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Finding my fit – part 3 – Working out our invisible muscles

My previous two posts have been about my ongoing, lifelong journey – struggle, battle, triumph? what have you – with “fitness”.   It isn’t over; I haven’t “made it”.  And that’s actually kind of exciting, in a way – the process of learning about our bodies never ends; just as age is inevitable, there is always more we can know, understand and practice.  I also wrote about lessons that I am learning, and relearning, about how my thinking impacts not only my workouts, but my outlook in general – and the principles I can follow to be more effective in this quest.  But there are some insights that take time to root within our understanding, to be revealed in our growth – and to emerge into our awareness, gradually, like a slowly blossoming flower.  So, this last entry about my fitness journey – for now, at least – is about a realization emerging and unfurling its own petals in partnership with my workout regimens.   

For many years, I felt somehow not at home in my own body.  What on earth do I mean by that? It’s hard to explain; I believe I am not the only one who has had that experience, a kind of disassociation, or lack of cohesion.  Certainly, my body was not something I felt proud of, or confident in; like many aspects of my deeper identity, I tried to literally cover it up, instead of accepting it as is. Strangely, during this past year or so at the gym, feeling my muscles move and sensing them more fully, has given me an added awareness of my physical being that I lacked before.  From this, I began to develop an appreciation, and a kind of awe, at the complexity of our individual “selves” – physical, inside, outside, and everything in between.  Somehow, working on my body has evolved into a sort of integration of things that were not fitting together as well before; pieces of a puzzle fitting into place for a larger picture.  I began to feel a glimmer of understanding ….. but I still wasn’t grasping it, but rather – sensing it. 

As I fumbled through my workouts, seeing the calendar models physiques surrounding me whose weight loads are twice mine and more, as well as their biceps and chests – I found myself thinking about whether I was focused on the right muscles, in my workout regimen. Because my visible results weren’t meeting my expectations, I wondered – was I really on the “right” path to develop the important strengths? What was I failing to incorporate? What was I doing wrong? As I began to look beyond what my eyes saw, and what all the fitness and diet apps focused on – the “chest/back/shoulders/legs” type of workout breakdown – to what lay beneath; I realized there was something I was missing, something essential to incorporate alongside all those practices.  I needed to train what I came to consider as my invisible muscles.  

Our bodies are miraculous creations, wondrously complex, infinitely mysterious, and constantly evolving.  Just as our physical selves depend upon a structure of organs, muscles, and nerves to functions, there are networks supporting other aspects of our awareness and existence. Perhaps these invisible muscles are just as amazing, working in harmony with those we see, but remain hidden to our eyes, immeasurable. But just like our bodies, these muscles really aren’t that much different; they need stretching and challenge to gain strength, and nourishment to grow.  If we tend to one set in our training and neglect the other in our thinking and practice – we will be imbalanced, no matter what our bodies look like to those around us. 

Maybe the concept of a correlating network of invisible muscles sounds ridiculous to you – perhaps it would help of them as not physical, but, spiritual or psychic or whatever word works for you. Don’t get hung up on verbiage – rather, consider this invisible muscle structure as just operating in tandem with those in all the exercise videos. Even though no one at the gym can see these muscles, building them will have a more lasting effect, than I can develop solely by pumping iron and pulling cables.  It doesn’t mean that seeking physical health – strength, fitness, whatever term you prefer – is a waste of time.  In fact, I am coming to understand that the outside reflects (and even depends upon) the discipline of what I am embracing inside – I am building from the inside out, not just the walls of a beautiful edifice, but the “whole” of me  living within that physical structure.  Think of it as inner bodybuilding, the hidden strengths humming along silently underneath the outer facade. 

At the gym, we train our legs to carry us farther and faster; our arms to lift heavier and higher; and our chests to be stronger and broader.  The workout of the inner muscles is focused on different parts of our being; to name a few – compassion; forgiveness; grace; faith; tolerance; choosing joy; opening minds and ultimately loving hearts.  Only with these can we accomplish feats of strength like reaching out to others in need; stepping forward with conviction to stand for what is right; carrying a burden for loved ones and even strangers that has left them broken.  And, for many of us, instead of merely lifting weights, we learn to let them go – inside ourselves – through forgiveness and reconciliation.   The unseen muscles direct the efforts of our bodies to accomplish the vision of our hearts – together.   

Why do we need to exercise these internal muscles? As with the rest of the amazing bodies we are given, if unused, they become less enduring; weaker; atrophied. Yet they are just as fundamental to a whole life, if not more so.  The muscles in the workout videos depend on many hidden inner muscles to be fully realized – discipline; consistency; patience; acceptance; courage; community; hope.  These are critical to power the motivation, and the creation of our intent, to accomplish almost any goal – physical or otherwise.  Working them doesn’t come naturally but requires intent – purpose – commitment. Our inner muscles need reps too!  Qualities of character that take time to build, just like all those physical muscles don’t transform overnight.  But these muscles give us the ability to accomplish feats of strength that don’t call upon our bodies as much as our hearts. This inner “fitness” will help us push beyond obstacles and barriers to new life and joy.

I sense, but I cannot prove, that both the visible and invisible muscles are designed to work together, to be integrated. There are probably philosophies and theories about the nature of identity and “being” that address this better than I can explain. But I think, maybe, building them both involves some of the same key principles that I wrote about in my earlier entry – letting time do its work; accepting ourselves and others “as is”, while still moving towards a better reality; finding joy in where we are, right now.  One thing I am certain of – focusing solely on building the muscles others see – without also doing the “reps” on our inner muscles – would leave only an outer shell lacking the inner strength that is waiting to be birthed in us all. 

I am, ultimately, encouraged as I continue my personal quests – knowing I have not “stood still” and wanting to cheer YOU on as well!  Whatever mountains we face, sometimes seemingly alone – we are sharing common dreams and hopes, and seeking the better lives that our dreams call us towards.  I recently found this wonderful zoom music collaboration created to raise funds for the Actors Fund – featuring amazing jazz musicians on one of my favorite Nat King Cole songs.  It rings true for me – sometimes, when we are down on the ground, we need the strength – the inner AND outer muscles! – to get up, and get going, stumbling maybe, but back on track.  If you look around, you will see me cheering you on – and others – you are not alone.  I hope this brings you a little joy and encouragement, as it did me. 

So, friends, my fitness journey has broadened, and deepened, and continues to be a path of discovery and understanding on many fronts. “Working out” through this pandemic has certainly opened my eyes in unexpected ways.  I started with a dream that I could transform my body – and instead, or alongside, I am transforming my mind and heart. Realizing that I need that inner workout has become more apparent with the consistent practice of an outer workout! Somehow, in trying to recover the strength I lost – as well as gain the kind of acceptance and confidence that I never had to begin with – I am building more than just my body.  I am training and building my whole being – and discovering the wonderful possibilities that still lie ahead.  They are there for us all – waiting – taking work and effort to dig through, but well worth the quest.  Until next time, friends – keep reaching for your dreams. The journey continues, for us all.

My journey literally takes to the air for a flight across our continent. For the next chapter, whenever I can set down whatever captures my imagination, register below for free notifications, and stay safe, friends! See you next time, and thanks for stopping by!

Finding my “fit” – part 2 – keys to a new kind of success

In my last post, I committed to sharing with you the results of my renewed journey to fitness, post pandemic.  I described my results as being better than I could have hoped for or imagined.  But – the outcomes I want to share with you, the ones that matter – have nothing to do with the ones that I set out to achieve.  In the process of chasing one goal, I am realizing the reward of my efforts may never show up on any weight scale, or in the mirror. What do I mean? It comes down to a question I was asked when I took those first, tentative and hopeful pandemic steps to focus on fitness, seriously.  The question I was asked – and that we need to ask ourselves constantly – is what is my goal?  What did I want to accomplish?  Or, as I think of it now – what is “my” fit? 

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

There are endless articles on how to get fit – some even talk about the dangers of being overly focused on exercise, muscle, body fat %, dysmorphia and addiction (yes, even healthy habits can become unhealthy obsessions!).   And, there’s just as many personal definitions of what “fit” should be; just look at the endless parade of bodies on television, websites, media and advertising.  There, it seems like the world is full of idealized bodies that few of us see on a daily basis around us; fewer of us still can say we approach those measures of physical beauty.  Perhaps for you as well, those images influenced my own goals and expectations, and not always constructively.  But before any of us can find the “how” that gets us the results we seek – perhaps we need to spend some serious time asking ourselves a little less about what changes we seek, and a little more about out why we want change. 

If my goal is truly health, well – my doctor told me I have the heart of a teenage girl (now, she meant it in a nice way!).  She didn’t know my history, which I mentioned in my last post; she wasn’t my doctor when I went through one of the most difficult periods of my life. About 3 years ago, at age 60, an intestinal parasite was attacking my body from the inside out – and no one knew it. Fact is, I was kind of happy I was losing weight – but other things seemed “off”, somehow. In January 2019 I was hospitalized, and when I got out, I weighed nearly 60 pounds less than six months prior; my muscle mass was lost to dehydration and other side effects. I had to retrain my legs to walk, and in time to drive.  I remember sending a photo of me waving, to let my niece and nephew know I was doing better – and my brother told me they had cried when they saw it.  When I looked in the mirror after my first shower at home – I almost cried myself. I have come a long way since that point – but still was fundamentally unhappy with where I was still.  

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

About a year ago when I had my first opportunity to return to the gym – out of the house! – the only way to get “in” was to work with a professional trainer.  They asked me what my goal was – and I said what I thought was the best answer – to “be my best”.  The non-verbal reaction I got was, I think – this guy doesn’t know what he wants.  On the contrary – I realized that I needed to just get better.  Just get out, just get started. Essentially, I wanted to transform my body in a way that I never had been able to achieve, and I felt optimistic that this was the time, and training was the vehicle that was going to get me to the finish line – and beyond.  

