November 7, 1998

The Healing Service

I drove up to the church in the evening darkness and it came upon me quickly. A huge stone structure, first hiding in the trees, imposed from the hillside. The service was to be in the adjoining chapel and I was happy for the promise of a more intimate setting. But the chapel was bigger than many churches and it too had a high, sweeping vaulted ceiling. In the dim light I could make out a small circle of chairs. My heart seized and I wondered if I had made a mistake in coming here.

The phrase “healing service” had whispered in my ear and lured me here. I had never been to a healing service and I had no idea what it was about. Something in it suggested an intimacy and an intensity not normally part of a church service. That was the draw for me.

As I sat in the circle, preparations were made for the service. The leader warmed up at the piano which was part of the circle. Candles and more candles were lit and the room began to glow. A large crystal bowl of water reflected the light and the unknown. Slowly the circle filled.

We began with a hymn and then went around the circle telling why we were there. I had come out of curiosity. I had come to add to my repertoire of church experiences. But as the circle came round, it became clear that I had come to be healed.

The addition of school into my life has been difficult. School has been a succession of stressful events: papers and tests. Some I have handled well, some not so well. By “well” I do not mean the end product. I am referring to the process of writing the paper or studying for the test. Sometimes the process did not go well.

When it did not go well, I paid the price. Life became narrowly focused – focused on the project at hand. Everything and everyone else would fall by the wayside. I could feel the stress in my body. I felt like a balloon stretched to near breaking. If only I could release some air, some pressure. I worked with stress reduction techniques like hot baths and exercise. They brought only temporary relief.

Stress is just a sanitized word for fear. I do not like to think that I am fearful, so calling it stress puts the locus of the problem outside of me. I fool myself into believing that fear is not the problem. The problem is that thing out there that is stressing me. But the true locus of stress is internal and it is fear. I worked on my fear. I thought a lot about it, trying to figure out what was at its root. But that was just another dead end mind game.

My fear-full self sat with others in the circle. We did not talk about our problems. We did not talk about our fears. We did not talk about anything at all. Instead, we sang. We followed an enchanted woman who sat at the piano and drew us out of ourselves and into the circle. We sang of faith, wisdom, fear, trust, love, rage, despair, hope, sorrow, healing, freedom, joy and compassion. We sang of ourselves from our hearts.

Somehow that night I healed. But my healing was not a releasing event; it was a replacing event. During the service my heart opened – it opened to the world. The stress of school focus and self focus was replaced by a movement out into the world toward others.

The shift in focus diminished the impact of the fear on me. So maybe relieving stress does not mean doing less of the stressful activity, but means living and acting from a different place. A call to a loved one, a hug offered to a partner, or a note to a friend in need, may do more than any stress reduction plan.

It was hard to leave the candles and the glow of the circle that night. But leaving was made easier by knowing that something unneeded was to be left behind and something new had been gained. I left with the song of my heart.

September 11, 1998

Leaving Home

The summer is almost over, but it has been a glorious adventure for my wife and me. We had a preview of the future as we practiced being empty-nesters. We took off on day trips without worrying about any child’s schedule. Meal times were no longer written in stone and we ate according to our clocks of the day. We breathed in deeply the silence and the solitude.

We were not alone all summer. Our son Taylor, age 16, was off working in New Hampshire for the entire summer, but our daughter, Meghan, age 20, was home for most of it, working and attending school. She left for New Hampshire for the last three weeks of the summer, and then we were alone.

I was excited when it came time for them to return on Labor Day. Sure, the silence, freedom and flexibility were wonderful, but something was missing from our home. I missed the loving presence of our children. They fill up our house to overflowing, with sounds, voices and emotions pouring out over the eaves. But they are our sounds, our voices and our emotions.

And now I am feeling a loss. This weekend my daughter will be moving into her first apartment in preparation for the new school year. It was bad enough when we sent her off to begin college, but college dorms were always a temporary, nine month arrangement. She would always have to come home at the end. But the apartment is a twelve month lease which will be followed by other leases and then some day mortgage payments. My daughter is leaving home for good.

The truth is that she left home three years ago when she went to work in New Hampshire for the summer after her senior year in high school. She has not lived here regularly ever since. But those events did not grab me. I did not want to believe that she was gone. To me she was always visiting some place else. Her home was always with us.

Now she will have her own home. Of course, this is exactly what she is supposed to be doing. Her future is not under my roof, nor should it be. But I feel the loss. This child who was laid in my arms twenty years ago in a hospital corridor now will walk proudly on her own.

I grab her arm and tell her only half-jokingly not to leave. She says she will be back but what she refers to as “back” and what I mean as “back” are not the same thing. She will not be one of those “boomerang kids” who leave but always move back home. She will be back to visit. She likes to visit her old parents and she always brings joy into the house with her. But visiting here and living here are not the same thing.

Change is upon us. Change is good, or so I have read. I am learning a new way of loving a child while saying hello and good-bye. They did not tell us about good-byes at childbirth classes. But I have learned that good-byes are just preparations for hellos. I will practice. I will learn. And I will love.

September 4, 1998

The Leak

A recent book about life on the PGA golf tour is titled “A Good Walk Spoiled.” My recent day could be called “A Good Day Spoiled.” It started out innocently enough and then it erupted.

My wife and I were driving to the neighboring city of Gloucester to have lunch. The subject of “the leak” came up. I do not blame this on my wife. I probably brought it up. Our sunporch has had a small leak since we bought the house a year ago. It has not been bothersome until recently when we installed a new carpet. Now it must be fixed.

Now you need to understand that I am not a handyman. There are few things around the house that I am qualified to do. Moving dirt is one. Putting it back is another. So any kind of projects fill me with dread. I know enough not to take them on. You will not find many unfinished projects around my house. I just never start them.

Fixing a small leak sounds easy enough. I bought some caulking and I think that I know the source. But the source is hidden by an awning which covers panels of glass in the ceiling of the sunporch. The awning must be removed and replaced, a job normally done by the awning company and a job which I cannot do alone.

We are driving along and I can feel my stomach knot up as the subject of the leak comes up. Most guys would be able to do this job alone. I know they could. And I feel bad that I cannot. I feel really bad. I continue driving, but now in silence. I have ended the conversation and turned onto the highway, but I did not want to get onto the highway. I will get off at the next exit. I am thinking about the leak. I miss the next exit. I wrestle the car off onto an alternate route and we drive on, still silent. My hands are squeezing the steering wheel into a different shape. I stare straight ahead with blinders on blocking out my wife sitting next to me and the rest of the world.

We reach our destination and my wife is the first to speak. Thank goodness, because I am locked into silence.

“What’s the matter?”

“The leak, I can’t stand thinking about the leak.”

We talk about it and she offers to help by making some phone calls to find someone to fix it. The anger erupting inside me is diffused. We move ahead together.

But this whole thing is really not about the leak. It is about the general level of stress in my life. I have a lot of new, big things about to start in my life and I am anxious about them. A few months ago conversation about the leak would not have bothered me at all. Today, it is a convenient flashpoint for my fear.

This is an old pattern which drains energy from my life. I can feel the energy being sucked out by fear. I used to lose days, weeks and months to this pattern, but now I recognize it earlier. I can counteract it. After our little trip I needed a nap. That is my reaction to stress. Others eat or drink, I sleep. But after the nap I went to an energy source, running. A good run restored the energy and got me moving again in my life.

So I am learning to live with my fears. We all have fear, but often it operates unseen below the surface. Recognizing the fear is the first step. But then I have to deal with it. I cannot think or reason away my fear, now matter how irrational it is. My taking action in spite of my fear is what diminishes it. I need to fight to continue to do what needs to be done. I need to fight to stay present and not tune out everyone and everything around me. I need to take proactive steps in the struggle. "A Good Day Spoiled" becomes "A Few Hours Spoiled." Progress.

September 2, 1998


I need to tell you that I cannot write an issue of ZIGZAGS this week. I simply do not have time. You must understand that I want to write it. I want to do a lot of things. I want to eat, sleep, read the paper, watch TV, skim a novel, take a walk, talk to my family, be a friend – and that is just the beginning of the list. But I do not have time. I am busy studying theology.

I started divinity school last week and one of my courses is Systematic Theology. I love it. No, that is not enough – I really love it. How about I really, really, really love it. I am so excited about it that it has taken over my life, with my permission of course. If only I could read theology twenty four hours a day – that is my goal. All of the other stuff of life is stopping me and I resent that.

I have figured out how to read theology while eating, but I am still working on the sleeping time. There should be a way to make sleeping more active so that I could synthesize the study of theology with it. I recall the now-ancient suggestion of listening to tapes while you slept, but that never really caught on. My temporary solution is to be so wound up that I cannot go to sleep. I eventually do have to sleep, but I jump into theology mode at the first sign of any consciousness, thereby cutting short my sleep and making my day start way before dawn.

I know, you think that I am exaggerating – and you are right. I am still interacting with my family, seeing clients, and reading the sports page. But I am not exaggerating as much as you think I am. The stuff above is much closer to the truth than I would want to admit. It feels like an obsession, an addiction. Addiction can be defined as a repeated process which interferes with your life or the life of others. And right now theology is interfering in my life and the life of others.

I am working on balance. Oh how I hate that word. Instead I like to use the word priority. What are my priorities? Everything is not equal and in balance. Priorities shift, as they should. Right now, divinity school is a priority in my life, but its level of priority is out of whack. The excitement of this new study swells the priority. It just feels so good to study theology. So what do I do?

The answer is not to dampen the excitement, to put a lid on it and make life safe. This excitement is full of the best energy of life. I need to keep the excitement, keep the energy. But at the same time I must attend to the other areas of my life, even if I have to force myself to do it. Over time, the tension of the pulls of the different parts of my life will ease, but I must make sure that I do not do any damage in the meantime.

