this news flash.

I've been through about a dozen typhoons during my four deployments to Japan. Although there is initially a certain amount of fun involved in playing outside in the big wind (hitting golf balls is a perennial favorite), it wears off pretty fast when the big rain comes - and then -

you go inside!

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Earlier this week at a Covenant Group meeting, there was a small kitten in attendance. Besides being comforting and soft, her presence also reminded me not to take things too seriously - especially myself.

My kids also constantly remind me of the importance of play and silliness. Last week as I was driving my daughter home we had the most fun - "Daddy, you're a silly goose!" "No, Katy, YOU are a silly goose!" "No, Daddy, YOU are the silly goose." My son is very silly too, but because he's older, sometimes his silliness is a bit more calculated and weird. Just mention the word "underwear" in his presence (or in the presence of ANY 8-year-old, I'm told) and listen to the gales of laughter. Silly.

I also get to be silly at work. Yesterday during a lull in the frantic activity, my fellow geeks and I produced a bogus technical paper using what's known as context-free grammar. We had great fun with the silly titles and nonsensical phrases. Try it - it's free and funny, and honestly these meaningless papers read about the same as many serious ones!

The really silly part is how we e-mailed this ridiculous paper to one of our former professors at the Naval Postgraduate School, with a vague reference to a nonexistent journal. Hopefully he'll have a sense of humor about it and not take us too seriously.

I sure don't.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Coming Home

Note: I originally wrote this post two weeks ago, on August 8, but I have been sitting on it. I reviewed it this morning and it still speaks truth, so here it is.

I recently returned home from a week as a Graduate Assistant (GA) at the Pacific Central District (PCD) Leadership School in Alamo, CA. This return was more than just physical - in many ways it was a spiritual return to life and connection from a journey through darkness and loneliness that began in March.

I wrote in a post to A Virginia UU in King George's War about my short "honeymoon" after returning from Iraq, and the jarring realization that life at home wasn't all as great as I had pictured it from my tent at Kalsu. What I haven't written about - not directly, anyway - is how my "reentry" into "normal" life has been far from complete. Since about mid-April, I have struggled to feel connected to the people I have rejoined. I have found myself disillusioned with my congregation, angry with my wife and children, and believing I was truly alone in the world. I thought "oh, it will get better, it will change, this loneliness and anger will disappear." It has only started getting better very recently.

Every Sunday during this period, in our congregation's Joys & Sorrows, I longed to stand up and shout "would you get real? I'm totally alone over here and nobody seems to care!!" but I never found the courage. I grasped my attachment to the belief that I was alone, and that nobody could help me. I had no interest in getting reinvolved in congregational activities. I told myself I would find another congregation, one where I could feel at home and connected, because it was easier to blame other people than to look long and hard inside myself and do the hard work of opening my heart to those who were already there. I found myself increasingly short-tempered with my wife and children, and I often felt like a stranger in my own home. I withdrew in subtle ways, spending hours with guitar and bike and sleeping. I believed I was trapped in my life, without hope of rescue or improvement. Being miserable became a habit, and I grew attached to it.

Two days before I left for Leadership School, I finally realized - or admitted to myself - that something had fundamentally changed in the way I relate to other people since my deployment. I had thought about this before, and attributed it to being alone so much of the time. Now I'm not so sure, and I'm exploring other possible explanations (there are many). Regardless of the cause, I had become alone and withdrawn. Other people noticed, of course - my wife, my mom, and some perceptive friends. One friend even mentioned my "separateness" in a comment about a previous post - to which I replied a bit dismissively. Thank you all - I just wasn't ready to listen. Or see.

It was very fortuitous that I was on my way to Leadership School when this epiphany occurred. My first reaction, however, was fear - how could I go there and fulfill my role as a GA with this huge "thing" in my life? I quickly realized that it was the perfect time to go - to take my whole self to this environment, to model living as an imperfect, hurting person. Another beauty of bringing my pain to this environment was being able to tell my story to a group of loving friends in a circle of trust and support, knowing that I would be listened to and held without fear of anyone trying to "fix" me or give unsolicited advice. Just being listened to when I expressed my pain and loneliness was healing beyond measure.

I brought three vital lessons back from Leadership School with me - three gems I can return to when the going gets tough, fear returns, or I begin to believe I'm alone again. I don't know if they are obvious to other people, but they came hard won to me.

First, part of living an authentic life is bringing my whole self to my relationships, pain and all. Right relationship is deep enough to handle real emotions, from the highest pinnacles of joy to the lowest pit of despair. Fear of rejection or ridicule can be hard to overcome, but without taking risks and making real connections, existence is a shallow mockery of life.