Well, friends, to be honest – I am not entirely happy with the physical progress I have made to this point.  You might think looking at my photo in my previous entry that I am doing great; compared to a few years ago, yes, absolutely.  I practice being grateful for what I have received since I was wheeled out the hospital in early 2019; I know every day is a gift I might not have had.  But I am realizing that it isn’t enough to build muscle and lose fat;  more and more, I think the fitness that I want to grasp, and to evidence on the outside, has to start on the inside – with how I think about myself, and others.  As I waver between another cardio session or a box of chocolate caramels from Trader Joes – too often, the immediate self-satisfaction of something I should be avoiding has a stronger grip on my decisions than the awareness of its cost to me on this ongoing journey.  For many of us, short term happiness comes at the expense of long-term dreams. 

Over the past few months, as I have questioned my own focus and goals; looking outward on the gym members who more closely exemplify the physical perfection that I have never really even been close to achieving – I have asked myself why I haven’t gotten more results after all the efforts, the training, and yes, the whining.  And I have begun to think of myself beyond just how I “measure up” in comparison to that longed for ideal.  I don’t know how to explain it, or even describe it – but as I lift the barbell, and strain on the machine, as I grasp for just a few more second, really, on that cardio machine – I am aware that where I really need to focus is on my thinking. Thinking about my identity; who I am, really; and who I dream of becoming. 

Photo by meo on Pexels.com

It is in our thoughts, not at the gym, that we first give birth to a vision of transformation; and it is in our thoughts, our practices, that we develop the habits that lead to true “success”, however we define it.  I realize now my thoughts have been defeating me rather than setting the stage for results.  My immature expectations of some miracle transformation, of being able to walk out post COVID and see people I have not met in a year or more and have them say – wow!  I didn’t recognize you – you look amazing! – have not been met, and in a way, the dawning awareness of that truth is a greater achievement than being able to say my body fat is down x % and I can lift this much.  Because the REAL growth that will help me move ahead is in adjusting my expectations and my focus on what I will, for the moment, believe are my key takeaways from this period to date.  If I had simply transformed my body, I would never had realized that it was my mind, my spirit and my whole being that needed to “find my fit”.  

I am absolutely still studying, learning, stumbling and rising again in my practices and workouts.  I am not “giving up” – rather, supplementing or expanding the purpose of why I want to grow in strength, in self-discipline, and in character.  The physical fitness will be a side effect of a renewed awareness and acceptance of not only myself – but extending that towards others; just as my weight loss after that first half marathon was a side effect of simply wanting to achieve a goal that I had never thought possible, by putting one foot in front of the other, step by step, day by day.  In the process, there are some insights that I have gained that help me maintain balance – just as critical as tracking reps, and weights, and getting the calories counts on the elliptical. I offer you these lessons – obvious as though they may seem, yet oh so difficult to embrace and stand on – hoping perhaps they will help you refine your own vision and goals into something that is the rocket fuel for your quest to success. 

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

Discover your “Flow” – Make time your ally, your friend, your secret weapon. You can’t get lasting results without being consistent – by “showing up” over time, regularly, and sticking with it.  I look at it as every day I am planting seeds. It takes a long time for seeds to take root and grow, sometimes many years; I think of the old “Johnny Appleseed” cartoon from Disney, how this one man wandering through the emerging American states and giving seeds to others left a heritage that he never saw come to fruition. Whatever your age or physical shape, or “invisible” muscle fitness – change will only come if you move ahead. I try to remember to focus not on “where are the results” TODAY,  but rather, did I take the action that I needed to today.   I need to let taking the steps be my first priority – the results will come, whatever they are or are not. They certainly won’t come at all if I don’t keep on keeping on.  Plant the seeds of the life you want tomorrow – many tomorrows away – each and every day.    

Change your vocabulary – Reconsider what YOU consider to be success and failure – not someone else. Setting a standard for what you “should be” able to accomplish by looking at the people around you is POINTLESS and a WASTE OF TIME.  Success is a process, not a destination; failure is our coach, not our nemesis. I need to be open to learning; to not assume what I am doing is right, but study, share, try the new; dare to stumble and look awkward because, hey, that’s just how it works.  When we were children, it was easier – we didn’t have these facades of pride to maintain, we built those up and now they box us in – but if we break through, we can embrace the new, and discover, and create, something better.  Failure happens; success without failure is a myth, move on knowing that the next step is what matters now.  Embrace the rhythm and romance of the dance between striving, falling, and rising again, renewed. 

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Be your own cheerleader. All the coaching and training or encouragement from others cannot supplant what we must provide for ourselves;  beating yourself up for all the things you failed to do, to be, is kind of like being offered the “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly and saying “no, I think I would rather be unhappy”.  You have to be 100 percent on your side – no books, no apps or trainer or videos or diet can replace your choice to believe in your own potential. I didn’t grow up in a family of cheerleaders – most of us did not – so, perhaps like Genie in Aladdin, we all need to just build an army of inner voices saying “Yes I can” to find that boost.  So grab the pom poms and start your own squad!  Be your own torch bearer in your daily Olympic opening ceremony – hear those trumpets, listen to the cheers, and rejoice in what you can do. Only you are the judges, you hold up those numbers on cards, and you hand out the medals. 

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

See the dream, not the chasm. The gap between where you are and where you wish to be has a strong gravity, and an endless hunger; if you let it, it will suck you in, you will wallow in darkness and discouragement, and you will never be able to enjoy the progress you made to date – or to build on it and move ahead.  It’s so easy to fall in; to see something you cannot get beyond. Instead, see the next step, and take it in faith. Let that step be enough! Some days just let it be enough to celebrate being where you are, knowing every day offers a new starting line, and holding on to certainty you can move ahead. Goals and dreams are wonderful but be realistic and celebrate every victory (just not with ice cream).  If there was not a gap between where you are and where you want to be, we would never learn to stretch, to gain strength, to get up and keep going.  The bridge between you and your destination is built one step at a time.

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

Find joy in yourself as you are today.  No, this does not contradict the power of dreams; but yearning only for a different tomorrow robs you of celebrating the imperfection of today.  Guess what? You are ALWAYS going to have something that isn’t what you wish it to be. And no matter how you grow or what you achieve, there will always be something beckoning beyond.  Your dreams and goals should be a beacon for hope, inspiring you to reach forward – not a burden of guilt and shame that buries you in a bleak despair. Whatever “fit” means for you, this journey does not have a finish line; you are building a way of life, not to “arrive” but to travel on. This is not the Olympics, or even high school PE; there is no clock timer at the end of your run reporting “the final result”.  We only, ever, have the now, blended from what we were given and that which we created; tomorrow offers the yield from those seeds we plant today;  and yesterday is just an old photo album with memories, some good, some bad, but none as alive as the moment that we are in right NOW.  Look for, discover, and share today’s joys. 

Photo by Bekka Mongeau on Pexels.com

Those are the lessons I am learning each day as I get in the car and drive to the gym, and struggle through my workout, going home exhausted.  It’s funny, perhaps, and I have no idea how many other people might have felt this way – but I never really felt “at home” in my body.  Surely not in those junior high PE classes; decades later, still, not in the gym where bodybuilders seemingly have achieved Adonis physiques and Hercules strength.  I hate to admit it, but Olive Oil might beat me at arm wrestling!  Still, somehow, this process of exercising has helped me sense a greater integration between body, mind and spirit.  A weaving together as I accept the limits of who I am, while still reaching to achieve what I can.  That scared, hurting little boy is finding new wings, and you can too.   

I am still “finding my fit” – and I hope my wandering thoughts give you some encouragement to keep looking for your own.  It’s worth the quest – even if at 63 I am beyond being able to achieve the outward results that my quest initially saw as the goal. It’s kind of exciting to realize the true treasures awaiting me will not be visible to the eye but will be of far greater value.  I will talk about that a little bit more in my next post.  In the meantime – I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, and many thereafter. Growing in mind, spirit, and body – together. Perhaps I will see you there – let’s give each other a boost.  Keep on keeping on, friends. 

Finding my fit part 1 – Reaching for a dream ….

I am old enough to remember seeing the then famous, and ridiculed, “90 pound weakling” ads in my childhood comic books.  I kind of remember being skinny as a young boy, but after puberty – and all the associated issues – I ballooned up.   Still, for many like me, ads like those of Charles Atlas showing a muscular man awakened a sense in me that I was – inadequate. 

I was not the only boy in the 60’s who saw these ads and began to feel there was something wrong with me …..

Our culture has only exaggerated those messages over the subsequent decades – now, there are so many standards for “measuring up” that the media touts incessantly.   I certainly absorbed it all – being a typical “picked last” guy for the PE class teams, uncoordinated, and ignorant.  Everything about my life marked me as not belonging – I had no father to teach me how to play games, I turned to my intellect for achievement – it serve me well financially, and in employment – but I always felt like the outsider.  For the most part, those around me reinforced that belief.  In time, I knew my attraction to other boys was not mainstream either – so my sense of not fitting in, not measuring up, only intensified.  

Skip ahead from my teens to my late 40s – I was severely overweight, used food to deal with my emotional needs, and still deeply closeted.  One of the ways I escaped reality, besides food, was seeking happiness at the happiest place on earth – Disneyland.  I had many wonderful memories there – and when I learned that they were going to have their very first half marathon in 2006, 15 years ago, I decided to start training.  I figured if I couldn’t lose weight by trying to lose weight, maybe I could do it as a side effect by just taking on the challenge! 

At Disneyland, December 2005 – singing in the annual Candlelight Processional.

And I needed something to focus on – because my world was crumbling, in a way.  By the end of 2006 my mother and two other close family members had passed; a few months later, my father joined them.  I worked with a trainer, who endlessly encouraged me to just go a little longer every week – it was a goal, a task I could do, gradually.  I didn’t have to set any records – and I thought about my family cheering me on, there on the sidelines, in spirit.  I crossed the finish line in October 2006, after losing 40 pounds, and a lot of tears.  I followed with the half marathon in 2007 and 2008, and several others – but with age, the physical strain reached a point of more cost and less benefit, so I gave that up.  Like any major goal that takes time and effort – it built my confidence.  It showed me I could do something new, something no one expected – maybe not perfectly, but well enough. 