After all, I am just starting a big zig. When you start a big zig you are leaving the status quo, you are stirring up the pot, you are going into unfamiliar places. It will be messy for awhile. I had worked very hard to build my life just so. It was a life I knew. Even if it was boring, it was safe. This step out into a different life will never be easy, but it will always be exciting. At some point, taking the step is not a choice. I was at a place where I could not stay where I was. To keep the status quo would have caused a step back in life, and I want to move forward.

There are different kinds of zigs. Some zigs take you into excitement, but many take you into the land of pain. The zigs after a divorce or death of a love one will not be full of excitement. Most of the zigs that do not happen by our choice are painful.

Voluntary zigs, the ones which we initiate on our own, tend to be the ones full of new energy and excitement. Zigzaggers learn the terrain of this transition and are not surprised by the shake up of life caused by the zig. Sometimes they need blinders to just get started and they focus only on the one new thing. But soon they take off the blinders and look around. Life is everywhere. Opportunities to love are everywhere. And now they have this wonderful new energy to share.

Now if they could just get some sleep.

August 28, 1998

The Experiment

My life feels like an experiment, sometimes grand, sometimes foolish. Here is the experiment: give a man sufficient income so that he does not need to work and can do whatever he wants with his time. What will he do with it?

I have been working on this experiment for about ten years. One problem is that I wonder what part I am playing in it. Surely I am the rat. But am I also the person running the experiment? Am I the one deciding what experiences to give the rat? Or is the world or some other force conspiring to affect the choices and actions of the rat?

I feel a little like Thoreau sometimes. He went to the woods “to live deliberately.” He wanted “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” He hoped he could then report if life was “mean” or “sublime.”

I too wish to live deliberately. I wish to live in a way that I can step back and look at my actions and look at how I am living in the world. I wish to determine if the way I am living is consistent with what I value and hold as important.

But for my experiment I have not left to go to the woods, and that is a big difference. I have chosen to live in the middle of a typical environment in America today. I have a wife, children, a dog, friends, a home, a mortgage, two cars, a lawn, credit cards, high speed internet access, cable TV, malls nearby, stadium seating movie theaters, vacations, restaurants to frequent, a doctor, a dentist, a therapist, clients, the Red Sox, and the Sopranos. I have chosen not to escape life like Thoreau did. I have chosen to live life deliberately in the midst of the best and the worst that Western culture has to offer. And I am not just sitting in the midst watching. I partake of it.

Can I live in the midst of this culture, be a part of it, and live a life consistent with my values? Or must I reject and condemn a large part of the way of life of this culture in order to do so? Must I reject TV as a wasteland or can I enjoy “American Idol?” Must I eschew James Bond type thriller movies and frequent only art house movies with subtitles? Can I follow my Red Sox passionately or must I do something “constructive” with my time like read “important” books? Can I be “productive” if I do not have a job?

I could have chosen the woods. There is a lot to be learned out there too. But I have chosen to stay in the midst of the messiness. I have chosen a different laboratory for the experiment of my life. Or I have been chosen. It is not as neat as the cabin and pond of Thoreau. Distractions, illusions, and obstacles abound.

In the laboratory of life, there is no maze to memorize. The lab rat can work hard and eventually learn his maze. When he reaches his bite of the cheese, he is set for life because the maze will not change. Life in our culture is much more fluid. Just when I think that I have found “The Way,” the maze morphs into something new and unknown. It is easy to get lost while trying to find my way home.

Through Zigzags I plan to report the findings of my experiment. They will not be conclusion statements, such as “the world is mean” or “the world is sublime.” The reports will be the day to day adventures, catastrophes, learnings, unlearnings, and relearnings on my journey. My hope is that there will be pieces with which you can identify and which will help you on your journey home.

Energy Sources

“Look for the energy, Jim, look for the energy,” my teacher would say. I was in the midst of coaching training and this was an important matter. I began to see shifts in energy during my sessions with clients. A client would come in confused, stuck and unable to articulate his interests in life. All of a sudden he would sit up in his chair, voice amplified, arms waving and speak with passion. There was the energy, both physical and psychic. There was the focus point.

I began to look for the times and places of energy in my own life. I am a person who has traditionally run at low energy levels. But could I do something to change that? Were there sources of energy into which I could tap? I began a list.

The mountains. Something happens when I go to the mountains. I breathe deeply the force of life. I can be backpacking in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire or I can be on a tennis court in Waterville Valley. The feeling of fullness is the same.

The sound of water. When hiking, all of a sudden the sound of an approaching stream will filter through the trees. It could be one of my favorites, the Mad River or the Wild River, or it could be a babbling brook. The sounds of fountains energize me. A dam, with clear sheaths of rushing water, will do the trick. Visit the John F. Kennedy memorial fountain near Harvard Square and just feel the energy flow.

The feeling of water. Showers, baths, dips in the lake or the ocean, hot tubs, jacuzzis, pools. The feeling of the water united with my body fills me up.

Music. Folk music is my most certain route into energy. Usually a familiar favorite cut or two from a CD will do it. Other types of soulful music, like Joe Cocker, will also do it. I do not have a lot of experience with classical music, but lately I have been entranced by “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. It raises me up and twists and turns me, floating away, yet grounded. It builds layer upon layer until there can be no more and then more, reaching higher, and then surprise, more! It then slowly lays me down.

Dance. I had forgotten about dance until my recent retreat. Our group sessions would begin with three or four dance tunes and we would all get up and get moving. I would be dead tired at about my usual bedtime and yet a few minutes of dancing would completely revive me. I was stunned at my ability to manipulate my energy level. The combination of music and body movement is powerful.

Sex. A powerful energy source, a life force. It combines body movement, tactile touch and loving intimacy in a primal way. It calls me from deep within to be fully alive.

Exercise. I have recently begun running again after a layoff of many years. It seems strange that the exertion of physical energy would produce both physical energy and psychic energy, but it does.

Fierce beauty. I vividly recall walking on a small hill in the high desert of Coyote Springs, Arizona, and coming upon the brilliant red flower, Indian Paintbrush. It took my breath away. Fierce beauty. Alice Koller writes that fierce beauty “wrenches me out of the ongoing hour, immersing me in itself.” She had a particular painting she would go to see in the Gardner Museum in Cambridge when she needed the energy of fierce beauty in her life. For my friend, Bonnie, it lies in classical music. Each of us has his/her own source.

My list is a beginner’s list and I hope to expand it. I believe that I am just starting to scratch the surface on this issue of energy. But more importantly, I hope to use these sources proactively for energy management in my life. Robert Gass writes, “The key to the ‘art of doing’ is human energy. Everything we do in our lives is the result of using or withholding, focusing, relaxing, amplifying or reducing our energy.” I would add that energy is also the key to the “art of being.” With energy our doing and being can flourish.

My challenge is to have the energy to show up fully for life and to use that energy with intention and focus. I recognize that part of the energy flows as a result of “doing” and “being” which is done well. But before we get to that step, we need the basic energy. We need to have sources that we can call on when needed.

August 21, 1998

Bowled Over

I am full. My cup runneth over. I just cannot fit any more in. I am newly returned from a wondrous week at Shalom Mountain Retreat Center and the experience has filled me with so many ideas, thoughts and feelings. I can barely remember how I got home.

I feel like I am in a birdbath which is being filled with water and someone left the hose on and forgot about it. The water gurgles, rushes and splashes with great motion, but it is out of control. It just keep splashing and the water stings my eyes. My nose fills like a kid rolling backward in a lake. I breathe too early and my mouth fills with water before I break the surface for a breath.

There are so many things that I want to do and tell. I need a week to create a to-do list. No, I do not have the time or focus. My mind will not stay on one subject long enough. It bursts forth making connections and disconnections. My wiring is on overload.

I am reminded of the story of the three bowls that Sue Bender tells in her book, Everyday Sacred. “The first bowl is inverted, upside down, so that nothing can go into it. Anything poured into this bowl spills off. The second bowl is right side up, but stained and cracked and filled with debris. Anything put into this bowl gets polluted by the residue or leaks out through the cracks. The third bowl is clean. Without cracks or holes, this bowl represents a state of mind ready to receive and hold whatever is poured into it.”

I spend much time preparing to be the third bowl. In that state I am living expectantly in the present waiting for life to show itself to me. And it always does. When I am able to be empty and receive, life in its goodness and glory reappears so that I may witness. It was always there, but when I am busy being the first or the second bowl, I cannot see.

I went to Shalom ready to receive and today I am the third bowl filled beyond the rim with the whoosh of life. I cannot control the flow. I opened to life and it came in. Today I can only glory in the excess and say thank you.

This state will be temporary. At some point in the near future I will be the first bowl or the second bowl again. My euphoria will abate. But for now I will be enveloped by the luscious of life. I will sing and dance, and hug and hold, and cry out from my depth. After all, as the great philosopher Mary Englebreit said, “Life is just a chair of bowlies.”

Let me savor this time. Cut me some slack. I may cross over the line into obnoxious from time to time. The whirl of my energy can spill out and knock people down like an uninvited mosher at a line dance. But the good news is that it can be contagious.

August 7, 1998

Rules for Shopping

You probably think that wicker is wicker. When you want to buy a wicker couch, you go to the store and buy the white wicker couch. You are so wrong. I know. I am now an expert.

Do you want white, brown, a different shade of brown, gray, green, or ugly green-maybe-blue? Do you want to use it indoors or outdoors? What firmness do you want in the cushions? Do you want a deep seat or a narrow seat? And I have not begun to talk about the shape and style of the wicker itself and the various fabrics available. Too many decisions for me!