Second, it is all right to fail and even to be miserable. I can give myself permission to fall - permission to be human - another aspect of an authentic life. I can let go of my attachment to "being OK," and accept sadness and loneliness as aspects of my Self. By acknowledging these emotions and accepting myself, true healing can begin. It takes a lot less time (and pain) to accept these feelings and let them run their course than to repeatedly push them under, only to have them bubble back to the surface.

Finally, Community provides a place to bring my whole self, a container in which to share my pain and failings, and a place to be heard and held. Community is where I can go when there seems to be nowhere else to turn. There is nothing more empowering than having other people lovingly listen to me, reflect on what they heard me say, and accept me for who I am. This connection is what I find most worthy in organized religion.

Life is a cycle of journeys. Having finished this foray (I hope) through the depths of despair, I have embarked on a new one. Two weeks ago in Joys & Sorrows, I stood and spoke from the heart of my pain, loneliness, and disconnection, bringing my whole self back to the community for the first time in months. It took a lot of effort to overcome my inertia - it would have been so easy to just sit there, mouth closed, feeling lonely and sad. But I didn't - I drew on the transcendant power of Right Relationship and Beloved Community to find the courage to speak. It felt like starting over.

Of course I don't know where this journey will take me, but I'm sure it will contain hope, fear, joy, and sorrow. All I can do is try as hard as I can to bring my whole self along, give myself permission to fall and fail, and surrender to the support of my beloved community.

Fasten your seatbelt, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Friday, August 05, 2005

What is Truth

Earlier this summer, I tried unsuccessfully to explain Unitarian Universalism to a coworker - the result was my post The Seinfeld Religion. Yesterday he and I had another theological conversation, and after this one I think his understanding of UU was greater. At any rate, I spent a lot of time telling him about MY vision of UU and talking about the principles and sources. In the process, he challenged me by asking "what truth are you searching for?" After much discussion, for me the question became "what is Absolute Truth?" I didn't have an answer. I still don't have an answer. I may never have an answer. It's a big question.

I've only been thinking about this for about 24 hours, but so far what I've discerned is 1) I don't believe there is Absolute Truth that universally applies to everything in all circumstances, and 2) this is really not a question that matters a lot to me right now anyway.

Briefly, Truth - or God, for that matter - is not a dualistic yes/no, true/false, black/white subject. There are infinite shades of gray, because my perspectives and beliefs depend upon my frame of reference and worldview. I can't dictate what is true for another person (although we might be able to agree on "truth" within a shared frame of reference). In fact, I can't even claim to be an "objective observer" of Truth, because the subject-object dichotomy that undergirds much of traditional Western thinking is a false one.

One premise of process thinking (and quantum physics) is that interactions between "agents" produce emergent properties that are new, different, and entirely unpredictable. This means that my interaction with or observation of something inevitably affects the outcome. The experimenter becomes part of the experiment; the observer becomes the observed. How then, can there be Universal, Absolute Truth? My observation of, or claim to, this Truth is an interaction - MY Absolute Truth emerges, which is not universal.

This has been an interesting intellectual exercise, but honestly the questions of Absolute Truth are not that compelling to me right now. My focus on mindfulness and the present moment is better expressed in a question such as "how can I live my life filled with meaning and worth?" That is an answer worth searching for - truth for me. I care more about walking the path with eyes and heart wide open than knowing what's at the center of the labyrinth.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Where Have I Been?

I've been traveling and busy...and a lot of other places.

Just for fun:

bold the states you've been to, underline the states you've lived in and italicize the state you're in now...

Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Arkansas / California / Colorado / Connecticut / Delaware / Florida / Georgia / Hawaii / Idaho / Illinois / Indiana / Iowa / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Maine / Maryland / Massachusetts / Michigan / Minnesota / Mississippi / Missouri / Montana / Nebraska / Nevada / New Hampshire / New Jersey / New Mexico / New York / North Carolina / North Dakota / Ohio / Oklahoma / Oregon / Pennsylvania / Rhode Island / South Carolina / South Dakota / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Vermont / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia / Wisconsin / Wyoming / Washington D.C. /

Go HERE to have a form generate the HTML for you.

Thanks to the Left Coast Unitarian for having this on his blog so I could try it out.

Other countries are not part of the "state game" here, but I could add (in no particular order):

Japan / Thailand / China / Taiwan / Singapore/ S. Korea / UK / Netherlands / Austria / Germany / Czech Republic / Italy / France / Spain / Iraq / Kuwait /Ireland / Israel / Egypt / Mexico / Canada

Guess how many of these countries (and states) I've been to solely because of my life in the Marines?