I have written before how it was the loss of that family dynamic that in time led me to realize I needed to accept myself, and find a way to live, with being gay, and being out.  That process too was a different kind of challenge – one that continues.  I continued to have periods of success with my fitness and weight, and was doing pretty well – until a very unexpected and uncommon health issue emerged and gradually put me into the hospital at age 60, and when I got out, I was emaciated and weak.  My priority was just regaining the ability to walk, and getting back to being able to live – it was frightening and traumatic.  Without the love of my husband, family and friends, I would not have made it.  So it was a little more than 2 years ago that I decided having time to enjoy life was more important than my career, and I ended my professional pursuits, looking forward to enjoying time in my new home, with my husband, building new friendships, travel – all those goals we tell ourselves we can look forward too. 

Photo by Total Shape on Pexels.com

Well, of course … it was just a few months after that we started hearing about Wuhan and strange reports of infectious disease, and before you know it – all those doors were shut for everyone, not just me.  I had already been slowly returning to working out at a local gym, with mixed results – I felt inadequate, barely able to lift the barbell itself, and there were lingering health concerns as well to take into consideration.  As an early birthday gift, I had ordered some adjustable home weights to supplement my gym visits, which was helpful in hindsight as they soon became unavailable as millions of us learned we could not continue to attend gyms or work out together.   Little did we know, of course, how long that would continue.  

Working out on the back patio with intermittent breaks for gardening was my only outdoor escape for several months.  I thought I was doing pretty well, researching workouts online – there are zillions of workout videos and websites with advice, often contradictory, and variations galore.  I have never felt at ease with my body – a kind of innate awkwardness that I wasn’t doing things “right” – but I was at least regular about it.  I learned, sadly, my gym that I had enjoyed prior to all these events went out of business permanently, like so many small companies.  When the larger regional chain gym announced in August that they could now permit trainers to work with clients – at a hefty price – outdoors on the sidewalk, I was one of the first to sign up. 

What I imagined I could become during COVID …..
Photo by Anush Gorak on Pexels.com

It was weird, to say the least.  I couldn’t go into the gym; my trainer, who I picked solely because he was the one on site when I signed up, would bring out the weights or bench or whatever for each exercise and we would be on the sidewalk where cars, bicyclists and pedestrians (including the occasional “unhoused” as they say here in SF) would glance over and wonder what on earth we were doing there.  But it was an outlet, one I desperately needed, and a confidence booster in a way.  Eventually, the state and city relaxed their restrictions, and put in more equipment on the parking lot, fenced and covered; then, allowed members to work without trainers – so more bodies competing for the equipment – and finally, indoor workouts with masks and sanitizers.  I was truly impressed with how the gym management functioned through all these changes, and the employees were nearly always positive and responsive, when everyone was dealing with the same stress and uncertainties, constant change, and upheaval.  I previously wrote about how I actually received my vaccination because of the kindness of a stranger at the gym.  Finally, just a few weeks ago – masks became history, and going to the gym is not really all that different from what it was two years ago, although trailing evidence lingers.  

I had signed up for training – and spent a healthy sum – in part as a kind of therapy during the isolation of pandemic.  But I also had, admittedly, a dream – maybe even more of a fantasy. We need dreams to cope with darkness; I am a goal driven individual, and I needed something to work towards – to “redeem” this era, to come out of with some result, something concrete to show for the time lost, in a way.  As the gym reopened, and even just during the months where we were limited to outdoor equipment for 50 minutes, waiting in line – I had seen the men who were like so many of the others over the years.  Men with defined bodies, muscles to spare – all the hallmarks that my own peculiar history had engraved in my thinking represented the masculine ideal.  

Actually, I never feel like whoever that is on the left – but he would fit right in at my gym!

As a lonely, shame filled and isolated teen who never really grew out of that mindset – they were everything I aspired to be. Seeing them was partly inspirational – but to a greater degree, discouraging.  Another reminder of my “differentness”, in a way. And I wanted to come out of this experience looking just like them.  It may be a stereotype that gay men are obsessed with physical appearance, but that doesn’t make it false – and culturally the message is still, regardless of sexuality, that your appeal to others and your worth is often perceived as related to your physical appearance – first impressions are based on visual data, of course! 

Would it surprise you to read that things did not go as planned?  In my next post, I will share the results to date.  In a way, they were better than I could have hoped for or imagined, as I began moving on from dream to reality.  

The New NormL, December 2020 – not the end of the story! To be continued …….

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Seeking directions

Friends, I want to apologize right off the bat.  This is not a “well written” blog post (if any of mine are, but this certainly is not).  It lacks structure and focus; it has no theme; it is more for me, than for anyone reading it. But my feelings are jumbled, my focus blurred, my questions drown out the answers that used to be enough; and if it has no worth to anyone but myself, well – no one paid for this blog but me. So, I added this paragraph at the beginning, just to say – I am not editing this. I will not screen my feelings, my wandering mind, or my questioning heart.  This is where I am today; read on. 

Summer is opening its doors, two months since my last post – about my relief, and gratitude, at getting a COVID vaccine, due to the kindness of a stranger.  Miraculously, perhaps even incredulously, in those few weeks demand for vaccines has dropped;  state regulations have been withdrawn; infection rates are down, while some cling to a kind of hope, I guess, that the Delta variant will come and wipe out more, justifying their suspicions of the end of restrictions.  Sadly, I have friends that seem to almost want COVID to resurge to justify their fears and precautions, and to enable them to gleefully declare they were right, and we got what we deserved.  Perhaps we will. 

In many groceries and other stores I visit, there is a mix of folks with masks, and those without – it is kind of eerie.  The same with restaurants, the gym, and I suspect bars and theaters, although I haven’t visited either lately.  Many just want it to be “over” – I saw a headline implying that, like the AIDS pandemic, this will be with us for years to come, but people just don’t want to make it their focus anymore.  And, the finger pointing and blame shifting will be with us interminably as well, I think. 

Regrettably, I haven’t been very disciplined about writing, instead, kind of swimming in thought and reflection, mostly alone. I do talk with friends, my husband, and family, a bit – but somehow, it’s like being in a big indoor pool at night, alone, just feeling the water envelop you, the quiet, the darkness.  Perhaps it makes the shadows bigger and the silence deeper.   Perhaps it is not the best place to go swimming right now, that sea of uncertainty – but I think avoiding it is worse.  To pretend we are all just going to shake off what happened, collectively and individually, is to both fail to grasp the opportunity to find and create new meaning – and, to embrace denial and avoidance and just pretend.   Pretend is comforting – but it is not life. 

I talked with my husband last weekend about how he felt COVID had changed him, or us; I don’t know that I can provide any better answer than he, or someone else.  But I do feel changed, somehow, and if I am changed, so are my relationships, and my heart.  So I have been quiet here on “The New NormL” because ….. Norm L is feeling a little bit unanchored as I survey the waters around me, like a sea captain of old, but lacking the compass and the knowledge of the stars to guide him. 

I imagine you, like me, had some very painful experiences during the past 18 months or so.  For me, the repercussions, the reverberations of those moments, those feelings, those encounters, are still echoing, perhaps a little quieter but not silent, in my thoughts, my feelings.  Returning to the seafaring analogy, I am trying to get my bearings.  I got knocked off my feet here and there, and as I write, I think – I need to find a way to “shake it off”.  To say, yes, those things happened, and I didn’t like them, and I can’t do a thing about it.  As the British bobby in the old movies used to say, “Move along, move along – nothing to see here”.  And the crowd may move on … but I am still trying to get my feet back on the ground, and walk again. 

When I started this blog, early in the confinement imposed by COVID, it was a response to a longer held calling in my heart – a sense that, somehow, by writing, my experiences could maybe add some hope or insight to someone else’s life – the way I wish someone could have reached out to me during the years my heart cried alone.  I honestly know only a few of the people who read my blog – I am not even sure where the other followers come from, why they read it or follow it – I don’t hear from them, mostly.  And they are all few;  so when I take the time to write, I wonder if I am using my time well, or wasting it.  I wonder, too, if I am just spilling my guts, so to speak, for a kind of self therapy as I try to make sense of my existence, and sift through all the promises and certainties made to me by “those in the know” over the decades, not always finding many that I can still cling to for reassurance; for comfort.  

I have thought often about what I would like to write here – but I always end up thinking it won’t mean anything to anyone.  I don’t start out trying to be negative; perhaps it is a function of the lingering effects of isolation, but I think it goes deeper than that.  I have written about how I struggled to come to terms with a lifetime of alienation and shame because of my “differentness” – there are lots of people with those feelings, not just repressed gay men of the baby boom generation.   When I share my heart, I feel exposed;  yet, as I often tell friends, and sometimes strangers, I do believe that the struggles we each have offer the most for others to learn from. 

In many cases, I think about my ongoing exploration of what I term spiritual understanding and growth.  I readily admit greater minds than mind over centuries and throughout many cultures have done more on that front than I could ever offer;  but I often reflect on what I was taught, and what I know to be true, and how they differ.  I ponder what prayer is about; I question the tendency that many people of faith have to avoid questions, to want certainty, and their – our – willingness to cling to just about anything rather than open the door a crack to the possibility that the answers they embrace might dissolve and they would be left with nothing to hold on to.  That fear has driven much oppression and ugliness, and still does – not just in the form of traditional religion, but in new forms, technological battlefields and socio political shouting matches. 

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to drive a few hundred miles and see the faces, and touch the hands, and hug quietly, friends and family who I left behind, physically, when I moved north.  The drive seemed longer; I was alone, my husband of nearly 3 years now stayed behind to tend to things at home while I reconnected.  We had spent a great deal of time together, with occasional interactions with others, mostly very limited; in a few weeks, we will travel together on a farther journey by air, to see his family on the other side of the continent, and then he will have a similar trip away while I tend to the cats demands here. 

I thought about writing a column on that trip, called something like “Lessons from old men” – because I spoke with several during the visit, and I have to admit, I am becoming a bit of one myself. I knew that this was possibly the last time I might see any one of the loved ones I was hoping to visit; but some, more than others, have been facing health issues and uncertainty. Yet as I talked with them, rather than the stories they shared or the feelings that they expressed, I was struck more by the silences.  The words they did not say; the questions I did not ask; somehow, it was the silences that brought us closer together, perhaps for the final time.  That which is unspoken is perhaps more deeply felt, and more rarely sensed – but most powerful.