We have had some work completed on our sunporch and my wife and I are buying some new things for it. The wicked wicker caper arose out of one of our shopping trips. We do not yet have a new sofa because we broke several of The Rules - The Rules for Shopping with Jim. With my wife’s able assistance, I have assembled the rules so that they might add to your personal shopping pleasure.

Rule 1: Pick a store near a good restaurant. A good meal makes me much more manageable.

Rule 2: Do not enter a store after 11:00 AM and before lunch. I cannot shop on an empty stomach. I will agree on nothing. My antics will draw out memories of trying to do grocery shopping with a two year old.

Rule 3: Do not shop at a store which does not have a bathroom. Call ahead if you must. The anxiety of shopping is overwhelming to whatever has been consumed in preparation for this journey of desire.

Rule 4: Do not shop at a department store. Having too many choices scrambles my brain. All potential items should be within easy view from one spot in the store.

Rule 5: Make a maximum of two stops. If you count them up, that means a total of eight times that I either enter or exit the car, and that seems to be my limit. It is like when the game show contestant bets all that he has won on the final question and gets it wrong. Stopping at a third store wipes out all potential gains from the first two stops.

Rule 7: No surprises. Tell me where we are going and what we are looking for. And do not change the plan. Flexibility is not my long suit. A violation of this rule is the reason that we do not have a wicker couch. We were shopping for something else when I became Mr. Wicker.

Rule 8: Use devious tactics. I never want to go shopping, but buy something without me and I will pout and complain until you wish that you never bought it. So just say that you are going to go look at something and do not invite me to go along. Anytime that I know that I am not wanted, I will want to go.

Rule 9: Watch for the vacant stare. When my eyes glaze over, I have reached maximum input for the day. Either feed me or take me home.

Rule 10: Avoid shopping with Jim. Enjoy what you already have. Remember the price you paid the last time you took him shopping. When rules are broken, someone is going to have to pay. And you know who it will be.

July 31, 1998

Computer Wars

A competition rages in my home right now. It is called Man vs. The Computer. As you might guess, I am the Man. I am not “The” Man with a capital ‘T’ because that would imply a level of importance which I do not possess in this battle. And it is a battle, a battle which I am losing.

I am in the midst of installing a new computer. No, that is incorrect. A new computer has taken up residence in my home and it is trying me out. I know who is in control here.

I want to tell you that my problems rise out of my innocence - that I am a novice with computers. But that would be a lie. This is the fourth computer which I have installed over the last twelve years.

The problem lies in the advances of the computer. If it could not do as many things as it can, it would be much easier to understand. I would not have to learn new stuff in order to get it to do what I want it to do.

When I installed my computer four years ago, I proceeded timidly to set it up in my living room by following with great care all of the written instructions. After several hours the time came to turn it on and shout Eureka, but when I threw the switch, nothing happened. I rechecked everything including the plug into the wall, but nothing would happen. So what did I do? I just sat and cried. I had been defeated. It turned out that the computer was a dead one and a swap for a new one at the store solved the problem.

This time the setup was different. I know more now and the hardware connections were easy - no instructions needed. When I turned it on, the program came right up onto the screen and the speakers played triumphal music. I did it! Victory was mine!

All I needed to do now was transfer some of the programs and files from the old machine to the new machine. I am a novice at this operation and all of my attempts were fruitless. So I called in the cavalry, namely my friend, Bob. He came over and spent the afternoon working on it and did a lot. But more needs to be done. I need to call this vendor for this diskette and another vendor for that information. So it is now three days and I cannot use my new computer. Did someone say FRUSTRATION?

So how do I cope? Raging feels pretty good, but then I have to apologize to my whole family. I tried that on day one. Explaining the problem to and pleading for sympathy from people who were caught in the fallout from my rage of the day before does not work. I had used up the available compassion quota.

Closing the door works. If I cannot see the computer I am less likely to want to work on it. I did sneak in a few times just to get a few extra lashes of the whip, but generally I tried to compartmentalize the problem. This problem cannot take over my life. I have lots of other things to do.

Pace seems to be the answer. Instead of having the problem define my life and take it over, I am going to deal with it at my own pace. For awhile I will have two computer systems running. The old one can do what I need to get done for now, and I will move slowly into the new one as problems get fixed. This solution has diffused the conflict. It has stopped pushing my buttons. Well, maybe not stopped, but now it is within levels of tolerance.

By the way, my new computer is great. It zips and zaps! It wows you with its power! It is a gateway to a new way of living and learning! At least that is what the book says.

July 24, 1998

Double Mantra

The family of four had finished their afternoon at the pool and were sitting near me on the inn porch. I was reading my book and waiting for the approaching dinner hour. The two little girls pranced and shuffled in their brightly lit bathing suits. The smaller one, a pencil like creature in a two piece, sat down across from me and we began to chat.

“Do you know where I could get a pair of sandals like yours that would fit me?”

Her sandals were hot pink plastic with large daisy shaped fasteners. I love to ask children questions that are half serious and half stupid. She looked at me undecided about how to categorize me. Then she knew, smiled and began to explain why they were not the right sandals for me. I had hooked her.

We chatted about various silly things and I asked her if she was having fun on vacation. She nodded as she squirmed around in her wicker chair. Then her dad prompted her, “What do you always say?”

She stood up and looked me and said. “I love my life.” Again, with the feeling of exuberance that a five year old knows best, “I love my life.” And in case I had not heard, with eyes wide open, one more time she threw it to me, “I love my life.”

I caught it. I started to say, “Hey, you’re only five. You haven’t even been to school yet. Wait until you have to sit in a classroom for thirteen years in a row. Wait until your boyfriend dumps you. Wait until you know real pain.” But I bit my tongue. I stopped because I was wrong.

Her love of life was not about age. It was about attitude. Kids have pain. Kids hurt in a real way. And yet she had decided to love her life. I realized that I have never made that decision.

All of this brought back a story I had read several years ago by Rose Mary Dougherty, who is the director for Spiritual Guidance for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, which is in the Washington, D.C., area. She wrote of a recurring dream in which she would seek out personal wisdom figures and ask them if she should enter religious life. She had entered religious life some thirty years before.

One night she had a dream that was different. She approached the same figures but she knew it was not right to ask them. She writes, “Then I saw a little boy, three or four years old, with large brown eyes. I asked him my question, ‘Do you think I should enter religious life?’ He looked at me with piercing, puzzled eyes. Finally he said. ‘Do you wanna?’ ” She continues, “In asking this, he had called me back to myself, had invited me to listen to my heart.”

“I love my life.” “Do you wanna?” These disparate threads, these voices of children, are woven together in my life right now, providing access to the heart. They provide a double mantra to help me move forward. They do not flow smoothly together off the tongue. Maybe they need to be reformed or melded. But for now I will let each stand alone. And I will listen.

July 16, 1998

Familiar Strangers

He had slicked back hair and a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips. It is hard to smile with a cigarette positioned so, but he always had a smile for me. The tattoo, USN with a big anchor, made me wonder. Had he been on one of those big battleships during the war? He brought attitude to our home. He was our garbageman.

I knew when he was coming because the big, smelly truck was not quiet. He carried his own pail on his shoulder and he would swing it down beside ours. An efficient flip of the lid and a swirl of one can emptying into another and a lifting back onto the shoulder would be accompanied by a “Hi kid.” That was enough for me. He was my friend.

When I was small, lots of people dropped by the house on a regular basis. The readers for the gas, electric and water meters would show up like clockwork. I loved these mystery men (why no women?) who would be ushered into our house and down into the basement. Most guests did not get to see the basement, so they must have been special.

The milkman from Symmes Dairy dropped off quart bottles of milk, each with a layer of cream on top. Yuk. I hated the cream which would always leave chunks of white in my glass of milk. I cannot picture that milkman. I think it is because of the cream.

I recall much more clearly the milkmen who would visit my home in the 1980’s. In Duxbury, a smiley man with a shock of white hair would deliver from the back of his pickup truck. He always left a special small carton of chocolate milk for my little daughter.

Of course, there was always the mailman. Every day, at the same time he would appear at the back door with the mail. In summer I would stand behind the screen door just staring. He would open the screen and hand me the big pile of mail - big anyway for my small hands. In winter I would try to catch the mail before it fell from the door slot to the floor.

My favorite mailman was at a hospital. When I was three my father spent many weeks in a hospital in Boston after a serious heart attack. Everyday I would travel a long way with my mother to the hospital but I was not old enough to visit my father. I had to wait in the lobby. Every day the mailman would greet me with a big smile as he passed by and give me a Chicklet. I can still taste it today.

These are the men who spruced up my life, who added some pizzazz to the daily routine. I spend a lot of time at home now, working from my home. I leave my trash barrels out on the street and I have never seen the face of the barrel thrower. My newspaper delivery is by a faceless person in a black pick-up who throws it toward my driveway without slowing down before six in the morning

I met my gas meter reader who rides on a mountain bike through the yards, but he is about to be replaced by a van and radio technology. My hometown just did the same for water and electric.

My mail has not been delivered to the door for many years. Small white trucks sweeping down the street have been deemed more efficient.

No more Lucky Strikes. No more little chocolate milks. No more Chicklets. Progress?

July 1, 1998


I am tired. Soooo tired. Dragged down. Out of juice. Bone weary. It has entered deep into my body and is part of my fiber. I hate it.

I remember this feeling. When I was working as an attorney there were times when the volume of work surged and long hours for weeks on end would be required to get the work done. At the end, when I finally was able to rest for a few days, I would feel as tired as this. But those days were better. At least I had a reason. At least I had an accomplishment. Today I have no excuse for how tired I am.

Stress can make me this tired. Depression can make me this tired. But neither of these is present in my life right now. I believe that my body has had an allergic reaction to an environment which I was in for a couple of days. That is my best guess. I hope this feeling is not here without cause.

Twelve step programs have a saying: Watch out for H.A.L.T. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It is at those times that you are the most vulnerable. Now I see why they have included Tired.

Tired scares me. It looks like depression and it feels like depression. Even though I know that it is not depression, my mind and body want to think that it is depression. But what if it is depression? What if it has arrived unannounced? What if it never leaves? This itself is depression thinking. Despair is hiding around the corner.

When I am tired, my whole view of life changes. Life does not change. It is just as wonderful as it always is. But my ability to see the wonder changes. My focus is on my self. I have blinders to what the rest of the world wants or needs from me. I am all that I care about. I do not live in the present. The present is lousy. It is better to torture myself about what could go wrong in the future. At least that will generate some type of feeling. Being tired has a dead feeling which is no feeling at all.

Everything is harder to do. Getting up in the morning is harder. Staying up is harder. Shaving becomes a choice and decision. Pretending to the world outside that everything is normal is harder. Forcing myself to do what needs to be done becomes so hard. Every inch is a fight with myself.

So what do I do? I wait. I wait it out. I wait for it to end. And in the meantime I try to meet my commitments and do what needs to be done. I keep my life as simple as I can. In the old days I used to punt and not do anything. But now I know that the doing is so important. It is important to me and to the ones I love. I need to meet my commitments. People are counting on me and I am counting on me.

June 24, 1998

Running on Empty

I hate to stop for gas. It makes me late to wherever I am going. On a trip it skews my trip time and I may be after a record. Also, I get that gasoline smell on my hands for the rest of the day. And I always feel guilty for not washing the windshield. But the real problem is that by stopping for gas I am admitting defeat.

The game I am playing is called see how close you can get to empty without running out. I am fortunate that my gasoline gauge has a large red band for empty, so I can run on empty for a long time. This is living on the edge at its best. Not knowing exactly how long I can go creates the suspense. I think (but am not sure) that my tank holds 14 gallons. I recently reached a personal best by pumping 13.5 gallons. I do not say that proudly. This is not a record that would stand up well among more proficient practitioners of the art of running on empty.

My wife says that this is all a man’s game but I know that she is wrong. My mother was terrific at this game. That was back in the days when families had only one car providing added incentive to the game. If you could run on empty, you could force the other driver to fill the tank and you could then ride all week for free. Teenagers have always excelled at this part of the game.

My father gave my mother a weekly allowance to run the household. Anything left over was hers to keep. So why buy gas when Dad would be home on Saturday morning to use the car? I remember so well the day that Dad left the house and ran out of gas at the bottom of the hill. He could not even make it the half mile to the gas station. He returned home in a rage. He was probably mad because Mom had won the game, at his expense. As I recall, there were a lot of losers that day.

I was reminded of all of this on a recent flight to Florida. At mid-flight the pilot announced that we were stopping for gas. That’s right, stopping for gas. He made up some story about how we had been flying around to avoid storms and he threw some statistics at us, but I was unconvinced. I think that they forgot to get gas in Boston. Or maybe the attendant had a kink in the hose.

So on the way from Boston to Tampa, we stopped in Greensboro, North Carolina. We pulled up to a gate and the pilot got out and took out his wallet. I swear that I am not making this up. I did not see what he did next, but I bet he handed over his gas credit card.

The logical possibility here is that the pilot was trying to run on empty. He probably did not want to take the time to fill up because he was late for his weekly poker game. But somewhere down the coast he realized that the stakes were a little higher in the air. He was not driving alone.

I do not admire this pilot. He gave a bad name to empty riders and he can no longer be included in our club. He wimped out. We probably could have made it to Tampa if he tried. He did not even try. I bet that my mother would have made it. I know that she would have tried.

June 11, 1998


I confess. I am addicted - to crossword puzzles. The obsession is only in its formative stages, so there still is hope. But I can feel those strong pulls of compulsion - waking up and needing a clue, rushing out to get the newspaper before anyone else is awake, pretending to eat lunch as an excuse for working on the puzzle, sneaking extra newspapers into the house, and thinking about it all the time. And writing about it.

It is all my daughter’s fault. A lot of big problems exit on college campuses these days and she brought this one home with her. It started innocently enough as a way to get through boring classes. The school newspaper was free so what the heck. But that was not enough for her. Soon she was hanging out on street corners buying newspapers.

When she returned home for summer vacation she caught me in her web. At first it was a question for me now and then, but then it became a full time co-conspiracy - an alliance to solve the puzzle of the day.

This alliance stuff is for the birds. It is like being on a team at work. Who wants it? Who wants to collaborate, to share the very best stuff there is when you could have it all to yourself? A half of a puzzle is like no puzzle at all.

Since I am a loving father, I have decreed that the crossword puzzle belongs to my daughter unless she voluntarily waives her right to it. Fortunately, she is often busy from early in the morning to late at night, so there are not too many days when I have to buy an extra paper. Father’s Day is approaching so I think that the royal decree may need to be set aside for a few weeks or months in order to give the pater his due allegiance.

I am thinking about going to a crossword camp in to approve my performance. Do they have crossword camps? I have to do something. The experience now is a frustrating, tense and empty period of time. I now know why they call it crosswords. That is all that I have for myself - cross words. And that is the good part. It feels a lot like golf. If only I could calm down I would enjoy it, but of course I cannot possibly calm down. Being uncalm is hard-wired into my competitive self.

The crossword camp would start with breathing exercises. I bet that it would be good to breathe during the process of doing the puzzle. Then we would move onto short words - sort of like working on short irons. We would learn to complete short words while relaxed to get a sense of how the game could be played. Eventually we would work up to the driver, the big daddy of them all, the New York Sunday Times puzzle. I can already hear the gallery clapping.

Just writing this piece has been cathartic. I can feel the worry lines dissolving. My back muscles are releasing. I know that I can make it through today without a crossword. I am pretty sure I can. And anyway, the anagrams are mine!

June 1, 1998

Man in the Mirror

A half light from a half covered half window illuminated enough. A lesson suggested by another’s poem brought me here. I stand fully pulled up with arms crossed and locked before the silvered bathroom mirror. A harsh stance really. A judging stance.

I always notice the hair first: gray, grayer, grayest. I remember learning to compare adjectives in fourth grade and gray was never in our lexicon. But I now sometimes think that it is the dominant color in my life. Surprisingly, the gray does not bother me today. A level of acceptance has arrived.

I began to accept it the day a woman asked me what color my hair was before it turned gray. At that point I did not know that it was gray. I thought that it was still brown. That question three years ago hurt.

A year later I faced a moment of truth when I applied for an Arizona driver’s license. The application wanted to know my hair color. I lied and answered brown.

A chance to redeem myself appeared twelve months later as I was driving to get my Massachusetts license and I decided that it was time to tell the truth: the predominant color of my hair is gray. I resolved. But the application no longer asked the question. Too many liars for the information to be helpful I suppose.

Below the hair are blue eyes, soft and deadened in this light. They are scary sitting unreflected behind my glasses. They are scary for all that they do not say. I flick the light switch looking for improvement. The eyes jump alive and dance in the reflected light. A smile creases across my face, softening my entire body. Even my stiff crossed arms ease.

The eyebrows that were hiding in the dusk now appear - the curly ones. I recall the discussion with my barber about ten years ago concerning curling eyebrows. She said, “It happens at a certain age.” I asked, “What age?” She replied, “Around your age.” I had reached THE age. I am now THE age plus ten.

I have the extra flap on the eyelids now. I remember noticing that my first boss got those when he started to age. He is fifteen years older than me - and that was twenty years ago. I do not like the math.

Wow! I can wiggle my left ear! I did not know that I could do that. I try the other ear but it will not budge. Well, one is pretty good. My father could wiggle both ears so that is still my goal. Can I curl my tongue yet? No, oh well.

You see, the boy is still in the mirror. I still see more of the boy than anything else. A freckled face child opens with hope. My grandmother always told me that freckles were beauty marks and I still believe her. She knew all about gray hair, wrinkles and baggy skin. And yet it was the beauty which sparked her.

I am trying to hold the two truths together: the hope of the boy and aging body of the man. I want to deny neither and hold them in a point of tension because neither alone is the truth. Let them fight, cry and tear at one another. They both hold wisdom, one innocent, one earned. They are the reflection of who I was, who I am, and who I can become.

May 27, 1998

Peak Performance

Reggie Miller cut behind the screen on the low post, curled and bumped Michael Jordan out of the way, slashed across the top of the key to receive the inbound pass with three seconds left in the playoff game. Beyond the three point arc, in one motion he leapt, squared his body to the basket, and swished the basket to win by one. His was a peak performance. He was playing at his very best.

Sports abounds with stories of players preparing for a peak performance. Athletes plan their training regimens around being at their best at the time of the Olympic Games. Tiger Woods seeks advice from Jack Nicklaus on how to peak for the four major golf championships. They hone their craft. They find the necessary combination of ingredients which will allow them to be at the top at a chosen time.

I want to be a peak performer. I am not an elite athlete, but I want to be at the top of this game called life. Do you remember days when you felt like you were sitting on the top of the world? Have you had days when the joy of living just overflowed? Those are the days that I want and I want them all the time.

I am far from hitting this joyous stride. I have searched for years for the right combination of activities, the right recipe of living, to allow me to always be at my peak. Every once in a great while I hit the right combination and I repeat it the next day. It never works a second time. Why not?