I think the disruption, the chaos that COVID created for so many of us – really, all of us worldwide, but everyone has their own story – has been hellish.  Many of us are still dealing with a kind of shock, and fear – it was drilled into us incessantly, and as we learn where that fear was justified – and where it was not – resentment boils up for some.  Who to blame? Who lied? Who can we trust?  We want safety and certainty – but perhaps the most valuable lesson might be that those are illusory.  As the “Serenity prayer” of many twelve step recovery groups states – we need to be able to accept what we cannot change, know what we can change, and have the courage and power to focus on the latter while giving up on the former – even though we may hate that truth. 

I’ve lived through more than a decade of disruption in my life, career wise, relationship wise, spiritually, economically and endured a severe health crisis.  Yes, Covid, but also another – dating back more than 4 years now, and at its most terrible point almost 30 months ago.  I have been gifted at the same time with undeserved love, tolerance, encouragement and support – by my husband, my family, and friends – and strangers;  I have also been kicked down by people who claim to care about me, and experienced selfishness on almost unbelievable scales by those who would label me as the one to blame.  In have been beaten down and lifted up, I have had dreams and seen them crumble, I have opened my heart and have been wounded, and I have asked questions without finding answers.  Join the club, as many might say. 

I am sure that many brilliant minds and more loving hearts have written inspiring words that shake the clouds themselves from the sky; that songs have been sung and legends told about heroes facing peril, seeming doom, and rising above.  I think often of the versus from the Bible, in all its translations – that among the spiritual gifts are many to be desired, but the most desirable, the most precious, the most sought after are faith, hope and love.  These words, documented as written to an early group of believers in what was then a radical and heretic belief in a deliverer who most never met in person, by a convert to that belief who previously had prosecuted and hunted down its proselytes, were trying to communicate that within a body of believers – a church, a family of people who were coming together in faith – the most important things were not certain abilities, or powers, or strengths.  Much is written about faith; even more about love; but perhaps we need to think a bit more about hope. 

I am not sure what my own definition of hope might be;  it would not be traditional, as of course my strange way of looking at life doesn’t ever take the simple route.  Hope is, perhaps, a force – no, not like star wars.  A force we channel, that we let ourselves step into, that we tie a string to like a kite and as it soars it carries us along, rather than we anchoring it to our gravity.  Does that make hope a fantasy?  Perhaps, or at least certainly there is that risk.  But without hope, can we really have faith -whether in a loving power beyond our knowledge, or in another human walking alongside us?   Without hope, can we really know, share, or receive love?  

Where do we get hope?  Some would say, from a belief in ourselves.  From acceptance, from a certainty that “we can do it”.   I have heard that is how some cultures see Americans – as confident, self-sufficient, and building through teamwork.  Well, friends, that is not me, I have to look for hope not in myself – not solely, anyway, but somehow, along with faith, and clinging to love, as coming from beyond me, and yet awaiting me, like a laughing breeze swaying the blossoms in my window box, crying – come play.  Come be my friend, come dance in the sun.  Yes, the moon will be back tonight, the rain and wind will return as well – but the sun remains still, and we dance.  

I am looking for hope; I am trying to offer hope to others, with a smile, with a hug, with a kiss, or other small kindnesses, even to strangers. Hope is not to be kept to oneself, but to flow.  My hope needs an anchor outside of myself, just like a pipe needs a connection to a water supplier to be functional when the knob is turned to on.  I am not the water; but I can share it, when I have it.  But if I don’t have it, I don’t seek it, I don’t conserve it and treat it with respect – there is nothing to share. 

I realize that much of what I turned to in the past for hope – much of what I defined as faith, and more of what I saw as love – were not what they promised.  Surely, in a few cases, I was deliberately deceived, but not the majority.   What I was shown as truth, was the best that others had to share, and the best I could find, then.   Today …. I need to be open to a better way.  I can cling to the old – or I can at least open my heart, mind, spirit and body to the possibility that what I held as certain was only an illusion;  and that my ability and willingness to ask questions without knowing answers, without being the one sitting in class waiting to be called on to show I am right.  

The elders I saw – some in person, some only in shadows of times past and images on paper seen again – they know a truth that they cannot share with me, yet. May I suggest that you avoid anyone who claims to have the certainty to know answers that they cannot be certain are true?  I am not old by some standards, but ancient by others; I have lived a longer life than most statistically will know, not always happily, and sometimes clumsily and perhaps somewhat wasted as well.  But, like you out there, strangers perhaps reading my meandering thoughts, I do not know how many days are left.  And so now that the shadow of Covid, not vanquished but perhaps pushed farther away, does not loom so large as to darken all that I see – I need to find that compass.  I need to read those stars and guide my ship to shore.  And there, to dance with the breeze, and sing with the flowers, in the sun.  Will you join me there? I will save a place for you.  I think there is room for all of us.  Let’s go looking – I will see you along the path. 

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Small mercies, great grace, and choices to be made

It was only slightly more than a year ago, March 2020 when our city, our state, and our nation entered a period of what many of us grew quickly tired of hearing was “an abundance of caution”.  Certainly, the steps taken since helped curb the spread of disease and death – sadly, some naysayers came to regret their misplaced beliefs. And almost as certainly, some of the steps we took as individuals, communities and nations were if not unnecessary, ineffective – based on tentative, evolving knowledge that still is far from final.  What worked, what didn’t – time will sort this out, perhaps.  But we all were frustrated and afraid for a very long time – particularly those who lost family and friends forever or came close to an abrupt end of their own lives.  And today, although some indicators here where I live are very encouraging, there are still vast populations of our planet that are struggling under waves of death, loss, and destruction that will not soon disappear.  We have collectively gone through trauma. 

When the vaccines started to be made available early in 2021, first to select populations then slowly widening circles of eligibility, my husband – who fell into a more at-risk category – was able to get his shots, and I was very grateful, and content to wait my “turn”.  Stories began to reach us both – rumors in some cases, personal experiences in others.  Friends with the same insurance coverage but less “eligible” than me had been contacted to receive their first shots; I received multiple, well intended but questionable recommendations to basically go somewhere and simply lie about my employment or status, as others had successfully done.  And, there were individuals in our circle of loved ones who were more at risk than me, still waiting.  You, as well, probably were faced with ethical choices – assuming you wanted to get the shots – and were in an area where there was even any supply. 

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During the year or so since we first entered varying stages of “shutdown isolation”, I had taken refuge by focusing somewhat on fitness, working out on a limited basis initially at home on the back patio with a few hand weights, then enrolling in a “trainer” session program at a  gym where the equipment was brought out on the sidewalk for individual use.  This blossomed over time into a tent workout area in the gym parking lot, then eventually limited access inside the gym itself.  There were friends who spoke to me, and others who did not speak aloud but their perspective was clear – I was taking unnecessary, foolish risks.  I was being selfish and egotistical.  Like so many issues in what seems like an eternity, our differences become exaggerated; chasms, not cracks, start to divide us. For me, going to the gym – albeit not as effectively as I had hoped (yet) – was a way to direct my energy toward something positive, safely. 

One of countless lines in our world, this is the one I stood in, with tentative Hope.

The San Francisco powers that be had set up a mass vaccination program at a local convention center, and someone at the gym mentioned that they knew of two members who had gone to the “stand by line”, who, like me, were not in an eligible category but “walked right in” with little wait and got their shots.  My frustrations at hearing from friends who were less eligible but vaccinated, other “I know the facts more than you” contacts who proclaimed I could go anywhere for a shot, and the encouragement to simply go lie was overwhelming.  It was a horrible circumstance, made worse by all the voices around me claiming conflicting facts and, in a sense, cheering their own status at the expense of the many eligible but frustrated people trying to book appointments, or simply even find a location with supply. The chorus seemed to be saying – hey, dummy, why don’t you have your shots yet? It was incessant; I could not complain for being healthy; but I decided to take a chance. 

On a drizzly cold March Sunday morning, when the “time change” took effect, I left early for downtown, discovered some nearby street parking (a rarity here), and walked to Moscone center, finding a long line growing longer by the minute even before the doors opened.  After an extensive wait through the line snaking around the building and ultimately through the doors – I was rejected.  I was ineligible; they no longer were allowing folks like me to wait for unclaimed doses.  The next day, the window of eligibility was widening to an even greater population statewide – but, still excluding me.  I felt defeated – I did not blame the outdated information, there was no one at fault – it was simply not my time.  That did not stop me from indulging in comfort food which had no effect on protecting me from COVID but sure was tasty, and also completely contradictory to my fitness efforts.  As I walked to my car, I was greeted by more texts, more advice, more insisting that I could go anywhere now to get a shot, everyone was doing it, etc. etc. etc.   I decided to drop my efforts and just hunker down, waiting (as the app proclaims) “my turn”, and finding some solace in the hope that my more at risk friends and essential workers were getting treated. 

I was very stressed out – it affected my husband and others around me.  It was not healthy to try to find a way to stay healthy, in this case.  I gave it a lot of thought.  It was a few days later before I was at the gym the same day as my contact who had encouraged me to attempt my failed efforts – I sat in the car, awaiting my “entry window” by appointment, and just said a prayer, honestly.  Prayer has different meanings for most everyone – I don’t know what I would like, but there are times that I believe it is something that brings me to a kind of peace, and acceptance.  Sitting outside the gym, I just acknowledged that there was nothing I could do; that I would go on, and wait, and let go of my expectations and efforts, as well as the frustrations I felt towards all the conflicting advisors telling me what I was doing wrong; just set it all aside, live my life daily, and trust. 

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As I have written before, I know my upbringing, with elements of religion and some seed of faith – I differentiate between the two – is uniquely personal, and not everyone looks at the events of life and sees anything other than chance in the outcomes.  Nevertheless, if I had not taken the time that morning to silently pray, accept and let go of the vaccine monkey on my back – or, if I had remained in the car, sulking, for another minute – I would not have walked up to the counter and met a stranger.  My friend who had encouraged me to “line up” was chatting with another member as I signed in – I could hear him asking how work was going, and how they had not seen one another in months.  But it was the strangers comment that he was working 12- and 14-hour days, and that they were treating thousands daily, that let me realize this stranger was one of hundreds who worked at the vaccination center I had been turned away from days before.  Then, unexpectedly, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey Norm – how did your visit to Moscone go this weekend”?  Truly without regret, or intent, I just shared that I had been turned away, and that they were no longer offering “unclaimed” vaccines, especially now that a broader eligible population was competing for appointments and shots – and that I was, of course, not yet among them, but it was ok.  

There are moments of grace in our world.  It’s not a word you hear on the news; rarely are there stories about mercy, and miracles. We don’t always recognize these “gifts” – we don’t always see when someone acts out of kindness, we are blinded by the mountains of things demanding our attention – too busy to “see the invisible” surrounding us everywhere.  But for me, this moment was undeniably a miracle, one not sought or expected.  The stranger turned to me and said – how old are you?  I shared that my 63rd birthday was just a few days away, and that I was ok waiting – I could not complain that I am healthy, or that my needs took priority over others. To me, this was just a kind inquiry from one of the many hundreds of staff and volunteers here, and millions worldwide.  But he was not just one of the many – I honestly don’t know what his role was, or his background – but he asked me if I would like an appointment that day; he could add my name to the list, he had a few daily and I could just come around later and give my name at the door, and get my first shot. 

I am not ashamed to admit I nearly broke down crying.  This was a gift, and only moments after I had let go of my demands, my needs, and decided to just walk on in faith as best I could. 

This “heart of San Francisco” stands in the lobby of the vaccination center

That afternoon, my husband dropped me off – there was no line at the doors this time, and as he drove away, I read the handwritten sign – no more “non appointment” shots today.  For a moment I feared my trip was again in vain – but the stranger had said just give my name.  I explained to the attendant at the door who pulled out the list of additions – my name was not to be found.  I asked for follow up and showed the text I had received confirming my appointment – which led to a period of waiting, in silence, alone.  I once again had to just let go. A few moments later, a friendly administrator came by – trying to call my “gym angel” – to no avail. 

We do not always get what we want.  Certainly, we do not always get what we deserve – whether because of good deeds or bad.  It is a myth, I think, to believe that everything is for a reason – we have choices.  My choice, daily, mostly unconscious, is how I conduct myself with others; what I hold dear; how I show love to my husband and family; how I treat strangers.  I fail miserably a great deal of the time, and there are plenty who can attest to that.  But it is in those choices I grow.  I can’t pick the outcomes, only the kind of person I want to be, and try to take little steps toward that goal. 

Who is to say why things ‘work out”, or don’t?  Or even what is the best outcome – we just want to make what we can of our lives.  In my case, on that day – as the administrator rechecked her records, she did find my name, and my smile shone as I rode the escalator down to a crowded hall where hundreds, like me, waited for their time with a nurse, answered some routine questions, and then, felt a little prick.  A tiny sensation that somehow opened the doors to hope more than they were that morning.  As I ascended the stairs to the crowded exits, a familiar face greeted me – if only in cardboard cutout form.  And I walked into the daylight.  Two weeks later, as scheduled, I received my second shot; and, as I write, I am just past the two week “waiting period”.  I don’t physically feel different, or healthier; but I do feel an immeasurable sense of relief.  I held off posting on Facebook, knowing how frustrated I had felt and that thousands like me here were still waiting their turn, while others sat by their loved ones hoping they would recover; my gratitude was humbled because I had received a gift, undeservedly – perhaps that is a fitting definition for grace, in a way. 

Hey, Tony, thanks a bunch!! Glad you stopped by to say hi – but – no mask??

Today, almost a month later, I know there are many more still waiting for their chance to be in that line, or others like it.  Watching the news this week with my husband,  we silently viewed the drone footage of mass cremations outdoors in India; and we know there are many who still do not want to take the shot, or wear the mask.  We are not “through” with COVID by any means – and our communities, country, and planet will not I think ever fully put all this behind them.  Nor should they; we must grow through this. But somehow, I feel I am at a point of turning in my life.  All the time the past year plus that I spent fearful of losing my husband, other loved ones who did become ill, or leaving him and them without me in their lives – there was a lot of sleepless nights, of questioning what my priorities were, and reassessing what I believe.  There were moments of conflict with others that were exacerbated by our joint tensions; changes in relationships; realizations that things that seemed so very important before perhaps don’t really matter as much as I thought they did. 

I am changed.  When I registered this blog in late 2019, Wuhan was not even in the news; it was not until we were isolated in our home that I began posting, just over a year ago.  I have made 34 posts … I have a few friends that sometimes encourage me; I have followers who are strangers.  Someone asked me recently what my blog was about; perhaps if I had registered “The new Normal”.com I would be discovered, but that was not my goal.  I wanted to share, something undefinable – my growth; my discoveries, my questions and my uncertainties.  My humanity – in hopes that someone who might be in the place once was would find some “light” from my path for their own.  Instead, my sharing has been, in a way, a healing process.  We all need healing today, and we are not going to find it on our own.  We are all going through a process of renewal and discovery, separately and together, stumbling, holding one another up; I cannot pretend that I have more answers today, but somehow, I have peace that as I walk – as we all walk the path ahead, wherever it leads – I will find the steps. 

From the Nat King Cole classic – “Nature boy” – my education continues.

Friends, I hope you too will find your way, and reach out to those near you. For me, this is a period of deep reassessment – including my hopes for this blog. A journey, as I titled it, toward “authenticity”. I hope to see you again soon, and that in some way, for some one out there who happens upon my little thoughtful spot – you too, find and share hope. And, grace. Thank you to the “angels” who helped me get my vaccine – and were part of this lesson learned – I had to let go, to take hold – to have my hands open to receive, not reaching, only waiting. They probably will never see these words, and I probably would not know their faces again – but Alice, Bobby, Clarissa, Daniel, Winnie and all those healthcare workers reaching out around the world – you are my angels. See you soon, friends.

Free, for a limited time … after all, isn’t all time limited? Thanks for stopping by!

Look, up in the sky ….

Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!”  And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”.  I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision,  et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy.  But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there –  starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco. 

I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent.   It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club.   I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit.  It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between. 

I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more.   My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”.   The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”.    That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter. 

My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads.  This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park.  No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind.  Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond. 

And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see?  After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this.  As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort.  Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice.   Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices.   At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope;  but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well. 

I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!).  I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief.  As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers.  I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.  

I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do.  We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are.  Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate,  as in this season what Christians call “Easter”,  Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days –  there are vast differences in beliefs.  For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty.  I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?”   It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters.  I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.

Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history.  More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land.  Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there).  We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam.  We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby.  Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control.  The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries. 

As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt.  The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well.  It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”;  our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find.  I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love.  That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me.  It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does.   I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through.  Carries me, still.  Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope. 

I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another.  These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.  

In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together.  I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails.  It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain.  And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth –  we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together.  If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …  

Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life.  We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty.  But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers.  For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.

The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception.  I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it.  I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand.  One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine.  I hope to see you there, and smile, again.    

Today’s tales of two cities

“Sheltering in place” …. These words will forever be tied to this moment in time.  Just like “out of an abundance of caution”, and “follow the science” – gentle ways of framing circumstances we would rather avoid, and we wish, somehow, we could erase. Roughly a year after those pandemic clouds gathered fully over San Francisco, skies are beginning, at last, to brighten a little bit here in what poet George Sterling first named the “cool, grey city of love. During this year our lives have been restrained, by choice and by force, to varying degrees – so, when I saw that the good folks at City Guides San Francisco were resuming walking tours through neighborhoods and time, I signed up for a Sunday morning excursion – “The Russian Hill Steps”.  And, yes … there were a LOT of steps, as you will see!

Long before the Gold Rush that transformed our city, well before statehood, Russia was seriously moving to colonize western North America. Nearly 300 years ago Russian Emperor Peter the Great directed an effort to explore the area, rich in promise for the critical fur trade; it was Russian Orthodox missionaries who first worked to evangelize the Alaska Territory.  Russia established Fort Ross was established near Bodega Bay in 1812.   During those years, a cemetery for Russian Sailors was established in the area of this tour, hence the name Russian Hill. But the Spanish military presence in the Presidio and the related mission predated the Russian presence in what was then called Yerba Buena, and well outlasted it. Eventually giving in to political upheaval and other factors, Russia pulled back its hoped-for claims in Northern America; wouldn’t that have been an alternate reality!

My own history here is much shorter, of course – a relative newbie, I did not have the opportunity to visit San Francisco until well after my youth, even though I group up in Inland Southern California.  But …. I had seen the world-famous steep curves in another world landmark – the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland!   Back in the 50’s, and then updated as the years passed, Tomorrowland featured “America the Beautiful” in AMAZING “Circle vision” – I remember clearly standing in line for a VERY long time to be crowded into a “standing room only” viewing room with screens surrounding the viewers, shot by multiple cameras, including what was, for that time, a “virtual” drive through the streets of San Francisco, as you can see…..

This is I believe the “Original” version from the 50’s, but just the “main screen” view; the “San Francisco” footage begins at about 13:45.
This is the “In the theater” experience, as I remember it from the 60’s/70’s. Now this is how I first saw “Lombard street”, beginning at about 16:40.

But I would not actually “see” San Francisco until the 80’s, after my college years; my first trip to San Francisco as an adult was … well, truly adult.  And embarrassingly brief.  Yes, tender audience, I was a hick from the sticks in the big city – where “gay” was not an insult, but an invitation – as I drove through for just a few hours after completing college.  It was the early 80’s, before internet, so I only knew of the notorious offerings here through rumors, the “Advocate” at my college library, and a surreptitiously obtained mail-order visitor publication called the “Damron Guide. Suffice it to say that visit was memorable and involved another kind of theater.  But as I have shared previously, my journey to self-acceptance was much longer than a drive up north, I could never have foreseen what time has unfolded in my life.