This search for endless joy or serenity, or whatever you want to call it, is a problem in itself. While chasing the unattainable, I miss what life has to offer. And I am a failure. How often can you have a peak performance? What do you call all of the other days? Are they all lost days? Are they all failures?

I am a person known for my ups and downs. I have spent a lot of time trying to control them, to make my experience all in the middle.

Many years ago my wife told me of a saying of her grandmother: “You have to take the bitter with the better.” I do not like that idea, but it is right.

I am learning that leading a full life means living with ups and downs. There is no choice. It happens. The key for me is to continue to do what needs to be done during those times - to not be overwhelmed. But sometimes I will be overwhelmed. I have learned that even those times do not last forever.

In the acceptance of the cycles of life comes a peace. To give up the fight brings an openness to life. For even in the depths, in the bitter, life shines around us. The depths are where we roll in the ashes and are transformed to emerge in a different place.

So I am beginning to stop chasing the peaks. I am beginning to accept what shows up in my life. Those ups and downs and middles are the stuff of living. I have faith that it is all there for a reason - that all of it somehow moves me forward.

May 25, 1998

Tsk, Tsk, Task

A handyman I am not. A handyman is a person who can fix things - you know, take things apart and put them back together. My rule is to never take anything apart that requires more than two steps. Otherwise, it will never fit back together again.

I do not even make a good laborer. Those are the guys on a construction site who have no skill but are good at dragging things around from here to there. They do the grunt work. No, I am not a good laborer.

But sometimes a job at home is so small and inconsequential that it falls upon my shoulders. You cannot call and hire someone to put up two brackets for hanging plants. If there were three, I would understand, but two is not enough. Two is my limit. I bought three of these wrought iron brackets last year, but only two went up. I just petered out during the job. This year my wife bought a fourth bracket, hoping that I could repeat the glory of just last year.

The day came when it was time to do the job. The coming is usually a lot later than most people would think, but I have my own inner timetable when it comes to things like this. I move when the spirit moves me, and the spirit is often slow.

I approached the job differently this time. I laid out all of the tools and materials that I would need for the job. I usually would just start with one tool and when I needed another I would go look for that one. I am learning.

I also got my ladder out. When I am up on the ladder, I am a long way from my tools. I could change this by getting a tool belt, but that seems a bit presumptuous for me. It was only last year that I pumped up my self-esteem enough to get a tool box. No, my pockets are my tool belt. Of course, that results in a lot of pants pockets with holes.

One of my big problems with these tasks is that I get distracted easily. For example, when I was plugging in the electric cord under the porch I noticed the lawn furniture which my wife wanted out on the deck. It would be so much more efficient to carry out a piece rather than walking out empty handed. But I resisted. I have found that if I listen to my efficient mind, nothing gets finished. There is always something else which I could do rather than the task at hand. So I marched out and went back up on the ladder.

The first bracket went up pretty well. The ladder was up above the sliding windows and they sure needed to be washed. Why not do it while I was up there? Wouldn’t it be more efficient? I mean it would take at least ten extra seconds to move the ladder back here later. I resisted. I know myself. But what about that paint that is peeling? It is only a small area. I could patch that up while I am up here. No!

The second bracket was a little trickier. It involved a lot of left hand work which is not natural for me. And the manufacturer tripped me up. The screws changed from flat heads to Phillips heads. That meant that I had the wrong tools. In the past this would have put me in a rage because it interrupted my perfect planning. It made me less efficient. But I just got down off the ladder, and went down cellar to the tool box to get what I needed - no big deal.

Yes, the tool box stayed down cellar. I am thinking about taking it to my next work site. But for now that seems like advanced handyman stuff. I am not sure that I am ready.

After I put up the brackets, I washed the windows and brought out the lawn furniture. So those things got done, even if not in my old efficient way. One task at a time works better for me. It gets things done in the way they need to be done. I am not good at multi-tasking. I will leave that to computers.

I am reminded of the Zen story about the roshi who taught his students about the value of attention. He taught them to do one thing at a time. When you eat, eat. When you walk, walk. When you cook, cook. When you wash dishes, wash dishes. Keep all of your attention on the task at hand.

One day one of his students spied the roshi reading a book while he was eating lunch. The student approached and said, “Roshi, I am confused. You said when you eat, eat, and when you read, read. And yet you are doing both. What is the lesson?” The roshi did not hesitate. “When you eat and read, eat and read.”

Life is a matter of attention, and what matters is what works for you.

May 13, 1998

Green, Green Grass of Home

I did not expect it to happen so quickly. And I did not expect the outside intervening causes. I just wanted it to be a little better.

I am talking about my lawn, of course. America’s love affair with the lawn is well documented. Men and women work diligently all week long, day and night, in corporate settings, to make enough money so that they can work even harder in the yard on weekends. The ultimate payoff is an expanse of lush green lawn.

My love of green grass springs from my childhood. I worked for many years on a golf course. Those endless fairways of tightly mowed grass were places of safety and comfort for me. Safety and comfort are certainly worth repeating.

Creating a fine lawn takes special knowledge and special weapons. I do not have much of the knowledge. My solution is to go the nursery center periodically and ask them if I should be doing something to my lawn. I know that spring and fall are the two important times.

I started a written record last fall of what and how much I put on the lawn. However, I have been too busy this spring for this type of scientific efficiency. And anyway, the guys at the nursery center will always know what to do.

I recently spread fertilizer on my lawn with my new rotary spreader. I wanted to green up and thicken up the grass. And then it rained for seven days straight - the intervening cause. And guess what happened? Yes, the grass grew greener and thicker than ever, except for the yellow stripes where I missed with the fertilizer. And that was after only two days of rain! Each further day of rain brought exponential growth. My yard began to resemble the rolling fields of wheat of our country’s heartland. But I do not possess a thresher. My little lawnmower is unprepared for this.

So, I got what I asked for - a lush, green lawn. But then I got more than what I asked for. I got a really tall, really lush green lawn. There is a bible thing about this - something like “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” The modern, less behavioral, version is “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.”

I have been fertilizing other areas of my life lately and they have begun to grow. But I am unprepared for the growth. What began as an idea now requires time, action and commitment. It seemed much easier and clearer as an idea. It was safer as an idea. No change was required.

My friend and I were discussing over coffee issues involving an organization in which we are both involved. I brought up an idea which I had been talking about for a year. She said, “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?” Do it? No, I was talking about an idea. I was not talking about actually doing what the idea requires. Whoa, that would be a big undertaking. That would require time, action and commitment. I am not ready for a power surge. I like it simple. I like it safe.

The truth is that my life is ready for a power surge. I am not ready, but my life is ready. I knew that when I started to spread the fertilizer in my life. It was the first step of change and was sure to lead to being engaged more fully in life. The nutrients with which I have fed my life are now being watered by sources outside of me. The growth has begun and cannot be stopped.

April 29, 1998


I have to deal with the boulders. I knew that it would eventually come to this, but I just did not know what to do.

I have been living in my new house for almost a year now. The one hundred and eighty feet of street frontage is lined by boulders. We are not talking rocks here. We are talking large boulders that could be moved only by heavy machinery. This is not a traditional New England wall built stone by stone. No, the boulders were tossed roughly in place as a farmer would do when he cleared his fields.

I like the boulders. They give a lot of character to the property. But the boulders are not lined up right. Instead of forming a continuous line they form a squished together “Y.” Somehow, for part of the frontage, a double row of boulders was laid, forming the top part of the “Y”. A new driveway was cut recently and maybe some or all of the second row was relocated from that area.

In between the double row is a mess of scrub, stumps and saplings. This area needs to be cleaned out, cleaned up and made orderly. I will need some of the boulders to finish off the entrance to the new driveway. But how should the wall be moved? What are the changes that need to be made?

Decisions like this one are not easy for me. I have been studying this wall since I moved in, wondering what needed to be done. I only think about it every time I walk past it. Should this be such a tough decision? Do I need to hire someone to help me decide?

For the last two weeks I have been working in and around the boulders - planting grass seed, clearing brush and leaves. The other day, I figured out what needs to be done. It did not come to me in the night or when I was out somewhere. It came to me when I was standing on the wall. I needed to muck around in the problem for awhile before the solution would come. I had to make the problem a visceral part of me, and then the answer became simple and clear.

The large pieces of glacial debris out front are not the only boulders in my life. I have boulders of fear which are the true obstacles in my life. How I deal with these boulders affects all of my decision making.

When I was practicing law my job required that I make many decisions. The decisions were based on knowledge and experience but they had to be made quickly. Often, a lot was on the line. I had no trouble saying yes or no, or go this way or that way.

But I discovered that I would use the same speed for decisions in my personal life. The decisions would be hasty and often would not work out for the best. I found that I was more interested in getting the question to go away than in getting the best result.

I have two decisions which are on the front burner right now. One is financial and the other is vocational. My energy level is up, I am enthusiastic and I want to make the decisions. But I know that I am not ready.

I learned that decisions have their own timetable. Some of the best decisions that I have made were the times when I decided to make no decision. I knew it was not time. Over time, the answer always becomes clear. The problem often resolves itself.

So for my pending decisions, I need to stand on my boulders of fear. I need to get more information and muck around for awhile. I need to clear away the underbrush that is clouding the issues. I need to move slowly and patiently forward.

I go within to my heart space and ask myself if I am ready to make a decision. Today the answer is no, but I know what I need to do next, so that a good decision will be reached. Standing on the boulders, I breathe deeply.

April 24, 1998


I live in a dangerous neighborhood. This country town by the sea is not your normal high crime area, but we have our share of trouble. Our problems never make it onto the police blotter, but we know what is happening. We do not have drive-by shootings - we have fly-by’s.