A panorama shot of the city and bay from our first stop

So the City Guide walking tours are an excellent way to explore all the nooks and crannies of my new home. I bravely set out, masked, that Sunday (the BEST day for free parking in much of the city!) and joined a handful of others on the tour; some residents, some visitors.  In fact, even our tour guide was relatively new to City Guides – he himself had only taken the tour shortly before COVID hit. Nevertheless, he was well versed in the names and dates and stories of the houses we passed, and their residents – the architects, poets, bohemians, the wealthy and the (in their time, at least) scandalous.  They had no idea their personal lives would endure and be shared for years thereafter.  Normally, I would take notes on the buildings and the history – I chose to forego that to take in the sights I share with you today, but you can find all that elsewhere, friends – In fact, here is one example.

In addition to the homes, vistas, and stories, there was one segment of the walk that I was eager to experience. Even though I was not an avid reader, I was well aware of a somewhat controversial in its time PBS program based on a series of books which started as a local newspaper column and become a world phenomenon – “Tales of the City”, by Armistead Maupin.  I actually never watched the program when it aired, but today’s walking tour included a stroll along this neighborhood’s Macondray Lane, which he designated as Barbary Lane in his semi fictional narratives.  Interestingly, several people on the tour had never heard of him, or the show – another piece of evidence that what is at one-point revolutionary in time becomes perhaps if not forgotten, less present in our culture.  

This stroll through Macondray Lane is the “reverse” direction of the one I enjoyed.

If we think of our lives as a stroll through time, there are moments when paths cross that would never be able to guess, or plan – just, enjoy. One Saturday, about a month after our wedding, my new husband and I were planning to drive up north to a special book signing.  That morning, as I left the famous “Daddy’s Barbershop” in the Castro, I spotted a couple walking a dog near my parked car, and I tentatively approached.  The older gentleman smiled as I sheepishly inquired – “By chance, are you the author whose signing I will be driving to this evening?”  And, it was – Mr. Armistead Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner, who lived nearby, and who graciously took this picture with me.  That evening, after a long drive out of town for a signing of his autobiography “Logical Family”,  Bob and I got to take another photo with him; not long after, like others, they moved from San Francisco, this “cool grey city of love”.  But I am reminded of his words –

“The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else”.

Armistead Maupin

I cannot say how many hundred of stairs I walked on this tour; looking at the pictures of my stroll through these winding passages and eras, I began to consider – what do we remember of history? What do we preserve?  Who judges what is worth commemorating – or no longer deserving of respect?  This is in the news nearly every day now – whether it is about adding and removing memorials (by consensus, edict or force), eliminating publications, erasing music from performance – or lifting up heroes that, at one time, were considered far less worthy of recognition in their day.  As they say, history belongs to those who write it.  For me, the letters and diaries of my grandparents, parents and others are the only record that exists of their lives, and I feel a kind of burden to somehow carry their lives on rather than let them fade.  For many of us, photo albums in print form are a thing of the past – and when we are gone, most of our digital images will not be preserved, recognized, or remembered.   

But our history today, however personal, and the lives and history of our family and loved ones, is worth preserving, and sharing. Perhaps it might help to think of it as creating a walking tour through the neighborhood of our lives, reflecting on lessons learned that we can share, love we can treasure, and hope we can gift to others that await us around the next bend. Especially in this very passage of change, we are living our own, unique “tales of the city”.  Wherever your home finds you today, as with San Francisco, it will not be entirely the same after someone decides that the vaccine programs have succeeded, and someone else decides we know longer to hear daily reports on statistics.  There will be the city before – and the city after.  Two cities, in a way – connected forever by this passage we still travel through, hesitatingly, unsure at times which way to take.  Although Dickens was speaking literally in a different sense when he wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859, his words about that moment in time resonate for me now – 

As I write, after my husband, many family and some friends have received one or two shots of the COVID vaccine, mine lies ahead, time to be determined.  We are all in this moment awaiting, with somewhat held breath, for doors to open, friends to embrace, moments to be together after long parting.  Walking through Russian hill, once a cemetery for forgotten names, now steeped in history with more being created, and my own little memories – how remarkable it is to consider the winding road that brought me here, and lies ahead.  The phrases which I used to open this blog will someday be only in history books, but others will take their place; new challenges, new discoveries, new life.  Wherever your path leads you next, carry your dreams with you today, friends, and make the memories, and save them – every day, every moment, counts. I will hopefully see you around the next corner.

“It is times like these when we face such as enemy as AIDS, we need to draw on some of our past positive philosophies, like it is always darkest before the dawn.  In getting our courage together, we might feel a need to go back, and think of possibly better times.  And sometimes, it makes us wonder ….”  

An art mystery, a heart’s history

Well, friends, it’s our first February of Covid – more than 11 months since our initial shutdown here in San Francisco. Of course, this is the month of Valentine’s candy and cards, so I wanted to share some discoveries about love echoing in faded words and forgotten names. But this is not your Hallmark card valentine – so it will take a while to get to the heart of our tale; over a century, in fact.  In “real time”, not “reading time”!  Come to think of it, it has taken me 20 years to write these words.

Aunt Monie was the crazy relative.  Of course, that’s probably what some of my family say about me – they have a point.  But Aunt Monie – technically my great aunt, being my paternal grandmothers younger sister – she did it with gusto.  The youngest of 3 surviving sisters, born in Nogales, Arizona in 1902, where her father worked with Santa Fe.  Not long after, the Grey family moved to Needles, California and her oldest sister Dora was one of the famous “Harvey Girls” there.   

Crazy Aunt Monie as I remember her, under her portrait

Monie was the only one of the 3 sisters that I have actual memories of – my grandmother Bela, the middle sister, passed when I was quite young, and there are fragments of moments, feelings really, that remain – probably inspired by the handful of photos.  But Monie lived into my young adulthood – showing up occasionally, sometimes without notice, and always full of life.  Perhaps a bit like “Auntie Mame” but only popping into my life every 5 years or so. 

She was a personal care nurse, and a single mother – having married 3 times – and from what everyone says, being very comfortable in intimate relationships (short term and long) well into her 70s.  At one point in her life, she operated a kind of roadhouse/bar in the Fortana/Rialto area of Southern California’s “Inland Empire” with an illegal “one armed bandit” slot machine in the back room.  And yes, she loved to drink! 

Monie and her second husband had a son – Bill – who I saw rarely.  I knew from comments my Dad and stepmother made that he was different- not realizing what that meant, as a teen in the 70’s – Bill was a homosexual (this was before “gay” was in common use, and the other words were far less polite).  I just knew that everything was a little different on those few occasions we visited – and, in time, both Monie and Bill moved to Hawaii, so I didn’t see them for several years. 

Bill Rennie as a child in California

Then, shortly after I graduated college and began my professional career, I was selected for an assignment in Hawaii.  I had actually never flown in a plane until I got out of college.  My assignment was on Maui, so I spent a few days ahead in Oahu – my only visit there, now nearly 40 years ago.  As it turned out, that remains my most vivid memory of our visits before her passing at age 93.  Monie drove me around, meeting a friend who was well known in the indigenous people community and famous for her ukulele singing, but her son Bill was not there – and I was a bit relieved.  By this time I knew he was “gay” – and so was I – but there was nothing I wanted to do with him, or that part of myself. 

Of course, as I have shared in other posts, life had a plan other than the one I sought to cling to – and in the process of exploring my family history, I learned Bill, “Cousin Bill” as my Dad called him, had actually moved to Palm Springs from Hawaii.  Anxious to quiz him about some of the family lore, I convinced my stepmother to drive out to see him – more than 30 years after my last encounter with him as a teen.  Over the 4-5 years since that visit, I learned a lot about him and my family – and in time, I became involved in his care. Sadly, my father, bitter from disappointing memories of encounters with his aunt and cousin over the years, refused my request to bring Bill to visit for Thanksgiving 2005. He pass in October 2006, preceded that year by my mother and stepmother, and followed the following year by my father.  It was a time of loss and learning, slowly, to journey through grief. 

As I dealt with Bill’s estate and personal effects, being greatly helped by his neighbors Jim and Niles who cared so lovingly for his needs in his last years, there were many possessions in his ramshackle mobile home and storage unit.  He had lived a flamboyant life, and was for many years a very sought after hairdresser, in California and Hawaii – even taking care of Betty Ford’s styling when she and the President would visit Honolulu.  One painting he had always told me had been a gift to his mother, Monie – an oil painting, of what he said was the old harbor there before the hotels starting getting tall.  In fact, supposedly this was the very site of the hotel made famous in the TV credits for “Hawaii Five O” where the camera zoomed in on Jack Lord weekly to that famous theme music. 

You can see the hotel, and the yacht club, in this famous TV opening.

Bill, and Monie before him, had a reputation with my Dad and family of … exaggerating, to be polite.  Dad called her Phony Aunt Monie! So it didn’t entirely surprise me when I looked into the history of that hotel – the Illikai – opened in 1964. Back then, it was the first “high rise” hotel in Honolulu –  Which wouldn’t really be relevant, except – he had said this was the boat harbor, before the skyline was altered by construction.  and as near as I can determine this would have been the Ala Wai yacht harbor, also the site of the Waikiki yacht club.  But ….. the mystery arises from inscription on the back of this painting.  

It’s faded, understandably – partly in English, partly in French.  On one side, the words are printed “The Yatch (sp) Club”, Honolulu, September 60 and the artists name – seemingly, Giordani.  The style of signature matches that on the lower left of the oil painting itself, but for years I had been unable to find any reference to an artist by that name.  On the left reverse of the frame, in French – “A ma tres cheri ami Mona, en hommage et sincere amitie j’ai de tout coeur”.   Now my junior high spanish was 50 years ago, but with slight uncertainties about the handwriting, that basically says – To my dear friend Mona, in homage to the singer friendship I carry in my heart”.   Signed, seemingly, as on the front – Giordany? Or … Giordani;  and dated May 19th, 1965, Honolulu Hawaii.   