I was first introduced to this problem when I was living in a neighboring community. One morning I was standing in my kitchen when I heard a large thwump at the front of the house. I ran to the window and saw the bird feeder swinging wildly on the garage. A blue jay was lying in the middle of the driveway, dwarfed by a marsh hawk which was pecking it to death. After a few minutes, the blue jay was carried off by the hawk. I stood stunned in silence. For the first time I knew, yes, violence and death were part of suburbia.

On a recent warm spring evening my wife and I and our small dog, Kachina, went for a walk down our street to the marsh and the river. On the way we passed an open field with an unusual sight: a skunk rooting in the earth. I had only seen skunks at night in my headlights so this daytime viewing was special. He was so cute as he dug and dug, flopping his tail around. He had not heard that skunks are supposed to have one white stripe down the back. Instead, his back was all black and the broad white stripes ran down both of his sides. I felt honored to see him.

We continued on our walk and eventually turned around and retraced our steps. My wife pointed out the group of birds up ahead who seemed to be suspended in the air. They were large birds and they were hovering by flying into the breeze at just the right angle. Their suspended flight was majestic. They would hold their places for a minute or so and then they would break and float together in large circles.

We are not good bird identifiers, and we guessed that they were hawks. But we had never seen hawks flying in a group like that before. I hurried up the road mesmerized by their flight. I hoped that they would stay so that we could watch them up close.

Half way up the street it hit me. The hawks were not going anywhere. They were there for a reason. They were there for the skunk.

Sure enough, as we reached the skunk in his field, the hawks were flying low, right above us. I imagined out loud that they were sizing up the skunk and voting on who would do the dirty work and go in first. My wife was convinced that one of the hawks had his eye on our little dog, who was about the same size as the skunk. So she picked up the little dog and we hurried home.

I do not know what ensued back there at the field. I can only imagine. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe cooler heads prevailed.

So we have six hawks and a skunk. Is that an omen? Do you believe in omens? Maybe I should start believing in omens or at least suspend my disbelief for awhile. What would this mean? What do hawks and skunks mean in mythology? Is this like dream work?

I have no answers here, but I do have a lot of questions. The day after this sighting my life took a sharp turn - a zig, if you will. I know that the skunk, the hawks and I are connected just by being here. But we are unable to get together for coffee to sort this whole thing out. So my questions will persist. And I will zig on.

April 21, 1998

No Reservations

NO VACANCY is not a sign that I like to see. Nor do I like to hear some customer service representative tell me that there are no rooms available on my chosen night. There are no rooms at the inn.

I got what I deserved. My wife and I had been planning a long weekend vacation for a couple of months. I should rephrase that. We were planning to take a vacation, but we were not engaged in planning it. That is because I was in charge of planning.

Planning has not been in my lexicon lately. I have been in a blue funk and the only planning I have been doing is choosing which store to go to in the next hour to pick up some sugary treat. No lists were created. No appointments were set up. I was living in the moment, but not as that phrase is usually used. I was in the moment but not present. I was stuck in the past and the future and unable to get off the mark.

I tried to make reservations at our favorite hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, but they were booked for a conference. So I decided to put off any further decision. We would wait to see the weather forecast just before it was time to go, and then we would decide whether to go north or south.

We went south, and so did most of the other families from Massachusetts, since it was school vacation week. We went to Newport but all of the hotels and inns were full. We tried Jamestown, across the bridge, but only one musty old place was open and I did not want to die during the night from a mold attack.

We headed further south, in the rain. Oh yes, it was raining hard. We were checking places and making phone calls, all in the rain. We finally landed at a small place in Mystic, Connecticut. The place was fine but boring and we were cranky.

The next day we tried to find another place, but the bigger hotels in Mystic were all booked. We headed north and Foxwoods Casino was also full. We headed further north, figuring we could eventually just go home, and we found an inn in Westerley, Rhode Island. Again, it was okay but boring, except for the smoke alarm above the bed which went off in the middle of the night.

The conference at our favorite hotel in Newport finally ended and we moved in for the last night of our vacation. All of our favorite things were there or close by. It was grand.

So what did I learn from all of this? Do not go places without reservations. That is the easy part. But I also learned something about expectations. I was unable to enjoy the other places which I visited, because they were not what I had planned. A lot of other people had visited those same places by choice. Why could I not enjoy them?

When I have expectations, any detour will not work because I shut down to the possibilities of life. I have decided exactly how life should go. I want to be in control. Life is still going on around me but I am too locked in to one view to notice all of the other views around me.

I need to live life with no reservations. I am not in control. I am not in charge. The offerings of a single day are beyond comprehension and belief. I need to receive from the world and just be part of it. Otherwise, I will be forever locked inside the small and boring rooms created by my mind.

April 3, 1998

Setting the Bar

How do I measure success? Well, it depends. How high do I think I can jump today? Not too high. How come? Life happens.

I measure success by the little things. Did I get out of bed? There were dark days in my past when I could not answer that affirmatively. Did I shower? Did I shave? Of course I did! And yet there were times when those were great accomplishments.

Did I give a talk or workshop today? Did I do a big thing like that? No, but I was not scheduled to do it. Could I have done it? I am not sure but I think so. I could have done it but I would have paid a price. Thankfully, I did not have to test myself today.

So what did I do today? I did what had to be done. I got up, showered and shaved, made breakfast, met with my clients, sent a few letters, read a little, and wrote my ZIGZAGS. Yes, I did what had to be done. I did what I had agreed to do. Maybe I did not do it filled with joy and humor, but I did it.

The key to all of this is what I demand of myself. I know that these down times happen in my life and so I keep my commitments flexible. Some days I lower the bar, but there always is a bar, a level of performance and commitment which I demand of myself. The trick for me is to keep inching up that bar of performance over time by stretching what I do.

I read of one person who said that a successful day is whenever he wakes up above ground. I am jealous of that attitude, but it is not mine. That attitude denies the tension and paradox of daily life. It denies suffering and growth. It denies the significance of the push, the struggle and the victory.

The danger in viewing success as performance is that performance may become the only measure. A bigger question always runs through my day: How did I love today? If performance pushes me beyond the space in which I can be lovingly present, then it is not worth it. It is a false success, a false measure.

Down times present a challenge. Did I love myself today? Probably not. Did I love others? I hope so, but not as well as I could have.

It is then that I want to scream - Jim, didn’t you do what needed to be done?! Didn’t you get over the damn bar?! Enough already!!! Go to sleep.

March 4, 1998

The Dog Artist

I just love stories about people who are doing their own thing. Stephen Huneck, profiled in the Boston Globe Magazine on February 1, 1998, lives way up in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a place just south of the Canadian border known principally for its truck depots. He landed there in 1978 after a couple of failed attempts at art school.

In the winter of 1984 he was snowed in there for two days He had an idea about carving an angel and he started working with a beautiful piece of pine. Someone saw the finished piece in the back of his pickup and insisted on buying it. It ended up in the hands of an important folk art dealer in Manhattan who asked for more pieces. A career was born and it flourished.

Ten years into his successful career, Huneck was struck with a virulent strain of pneumonia like the one which killed the Muppets’ Jim Henson. He lapsed into a coma for two months, but he made it through. He says he came out a different person: “I also lost a lot of anger during the coma. I’m more mellow now. It also changed my art. My new stuff seems to me more complex: more life-affirming, more playful, and yet more fearless.”

Huneck is known internationally as “the dog artist” for his many sculptures of dogs. He combines his love of canines with whimsy in pieces like a dining room table with four begging Dalmatians holding up a glass top.

His love of dogs and his illness have taken him to a different place: “After my illness, there is no little picture anymore, only the big picture.” His master plan is for a church for dogs, called St. Bernard’s, on a hilltop in St. Johnsbury. “I’ll carve dog pews; the music will be Gregorian chant, mixed with the howling of wolves. I’m going to paint a dog version of the Sistine Chapel, with angel dogs and the hand of God. The church will be lighted with stained-glass windows done with scenes of dogs.”

He knows that he will offend some, but he is just being playful and going with his own truths. “Growing up in a Catholic family didn’t teach me anything about love. It’s dogs who have taught me how to truly love.”

I admire Huneck for sticking to his vision. He has a unique perspective to give to the world. “When you build something, you are creating energy and the releasing it gracefully into the world.” His graceful message, about playful dogs and unconditional love, needs to be out in the world.

March 3, 1998

Ski Adventures

A new ski mountain can be a terrifying experience. But its ferocity does not have anything to do with the size of the mountain or the difficulty of the terrain. It is terrifying to me because it is new and different.

For months my son had been campaigning to ski Loon Mountain in New Hampshire. I have skied it a few times over the years, but we do most of our skiing at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. I know that mountain and the facilities like the back of my hand. I am at home there.

My son’s request was a reasonable one, but I fought it for a long time. I came up with many excuses, but eventually I gave in.

My problems began on the highway. I got off one exit too soon. I tried to handle this smoothly, but I knew that I had been caught. I had made a mistake and I looked stupid. I hate to make mistakes. I hate to look stupid. There seems to be no gradations to my mistakes. All mistakes are big ones.

We eventually arrived at the mountain and then the fun really began for me. Where is the correct entrance to the parking lot? Whew, I found it and I did not look too bad. Cars are parking at both ends because there is a lodge at both ends. Which one is the best lodge for us? I chose one. Where is the best entrance to the lodge? I picked the wrong one but we made it in. How do you get to the ticket window from here? I went out the wrong end of the building and ended up wandering around through the service entrance.

Can you just see me through all of this? Can you see how stupid I look? I know that everyone for miles is noticing just how stupid I look. My neck and shoulder muscles are coiling tighter and tighter. We need ski rentals and I finally lower myself to ask where the place is because I cannot find it. Oh yes, it is in the other lodge, of course. I cannot even pick the right lodge!