Or is it September 66?  Hard to say, but by then, the artist would have to be painting from memory if in fact this was near the site of that famous Jack Lord hotel shot seen for many years.  The Yacht club still exists – but is not in proximity to the hotel – and so, it would seem, the story about this being the the “site” of that hotel before construction is, like perhaps many of Bill’s stories … exaggerated.  

Still it is, I think, a lovely painting – of a time gone by – and I had always been curious about the identity of the artist.  Not being a student of art personally, I cannot say that it is particularly remarkable, although certainly well beyond anything I could ever produce.  And having seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow where seemingly common items turn out to be worth untold amounts of riches, well, one has dreams.  But I could never be sure of the spelling of the name – not knowing if it was a first, last, or other kind of signature.  My google searches turned up nothing;  when I recently took it to get reframed, as it is, other than photos and letters, the last piece of the legacy of Monie and Bill that I have – I decided to try again to see if, somehow, this work of art was by a well known artist. 

But my initial 2021 web searches did not turn up any results that seemed to match any artist working in Hawaii in that era;  and there were many names with life spans that did not correlate.  That is, until I decided to search images and … eureka.  A photo of a painting by an Aldo Giordani, with the same unmistakeable signature and similar style.  Was he famous? Was I going to be rich?  How to find out more?  I realized my subscription to Newspapers.com might shed some light, having used it to find out some amazing, sometimes shocking, stories about family events – and, indeed, there were some articles that finally gave me some insight into the artist behind the painting. 

Aldo was born in 1914, from a family of generations of artists, including his father, Italo Giordani.  According to one article from the Austin Texas American Statesman in 1974, he studied at the Eclose des Beaux Arts in Paris, working in both oil and sculpture.  He traveled extensively, and according to that same article (pictured – screen shot) he was captured by French forces while serving in the Italian military in Algeria – and served 3 years in prison.  From there, somehow, he made his way to Polynesia; then to Hawaii;  from there, at some point after his dedication to Monie,  to Canada, Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  A 1972 Billings Montana article quotes him as saying, explaining that he never married – “I can’t deny I’m attracted by women.  But I look for something besides the physical, the sex. I look in a woman’s face, her eyes.  That tells much. Women are very emotional”.   Ah, Italians.  Apparently, he also loved to cook, and hosted parties and receptions with international cuisine from his many travels.   But after the several articles from all these locations, Aldo seems to have, like so many, trailed off in time.  I found a reference to him passing in 1980, and another to a lawsuit in Taos for unknown cause, as well as a notice to auction off an unpaid storage unit in Hawaii.  

1972 article about another Giordani artwork – I wonder if it still is on display?

So, like Monie, and to a degree Bill, Aldo was a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a showman, and perhaps a scoundrel – a colorful man with colorful art, who enjoyed life.  What their story was together, is lost.  You may well ask why I would put time into researching something so seemingly obscure and meaningless, but as I have written in the past – there is something about these moments in time, these artifacts of mostly forgotten lives, that speaks to something more timeless.  Love, intimacy, yearning;  hope, inspiration and the quiet corners of our hearts that we sometimes turn off the lights and shut the doors to, forgetting they existed.  Monie touched many lives with her caring for patients, Bill with his lovers, friends, and styling conquests, Aldo and his apparently profuse creations of art, now probably mostly gone.  I cannot hear the ocean when I see this painting, but I remember Monie and Bill, as do my brothers – and probably few, if any, others.  But I feel the colors, of the caked oil strokes, and of their energy, their laughter and their love.  

Bill was always gracious, loving – and mostly, outrageous. He was, himself.

Whether we all pass into something once we leave this earth, the reality is, most of us, our lives and our longings – will fade and be forgotten.  Walk through any old cemetery and reflect on the struggles and triumphs of all those lives, now for the ages, and the immediacy of our seemingly insurmountable crises will possibly feel a little less weighty.  I am glad I have this painting and hope one of my nieces or nephews will one day ask me about it, and when the time comes, hang in in their home.  Like many who will pass without children, I wonder what they will remember of me.  For you, dear readers – if any – think about, in this digital age when so many pictures and films, thoughts and hopes, songs and tears have no long term physical existence – what pieces of your life will survive your time on this earth?  And, answering that question – what can each of us do with the days ahead, whose number is unknown, whose opportunities to feel the sun and the ocean breeze, or the touch of a loved ones hand, will not always be ours to treasure anew, only to remember. 

Mahalo, Aldo Giordani; Aloha, Monie and Bill – until we meet again. I treasure your love, and am reminded the love we receive is mean not to hold within our hearts forever, but to give anew.

Thanks for visiting, friends. You all stay safe, and keep on keeping on.

Root removal and garden renewal

If you were to look at my facebook feed, or visit any of my homes over the years, starting with my childhood in Southern California reaching now to the chillier climes of the San Francisco bay – you would discover that I always worked to transform whatever spot of soil I tended into something a little more green, a bit more colorful. To create a little spot of refuge that would bring joy, peace, and a sense that here, nature is welcome, and appreciated. I find being in a quiet garden a spiritual experience; digging my fingers into the soil, planting something alive and nurturing it hopefully into bloom, giving the birds and bees a place to feel welcome; it gently reminds me I am a part of something larger, and yet I can still accept that, like all things, my creation is only temporary.

In our SF home – where I have lived a little more than 3 years, but my husband has been for more than a quarter century – over the years, occasionally some trees have become too large, and they were removed.  When I first moved here, the small strip of soil immediately adjacent to the front of the house had 4 large olive trees so overgrown I did not even know there was cement under them;  climbing a ladder to try to trim them from reaching to block out the front windows on the main floor was a joint effort.   Eventually, we decided to have them removed – but, as was the practice in earlier such attempts, the gardener engaged simply cut them back, and cut them down to the ground, where the stumps remained.

In another small spot, immediately by the first few of 30 steps leading from the street to our front porch, a much older stump protrudes from the small rectangle where my efforts to get other plants to prosper have been futile.  In fact, my planting of climbing roses where the olive trees had been failed so miserably I had to remove them, as well – they, of course, left no residue behind.  Soon, I will begin to search for a resource here who will, hopefully at a somewhat reasonable price for this expensive city, come and grind the stumps down, at least far enough to free up some space for new growth. While those roots, lifeless as they may be, remain – new growth will still struggle to make it their own.

I remember as a child of perhaps 6 going with my older brother to the city park in our little town of Corona, California more than 55 years ago, and picking up an acorn from the great oak trees there – I am sure, now, it looks very different but hope some of those trees still stand.  I planted it in our little back yard of that simple 60’s tract home … and it grew, slowly, at first just a little few branches.  I grew, also … into high school, and college, and my first job, moving away. In that 20 years and more, the seedling became a mighty tree, so large it created problems with power lines and neighbors, and had to be removed.  In the years after my mother aged, and became unable to be at home alone, I returned; as she spent her final years in a nursing home, I began the process of renewing  that home, where she, as a disabled parent, raised us with limited income and was unable to keep things in repair.  It gave me a sense of wholeness to create a garden, and to bring new life and comfort to the house itself, so that someone who would follow would be happy to call it their own.

The oak sleeps in the acorn, the bird waits in the egg, and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities … James Allen

Regretfully, roots take a great deal of effort to truly remove – particularly if they are dead, and run deep.  Sometimes, as with our olive trees, shoots emerge from the roots, life struggling to survive, the cells programmed to reproduce and reach for the sun. Cutting off that which was seen resolved the visual issue … but left stumps and roots that I cannot, on my own, remove.   As I have spent time the past few weeks of the new year, trying to use a saw to cut through that deadwood, trying to dig somehow into roots that run at least 15 feet below where the plant emerged from the surface, down below the stone foundation of our home that withstood the 1906 earthquake – I am defeated.  But nothing new can truly thrive there – the opportunity for beauty to bloom anew cannot be fulfilled while those stumps, those roots, dead as they be, take up the limited space that new life needs to come forth.

The same is, of course, true of our hearts.  My heart.  There are still deep roots, as I am reminded constantly by my struggle to channel my emotions positively, to heal the deeper gashes in my soul from the trees that no one can see but which were planted in my spirit from the earliest years of life.   We all have gardens in our hearts; I have always loved the symbolism of “The Secret Garden” children’s story, but also – Oscar Wilde’s “The selfish giant”.  In the first story, a young orphan taken in by a distant relative discovers a walled garden shut off for years, where, by entering and letting in light, love grows within that new family to replace the pain that they had tried to shut out behind locked gates and overgrown shrubs.  In “The selfish giant”,  the title figure returned from visiting his ogre friend to find the local children had been playing in his garden; he angrily shuts it off, walling it away from the.  One day, he finds a young boy visiting there, and his heart begins to open, until … the events of the story are best left for you to discover, it is freely available online.

In my postings of 2020, my first year of writing here, I shared about some of the events of my life, very personal events, writing even of things I had not told to many of my closest friends and family.  I titled the blog “my journey towards authenticity” – because that journey is really only begun.  Discovering who we are – especially when, for whatever reason, we have been somehow denied that opportunity, afraid to accept ourselves, and traded the seeming approval of others for embracing what cries out in our own spirits – it is a process that takes a lifetime, much like a great oak takes decades to grow from that tiny acorn I held in my hand as a child.  My shortcomings and foibles constantly remind me there are roots running deep in me still that I have not yet removed – or time, perhaps, has not yet wrought its power to dissolve sufficiently to erase their presence.  I recognize they may always be with me – but in acknowledging they linger, present but unseen, I can at least embrace honesty.  As Pinocchio repeatedly proved, one cannot become real without honesty.

In the past two weeks, I have been graced with the opportunity to join an online book discussion with strangers.  They are all men;  they are all people who, for whatever reason, learned in the course of their lives that, like me, they were different – they had feelings others did not share, and in many cases that they were taught to deny, or fight, or erase.  And, like me perhaps, some erased their own ability to grow, to become the great trees they were born to be in spirit – denying those around them the shade of their caring in times of heat, or the song of birds nesting in the branches above.