My son wants a trail map, but I have no interest in one. Carrying one of those is like wearing a big badge that says “STUPID.” I hate to even look at the posted trail maps while we are out on the slopes, because everyone will know that I am stupid and do not belong there.

What is this stuff all about? It seems to be several things rolled into one: perfection, control and the need to always look good. It is about invulnerability.

Real men are invulnerable. Women may not know what I am talking about, but every man does. In our culture, being a man means being strong, being on top of things, and being in control. For me, to take anything less than an invulnerable stance carries powerful shame. It makes me a failure. It makes me a mistake.

Think about the typical male experience of refusing to ask for directions. Is that any different? How can a male admit that he does not know something and ask for help if he is supposed to be invulnerable?

At the mountain there were greeters - men and women whose sole job it was to stand around and answer questions from people like me. But I could not connect with them. Invulnerability exacts a price. It cuts me off from connection and intimacy. People connect better when they expose their weakness, or so I have read.

The solution to getting rid of this requirement of invulnerability is connection and intimacy. However, invulnerability does not allow connection and intimacy. It is one of those Catch-22 things.

I wish that the issues which arose for me during a simple ski trip were isolated to ski trips, but they are not. These issues of culturally conditioned invulnerability, of being unable to ask questions, and of being unable to ask for help, are constant threads that run through my life. Awareness is the first step. The next step is to work slowly at making connections. I hope that over time I can replace these threads of invulnerability with a weave of connection and intimacy. Maybe then I will be ready for another mountain.

February 24, 1998

Votive Motive

I am lighting candles again and I am surprised. Candle lighting periods appear in my life at infrequent intervals and always out of nowhere. This time it was probably the flu. Shall I blame it on the flu or shall I thank the flu?

Candles were important in my Roman Catholic youth. As an altar boy I would light the two candles on the altar for a regular mass and all six for a high mass. Funerals and weddings would often include a high mass so they would receive the full treatment too. But all of these were just plain white candles. The real action was in the back of the church.

When I was young, all Catholic churches had votive candles. Tiers of red glass containers held candles stationed in front of a statue of a favorite saint. A candle was lit, a prayer of intercession recited and a price paid. Most of the time the donation was monetary. A dime was the going rate.

I am not sure how much time a dime bought you. You did not get the whole candle and my guess is that you probably got to the end of the day. My hope is that the candles were not left burning over night, but they might have. After all, you are talking about linkage to the real higher ups here, so perhaps the feeling was that calamity would not be a threat.

The custom of votive candles waned in the churches, most likely hastened by insurance companies, but it did not die out completely. You can light a candle at the mall. Yes, I said the mall - at the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. For more than thirty years, a Carmelite chapel has been a part of the mall. It is now located in the basement and most mall worshipers do not know that it exists. But the faithful know. And the lovers of votive candles know.

The chapel at the mall has several arrangements of candles to choose from, all honoring different saints. Time has brought a few changes to the custom. Red glass has been replaced by red plastic. And it is no longer a real flame. An electric imitation of a flame suffices. And inflation has arrived in this sector too. It costs a dollar to push the button to light the candle. But there is a bargain on the other side of the chapel. For a smaller light, a quarter can be inserted for a coin activated flame. I love that one. The merger of the commercial and the sacred is complete.

When I was living in Arizona, I was a frequent visitor to the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona. The chapel, a cruciform of stunningly simple design perched on the red rocks, has many visitors from all over the world. It contains racks of the old red glass votive candles, but with no saints hovering nearby. A beatific head of Jesus Christ is gently lit above the altar, but most of the rest of the chapel is bare. As I sit there, and as I think about it now, the sounds, the aromas and the feelings of my youth flood back.

I held a faith in the sacred, a faith that was somehow lost along the way. Back then the faith was tied to a set of complex beliefs about what was sacred and as those beliefs untied, my faith also unraveled.

As my definition of what is sacred has changed, and my faith has returned. My faith is much different now and cornering my idea of faith is difficult, but the sacred takes me to the place of faith. And the sacred is all of the everyday and ordinary things, people and events of life.

Daily life itself is the sacred and my small votive candle reminds me. It sits on my desk as I read or write. It sometimes moves around the room with me. It reminds me of where I have been, where I am going and, most of all, where I am now. And it reminds me that I am not alone.

February 22, 1998

Color Bind

An unfamiliar twinge hit me. Maybe she had hit a bad note. Maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. No, the clear and sharp melody of her voice and her guitar had not faltered. The source of the twinge was in me and it was jealousy.

But I do not think that I was really at fault. I think that it was the rug. Yes, it must have been the rug. The rug made me do it.

The voice and guitar belonged to Dar Williams, a favorite singer songwriter of mine. She performed to a sold out, adoring audience at a church in Salem, Massachusetts. The church underwent major renovation a few years ago and it emerged glowing as a classic colonial structure. The interior was vintage New England with simple lines throughout. The walls were off-white and the trim of the quiet fluted columns and the balconies were a pale green.

During the renovation the color of the new carpet in the church became an issue. A red carpet had graced the church for as far back as anyone could remember, but the designer was recommending green. The church, a liberal democratic bunch, would put it to a vote. But who would vote. Members only? Let everyone vote! What about the children? Sure, let the kids vote too.

If you were one of the kids, would you vote for red or green? When did a child ever choose anything green? No, the kids all voted for red, but the parents had learned their decorating lessons and the green rug won a narrow victory.

It was good that green won, because it completed a beautiful design. But it was not good for me. It was the green that did me in. Green is the color of jealousy. I did not have to go to one of those Color Me Beautiful For Men courses to know that. It was like an aroma therapy result without the aroma. The color green wafted through the air and I was changed. I was instantly jealous.

Red would have been so much better for me. We all know that red stands for love. I could have embraced that emotion and joined in the love fest for Dar. Instead, I listened to her chat with the crowd about all the places she had been and the people she had met and I was jealous. After all, I have not been to as many places or met as many people. She has more than I do - more of life.

Oh, to have her life. Traveling all of the time. Going to work at eight thirty on a Saturday night with people you do not know. Singing the same songs night after night after night.

My twinge of jealousy did not last too long. I have more freedom than Dar, and I have chosen a different way of being in the world. Maybe the message is that I am yearning for more different kinds of experiences in my life, but not a different life. I have chosen the life I lead for a reason. It is mine.

As I processed this mini-crisis in my life I saw her purple dress. Purple is for passion and she wears it well. She sings of the love and pain of growing up, loving, separating and going on, with force and conviction. She is passionate about who she is and how she is in the world. A colorful lesson learned.

February 9, 1998

Feathered Friends

The Olympics have not yet embraced bird watching as an official Olympic sport, but I am sure that the day will soon come. Millions worldwide participate in this activity. Although I would not classify myself as a “bird watcher,” I enjoy watching birds. They can provide great entertainment. My bird watching is pretty much confined to my back yard. I can recognize only the plentiful birds of my region, the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and cardinals. My favorite is the bright red cardinal, the male of course. The female cardinal is just another gray bird. Everyone prefers a flash of color.

My bird watching took on an entirely new dimension when we were living in Arizona, the land of the hummingbirds. Two red feeders hung on our front deck and the hummingbirds, with dazzling colors sparkling in the sunlight, would entertain us. We learned quickly that hummingbirds are territorial. Our porch was owned by “BD,” short for Bad Dude. He waited in the nearby spruce and would attack any other bird who would dare to approach one of the feeders. The others would learn to work in pairs. One would feint an approach to the feeder and BD would chase him off over the rooftops. The other would sneak in for a feed while BD was off on his mission. This went on all day every day.

We were in a new house this Christmas and one of my gifts under the tree was a new bird feeder and a bag of sunflower seeds. Obviously, my wife was ready for the birds again. But why was this a gift to me? I enjoy watching the birds but I do not enjoy feeding the birds. That was a job which she always performed. And sure enough, after many days went by, she put up the nail, hung the feeder and filled it for the birds.

It takes the birds a few days to find a new feeder, but eventually they appeared. We sat on our sun porch as the birds carried off the seeds to devour them in the pine tree nearby. A steady stream of chickadees and nuthatches appeared day after day. Then one day I noticed that the feeder was empty. My wife is working full time and the weekend was a few days away. I thought about filling it, but I was feeling really lousy at the time and I was not in the mood to be entertained by birds. In fact, I new that I was incapable at that time of enjoying the birds, so I left the feeder empty.

As the day and night went on, somewhere in my mind I continued to recall a recent conversation with a friend. His basic philosophy is “life sucks and then you die, so life is about entertaining yourself.” I remember feeling the same way at periods in my life, but now I am in a different place. Life is not about entertaining yourself, I had argued. It is about serving others, thereby being part of the connection of the web of life.

To me, serving others meant serving people. But what about the birds? Why did they deserve less from me? Why were they there solely for my entertainment? The ground was completely snow covered. Their sources of food were diminished. So the next day I fed the birds because they needed food. I did this for them, not for me.

The amazing part is now that I feed the birds for them, I feel more connected and I get even more entertainment from their flights to the feeder. As I was watching them, I lamented that we have not attracted any cardinals. Maybe I am not ready yet. My heart has opened a crack, but there is more work to be done. Perhaps, when I am ready, the web of life will reward me with a flash of red.

February 5, 1998

Time Out

Parallel lines and parallel lives - that is all that I can think about. We talk about different people leading parallel lives. I have two friends from high school, Brian and Kevin, who went to college together, then law school, both did a judicial clerkship, joined the same law firm, were married in the same year, bought houses in the same town and then had two children, the same ages of course. Now that is what I call parallel lives.

But can one person have parallel lives? I am not talking about multiple personality disorder. I am talking about having days or periods of a life which seem to be completely different from other days and periods. You begin to wonder if you are the same person.

On a recent trip to Florida, on a Monday morning I hurtled my body in a car down Interstate 75. I was traveling from Ocala to Fort Myers, about a four and a half hour trip. I started the trip with enthusiasm but after a half hour I began to start looking at the clock to see how long I had been driving. Only a half hour! It felt like two. I was worse than a little kid asking, “Are we almost there?”

The radio had few stations out there in the middle of Florida. And the stations that I could find played lousy music. It was a gray day. Who cared? I had a lot of thinking to do. I had come to Florida to visit some relatives and during my spare time to plan the rest of my life. That is all. But I was not coming up with any answers! The next four hours were repetitive questions and an endless self-induced torturous lack of answers.

Five days later I repeated the same drive but this time headed north, traveling the same highway on a line one hundred feet parallel to Monday’s fiasco. The sun was shining. The one radio station I found was great and I was whistling and singing along. The scenery and signs along the way were interesting. My favorite one was “Construction Next 21.98 Miles.” Those people in Florida are precise.

I stopped for lunch at Reuben’s Eatery in Wesley Chapel, Florida, avoiding the chain restaurants. It did not disappoint. The decor was pizza shop minimalist, the food was great and the waitress called be “baby.” As in, serving my lunch with “There you go, baby.” I had just about become used to being called “honey” every where in Florida, but “baby” was way beyond that and it warmed my heart.

I made some other stops along the way, finding a great gift shop with schlocky Florida souvenirs. The whole trip flew by and was a great success. Why? What had changed from Monday?

The answer is that I changed. The middle three days of the week I had spent alone on a retreat. I knew that I needed some time by myself and for myself. I checked into a hotel on the harbor front and spent some time just crashing and letting my body recover from the stresses of life. But then I ventured out and explored the city on foot.

I did not do anything wildly exciting. I visited coffee shops and a museum. I walked the waterfront and watched the boats. I sat behind the third base dugout in the empty winter ballpark of the Boston Red Sox. I watched the owner of the pizza buffet give harp lessons to her four blonde little daughters behind the cash register. I lived simply and I simply lived.

I take these retreats periodically, usually about twice a year. I wish that I could say that I schedule them in advance, but they happen when I have hit the wall and I need a time out from life. The sites have varied: an inn in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a healing center in Sedona, Arizona, a Holiday Inn Express on the strip in small Payson, Arizona. The nature of the place is not important. The content of the activity need not be planned. Sometimes I read a lot and at other times I walk a lot. What I need is always provided. I somehow always get what I need.

I did not ask myself penetrating questions on my trip back up the highway, because I had discovered that the questioning was not the activity which I needed at this time in my life. For now, I needed to get back to noticing the bounty of the life all around me. My retreat brought me to that place where I needed to be.

It really was not a parallel life. It was more of a three dimensional hologram. I learned from my friend, Jack, that even if you cut a hologram in half, each half still contains the whole. The parallel lines of that interstate contained the whole, the multiple parts of me. As I drove south I contained the seeds of what I needed to change, and as I drove north, with the help of a time out, I embraced the day with a perspective that only the darker days can provide.

January 9, 1998

HCL Syndrome

I just could not stand it any more. I had been waiting for three days for the rain to end, but there was no end in sight. My body was crying to move in broad, crisp strokes and I just could not do that inside.

I set off down the street, wrapped for the weather as best I could, but how do you prepare for horizontal rain? The temperature was about forty degrees, sparing us from mountains of snow or the ice storms that were causing havoc for our northern neighbors in Maine, New Hampshire and Canada. But the wind was nasty.

My friends in Arizona will not know what I am talking about. In Arizona, they bow down in reverence to the rain. They go out and dance in it. They get so little rain that there is no bad rain.

I had no intention of dancing at four in the afternoon in the rain. I think it was still daylight, but with the low lying clouds it was hard to tell if the sun ever came up. On days like this the sky changes from black to a little less black. Some call it gray, but that is stretching the imagination.

Arizona averages three hundred and thirty days of sunshine per year. New England averages ... well ... less. I do not want to learn the real answer. It probably would be too hard to take. Lots of people around here suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) due to a deprivation of light. I do not think that I am one of them because my ups and downs seem to transcend the seasons.

Instead, I suffer from HCL Syndrome. No, that is not a condition caused by the hydrochloric acid from acid rain. I am told by the scientist in my family that the acid in rain is sulfuric acid. No, my HCL is Hibernation Claustrophobia Syndrome. It is caused by continued exposure to New England winters. The symptoms are that you hunker down and never want to go outside, thereby never communicating with others. At the same time, the walls of your home squeeze tighter and tighter because you cannot stand to be alone with only Oprah, Jerry and Montel for company.

So how do I deal with HCL? I call, email, and meet for breakfast, coffee or lunch. I try to be part of something bigger than me in which I can interact with others.

But sometimes I just do not want to do “it,” whatever “it” is. At times like this, the answer that works is one that works for a lot of things in life: “Sometimes, you just have to walk through it.” It even works for rain.

January 6, 1998

Statue of Limitations

I was trained at an early age to compare. And others would sometimes do the comparison for me. I am sure that some of the comparisons were favorable, but those are not the ones that I remember.

I could not sing as well as Kevin McGrath. I was not as handsome as Jackie Newhall. I was not as hard working as my cousin, Bobby. I did not study all of the time like my cousin, Jackie. I was not as smart as Tommy Kosnic. I was not as good at sports as my brothers.

These patterns of being “less than” were carried forward. The names above are all from grammar school, but I could give you other lists from high school, college, adult work life and social life.

Comparisons are still part of my life today. I am not as physically fit as so and so. I am not as good a writer as some newspaper columnist. I will never be able to hit a softball as well as that guy who is ten years older than me. And on, and on, and on.

Michaelangelo’s The David is an ideal which does not suffer by comparison. You never hear, “Yeah, that statue is pretty good, but did you see the one in the other room?” Or, “He was good, but have you seen the stuff by that Rodin guy?” No, The David stands alone. Were he alive, he would probably feel pretty good about himself.

I was reminded of the power of comparison when listening to sports radio. I know, it is an unlikely source of wisdom, but a nugget dropped in. Larry Johnson, a sports cartoonist, talked about having a noticeable talent for drawing as a child. His cousin was also talented and one family member told Larry that he was good, but that he would never be as good as his cousin. Instead of all of the praise which he had received, this one comment came back to him over and over through his years. The comparison turned into a limitation.

The problem comes when I allow my comparisons to limit me. Notice that all of my comparisons are now self-generated. I no longer need others to do my dirty work.

The insidious part of these comparisons is that they are all true. If truth is the measure, I am cooked. If I accept a negative comparison as a failing in myself, it becomes a limitation. Too many comparisons and too many limitations lead to paralysis.

So what is the answer here? Well, not making comparisons would help, but that is a tall order. The answer is to ask a different question. The better question is, “So what?!!!” And you have to ask it loudly. So what if someone is taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, or smarter. SO WHAT?

In grammar school I would have answered, “Sew buttons on your old man’s shirt.” That is just another way of saying, “It does not matter.” Say it loud, IT DOES NOT MATTER! The comparison is true but it does not matter because I am still me with all that I bring into the world.

I am physically fit enough to move comfortable through the world. I may not be the very best writer, but I am good enough so that others want to read me. And I can still hit the ball often enough to contribute.

That is enough. The statute of limitations on that old way of being controlled by negative comparisons has run. I am sure that The David, if he were not so limited, would smile.

January 5, 1998

Dead Ducks

I recognized the sounds but they really did not register. I had just begun a walk down my street when the guns exploded. At least that is what I surmise happened. I suppose that they did not actually explode. In fact, I know that they did not because I saw them intact later on. But the sound was loud - the source of the compression unmistakable. No one had dropped a load of lumber. No one had lit off-season fire crackers. No, these were gunshots - two of them and then no more.

So I guess the sounds did register, because I can still hear them. But at the time they did not seem like any big deal - just faraway sounds that maybe were too loud and too close.

I continued my walk on this spring-like January day - a day which softens us up for the real blows of winter to come. But even with that knowledge, it is still a liberating experience. The future feels more open and opportunity beckons.

At the bridge near the end of my street, the creek was rushing towards the ocean and hunters were on the move - two men toting guns moving purposefully in opposite directions across the marsh. One disappeared into the small creek about two hundred yards away, his head popping up from time to time. His partner was further down the road and he headed to the same spot in the creek with a large branch in tow.

I could not figure out what they were doing, but in a few short minutes it became clear. They strode back across the marsh with their rifles and their prey - two hunters, two gunshots and two dead ducks.

I sit and sob while I write this. This is not an anti-hunting diatribe. I recognize their right to hunt. I eat meat and I have eaten duck. No, the tears are not for the ducks or the hunters. The tears are for me. The tears are for the violence.

Real violence at any level rips me apart. Oh, how I wish that it were not so. But my brain and body are hard-wired for a reaction of unreasonable anxiety and depression.

It is about my childhood. There were no guns in my childhood and I have never held a gun. But there was a different kind of violence - the subtle and permitted violence of angry, anxious, frustrated and depressed adults. I am not going to go into the details. I know the details and that is enough.

What I want to do is to change the wiring. If this is how I react to just being near hunters, can you imagine how I react if I am part of an angry confrontation? I was recently the target of a verbal attack by an angry woman whom I had just met, and that put me in a tailspin for two weeks. I want this to change.

I know that the first step in change is awareness, so perhaps the hunters gave me a gift. The impact of violence on me has never been so clear. I can only hope that the cold clarity will lead to answers that today I do not possess.