Perhaps, like these roots in our garden I cannot dig out without help, we each need help from others to uncover those deeply buried residues in our hearts – they block the ground of our spirit from new life, and perhaps even sprout up in new ways, refusing to be buried forever.  Today, I shared with the group, as we discussed how the factors in our own, unique histories and lives and backgrounds had common threads, that I was learning – slowly, painfully, and unfortunately often at cost to those in my life who loved me, some now gone – only by coming to continue to grow into accepting myself as I am, like you – flawed, imperfect, selfish at times, discouraged and afraid at others – only by believing that others can in fact love us, as we are NOW, can we begin to be the channel for a greater love through us to those around us.   

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

So, another year has begun, and the first month nearly over – change is happening around us. Soon, here in the northern hemisphere, it will be spring … new life will start to emerge from the seeds. Daily, we plant seeds in our hearts, from what we read, what we hear from others, what we listen for in the quiet of the night when the wind and darkness wakes us and the distractions that keep us occupied during the day are not as present in our consciousness. And daily, over the years, we reap the fruit of what we planted before. I am working on my own root removal, in both my gardens. Whatever season it may be – a time to sow, and a time to reap – we can stroll in the garden of our hearts, ask what we see there, and begin to dig, and plant anew.

Your comments and sharing are welcome … hope to see you again, friend.

Two Strangers, Two Christmases

I’ve written more than once about how the power of storytelling, especially through film in my own case, can open our eyes to truths we somehow just didn’t see before.  Certainly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of sharing our own true life experiences – honestly, openly in the hopes that others might find encouragement as they pursue their own unique journeys. But, works of fiction, whether in literature, film or other art forms also can bring inspiration – and have done that for me many times in life.  As this will be posted in time for Christmas 2020 – a year without peer, I dare say – my thoughts drift towards two such tales that have very different origins, yet whose primary characters perhaps more in common than one might expect at first glance. 

Charles Dickens created many great works, but for many his most loved is “A Christmas Carol” first published in 1843.  In 2017, a lovely film (not of course entirely factual) gave some insight into how it was created – “The Man who Invented Christmas”, with Christopher Plummer as the Scrooge of Dicken’s creative process. Endless versions and variations have and will continue to be enjoyed long after this year;  the most vivid in my own memory was a one man performance by Patrick Stewart at Cal Tech decades ago complete with multiple characterizations, sound effects and a sense of energy and discovery that he brought to new life. (The full audio performance is available on iTunes, I believe).  

I will never forget seeing this incredible one man performance by Patrick Stewart!

In film, for me, 1970’s “Scrooge” which I first saw in the little Corona theater at age 12 is still a part of my annual celebrations. The musical starring Albert Finney was in many ways a triumph of casting, art, and song – yet it did not initially register with audiences who were more interested in the new cinema of MASH and five easy pieces than a dancing Ebenezer. 

 I bought the soundtrack LP long before VHS made home viewing possible – listening to the songs by Leslie Bricusse, including my personal favorite over the opening credits – a chorus of joy and encouragement.  

Look around about you and see what a world of wonder this world can be! 

It was probably a few years later, in my teens, when (thanks to a gift from my Dad and stepmother of a small black and white tv) that I began to see older films at home, after school.  The ABC affiliate had a 90 minute afternoon movie time slot at 330 – and one day I turned on a black and white film that was spread over two days.  Later, I would see it first “screened” in its entirety at college – then, eventually in theaters in California, and even one December matinee in London, for it’s 50thanniversary.  At first I was mystified why the audience there didn’t seem to love it as much – but, it is a distinctly “American” narrative, made by a director and star who had worked together previously, won Oscars, and both served in World War 2, one as a pilot, the other making films that still are highly regarded for their honest portrayal of that epic struggle.  When they returned home to eventual peacetime, the director wanted to finance his own production – based on a very short story the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had included in a 1943 Christmas card to friends – “The Greatest Gift”.  He expanded on the concept and pooled together some of the best talents in Hollywood, including his prior star actor, and built a small town for the location filming.   Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t a big hit, from an independent production company; and in time, without the licensing and copyright being maintained, the film fell into “public domain”, like the chopped up airing I saw in the 70’s on that little tv.  That circumstance led in time to it being aired so many times, more people saw it, and came to love it – becoming the classic it is today. 

“It’s a Wonderful life” portrayed an America that endured through the Spanish Flu, depression, and World War 2, through the life of its protagonist, George Bailey, in the small town of Bedford Falls. In the years since then, I cannot say how many times, or with how many friends, I have “visited” the Bailey’s and that little town; last year, my husband and I enjoyed a live performance of the score with the film by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, which was unforgettable. 

The film “finale” as performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus

 I’ve had the chance to meet Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu”, the little girl in the film; collected memorabilia (and given it away!), and decorated my tree and now our home with reminders of that story.  It is such a perfectly detailed story, of a time, a place, a family and a set of circumstances – challenges, failures, love, disappointment, loss and hope.  But, mostly to me, the message was – your life matters.  Even if you cannot achieve your dreams; even if you never become what you hoped, or others expected – you can make a difference in this world, one that is uniquely yours – one that is irreplaceable. In my lonely teens, escaping to a world where the promise of redemption was realized at Christmas was one way to hope for a better future. And there was one that I could not then see, but was waiting for me. 

In 2006, I gifted Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu”) this British 50th anniversary poster!

Much has changed in my life in the now 50 years since I sat in that little local cinema for Scrooge; and the decades since I first watched George Bailey jump off a bridge to end his life on that little black and white screen.   Of course, both stories have happy endings – life doesn’t always offer those, or at least at times the possibility of happy endings seems very difficult to imagine.  Perhaps Christmas 2020 is one of those times for many more than usual, in a most unusual year, bleakness dimming the lights on our homes and in our hearts. 

So as our TV plays the familiar voice of Clarence, George, Mary (and, my special friend Bert the Cop) on Amazon Prime while write; and tomorrow, as I join my husband to again enjoy the dancing, singing cast of Scrooge (with Alec Guinness as Marley!), I have a lot of feelings come up.  If you’ve read anything I have blogged about this year, you KNOW I share my feelings – because I hope that reaches others, and does some good, perhaps – a little George Bailey in me trying to get out.  And I realize – Old Ebenezer and George have a lot in common. 

For my bunny lover friends (and I know at least one!) – here is a special treat!

History – not just fiction – tells us that most cultures have representatives of that part of life which we cannot understand, whether we consider it the afterlife, some representative of eternity, or other spiritual beings that exist outside our ability to measure, but – somehow, we sense, or want to sense, their existence.   Perhaps as some suggest this is just our desire to understand what is beyond our comprehension; for others, these beliefs become deeper truths, very personal truths.  Centuries of faiths with various representatives of such spirits have uncounted stories which most of us will never read or otherwise enter our thinking.  The 3 spirits of Christmas that visit Ebenezer, and the angel hoping to “earn his wings” that answers the prayers reaching heaven as George considers ending his life in despair, are such beings.  Outside forces that enter the lives of two very different men, both on Christmas eve, in very different times and places. 

If you ever wanted to visit “Bedford Falls” – here is one option …… I hope to one day!

Ebenezer, of course, was a selfish, bitter man, hated by many;  Dickens suggests that the spirits visit him because Marley hopes that will save his only friend in life from a similar, doomed fate.  George, a beloved husband, father and citizen who, through his character as much as through his deeds, touched the lives of so many in his small town, had reached a place of hopelessness; through an act of selfishness by Mr. Potter, a “modern day” Ebenezer of post war America, he stumbles onto a bridge hoping to end the life he sees as wasted as the only way to escape his own, undeserved fate.  The spirits help Scrooge, and Clarence helps George, see his life (and the lives of others around them) from a new perspective – and to realize that they want to embrace life anew.    

Many of us know what despair feels like.  Right now, many of our friends and family may be suffering through it, perhaps not with our awareness; trying to find hope.  In other posts, I have talked about some of those periods in my life; thinking back about those who helped me, who either reached out in love or responded to my own seeking of a new way to move ahead, they were the “spirits” helping me to see there was a promise of a better life, perhaps not obvious or easy, but possible.  I remember a counselor sharing with me about the concept of “liminality” – not something I am qualified to explain, but I feel applies in some way to the experience of both our Christmas Eve characters, and perhaps you and I as well. 

The ending you always wanted to see, but Frank Capra left out!

If you look online, where of course there are MANY interpretations of just about any philosophical concept, you can explore perspectives (here is one) on liminality.  I recall that from a purely anthropological sense, the “liminal” state is that “in between” – the middle stage of a “rite of passage”, or a period of growth and becoming.   In religious traditions, similar concepts exist – a stage from separation, between beginnings and the future.  For our two (eventual) heroes, Eb and George – Christmas Eve became a liminal space, in a way – a place between what was, and what could be.  Where spirits could speak to them, and minds, hearts and souls could be open to new understanding.  

I wish I was learned enough, and literate enough, to bring home some insight, awareness to share from these musings with you; all I find I am able to do is to open the door, or perhaps a small window.  To say – or ask – what are the lessons that I learn, that you can learn (or share with someone you love who needs that more than ever at this very instant) – to be open to this moment, now.  To know there is a possible waiting for discovery; a Christmas morn where the presents are not wrapped in paper, but in a renewed spirit that awakens and cries, just like a child at birth, and embraces the future, in faith.  These are OUR unexpected turning points.

To my “Angels” and guiding spirits – THANK YOU for lifting my heart!!

For now, I can only, as always, share what little I have to offer – the thought comes, “to play my drum” for you, perhaps, on this Christmas.  To remember the words of fictional characters that still represent real truths – from George Bailey, his prayer of despair – 

Answers to prayer may not come in the form we expect ……

And from Tiny Tim – not at the triumphant end of the tale, but during the “Christmas Present” where his family struggles with little food, and he is living what the Spirit shows Scrooge is his final Christmas – despite all their travails, faith –

By the immortal Norman Rockwell

Wherever you are today – know, there is hope.  For you – and for you to share.  Until next time – Merry Christmas, and wishes that the New Year brings new joys, discoveries – and renewal, for us all. 

Christmas 2019 – SF Symphony Hall – God Bless us, Everyone!
Thank YOU for reading my blog, as I finish 2020 – see you NEXT YEAR!!!

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