Blessed Be This Day

Lord, help me encounter fully this clear sky, the warmth of this spring day, the silence. I am most myself when I praise the beauty outside myself, and in that song of praise, enter more deeply the beauty within myself. I am within the world, not like a prisoner in a bolted cell, but like a swift gazelle in an open field. Let each leap and bound be a prayer unbounded by words or rituals. Let each breath be deep and visceral, not pressed in like a vise grip and squeezed out like a gasp. Let the vase on the windowsill be hollow and translucent, so the light of the sun can shine through it. I want to taste the juice going down my throat. I want it on my tongue. I want the truth sung with the deceptive power of the receptive spirit. I want to hear it every moment, so I can bear witness to the flame that grows when I hold my shame with kindness, when I notice my blindness and shed another scale from my eyes.

The time is now. It’s enough to make a man weep. It’s enough to sweep away the cobwebs when you can, so the window is fit to see through. The rope of faith may be a narrow tightrope stretched across a canyon, but there is no soul too confined it cannot someday shine with the glory that is not mine, not yours. It’s not time that brings me into this moment. There is no time now, but too soon I know there will be again, and I will feel like I am breaking, stretched on a cross between past and future, walking that tightrope, unable to get to the center and enter my own soul, and live from there in peace. If I live in fear, there is no place, no person, and no thing that will ever satisfy me. I know this, but I do not know this in a deep and enduring way. So I’ve got to go again, so I can miss you again. I’ve got to kiss you for the first time, again and again. I want everything to feel like it has never happened before. And none of it has, or all of it has. All I will ever have is less than you could ever deserve, but make me yours anyways. My need to feel shored by you and sure of your affections, to feel reassured by your constant presence, is not the true need, but it sure is a compelling substitute.

Beloved, pierce this fiercely resistant bubble with your subtle touch. Even that is much more than I can bear. Help me bear it. Help me see you, rather than stare through you. I care more than I am capable of understanding, from the vantage point of this cold dark cave. I must cave in without excessive deflation. I must stand up without excessive inflation. This station is a point on the way.

Blessed be the day when my heart is not tied up in knots; when my mind, like this sky, is wide open with imageless vividness; and when my body feels fresh, as if I could run forever and not grow weary. Blessed be this day.

Training for and Running the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler

It could not be a more beautiful spring morning. Not a cloud in the sky, high fifties, no wind. I sit outside and listen to a single bird, a distant car, a more distant but louder plane. I hear the voices of two men working. They are listening to ‘Desperado,’ by The Eagles. Desperado, Why don’t you come to your senses? I hear a hammer bang in a nail.

I am working alone, as I prefer to do, to hear my own voice. Finally spring is starting to sing, to ring forth its birdsong praises. Winter went on and on, left occasionally but always returned. Yesterday was cold and windy; today may just be a reprieve. All we have is a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. All we have is our daily bread, this ever so slight breeze, this desire to listen to the world, to let it touch us, let it move us deeper into its embrace. Resist the impulse to narrow the focus. To long instead to be embraced by a particular other, to be surrounded by her particular scent. Long for this: to be embraced widely by the world at large, and to embrace it back, to live as if surrounded by Life, which of course I am. If I embrace the whole world, that embrace will include the one I most want to embrace, but if I embrace her alone as if bracing myself against my own aloneness, I brace myself also against the rest of the world, and tensed embrace does not soften, and isolation that involves two people is still isolation, and not union.

All winter I trained, through single digit mornings and wet snow and brutal wind. I kept lacing up the shoes, heading out the door, and getting on the road. Breathing in and out, running with a steady cadence, doing tempo runs and workouts, long runs and strides. Forty to fifty miles a week, sometimes more, mostly alone. Because I worked nights, I usually would wake up late and wouldn’t run first thing. I’d have coffee, try to wake up a little, read aloud a few psalms or poems. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart. But I wouldn’t wait long. Eventually I’d drag my heavy legs out the door, walk up the hill, do a few warm up exercises, and start to jog. It became as routine an activity as eating or sleeping or breathing. Running is hard only when first beginning. It becomes easy and natural once fitness sets in.

But no training block can continue effortlessly forever. The day-in, day-out leg-pounding  will have consequences. When I was training for the Marine Corps marathon, I started to feel my Achilles flare up in early October, four weeks before the race, after I did a tune-up half-marathon followed two days later by a hard 5 x 2 mile workout. The sore Achilles followed me all the way up to the race, but strangely enough I did not feel it at all on race day. A similar thing occurred during this training block. At the end of February, I got sick with a bad cold and cough. Friends told me to dial back the running, to go easy or rest completely, give my body a chance to heal. But it is hard to stop exercising cold turkey, the same way it is difficult to stop any pleasurable and habitual activity just like that. Exercise relieves anxiety, boosts mood, helps with sleep, and clears mental debris and brain fog. The list of benefits goes on. It simply feels good to move the body.

So I didn’t stop. I took a couple of days off, but then I ran a tune up race on the tow path about a month before the Cherry Blossom, just as I had done before the marathon. It was a cold morning, in the thirties and raining. Although I did not give an all-out effort, as there was no reason to do so, I did run at a hard 6:02 mile pace, and soon afterwards the cough became a wheezing cough that made it difficult to breathe at times, but I continued to run. The wheezing kept up, both while I was running and not, and I finally went to see a doctor, who told me I had exercise-induced asthma and gave me an inhaler. For no real reason, the week after she gave me that diagnosis, I ran 69 miles, almost ten miles a day, the most I’d ever run in a week. Even though I did not do any workouts, running that much was not a wise move. The asthma worsened, and I took the next week off and felt some improvement. After the off week there were two more weeks before the race. I ran easy most days and did two workouts, both of which I was able to finish without having an asthma-related issue. But on Sunday one week before the race, I was going to do three or four miles at my goal pace of 6 minutes a mile, and before I had even done half a mile, I had an asthma attack.

So I did not know what to expect on race day. Luckily, I had no issues and ended up running the ten-mile race in under an hour, which had been my goal. My brother Collin and one of his college friends paced me for the final two miles. At mile 8, when they joined me, I was on pace for 60 minutes and 20 seconds if I ran two 6 minute miles. I needed to average 5:50 pace for the final two miles to get under an hour, and I averaged 5:39 with their help. I wondered afterwards if I could have run close to that pace for the whole race, but I’m glad I didn’t try to do that. Instead, I started out with a 6:16 mile, a pace I was fairly confident I could hold for ten miles. When I felt good running that pace, I dropped down to around 6 minute pace for the next seven miles, before taking it up a notch for those last two. All in all, I am happy with my time. I think I am capable of running that race faster, but considering the fact that asthma slowed me down in the month leading up to the race, I did as well as I could have hoped.

I do not train in order to run the race. I train because it gives a purpose to my day. No matter what happens the rest of the day, I can go to sleep knowing I accomplished something. Though I might feel aimless for the other twenty-three hours, as if there is no definite meaning or clear purpose to my life, for the hour that I run my purpose is to keep running, and even if I run around the same two mile loop four times, literally going around and around in a circle, I do not feel metaphorically that this is the case. I am not running around my life or away from it but moving myself along with it so I can see it with fresh eyes, from a new vantage point, so it does not run me by. The run is routine and may even feel monotonous, while at the same time it frees my heart and mind from the cages I’ve locked them in. I do not feel trapped inside my body when I feel my body from inside. Only when I am immobile, out of contact with the moving body and quiet mind, do I feel mind and body as separate from each other yet thrown together into the same prison. Moving softens and relaxes the heart, frees and opens the mind, strengthens the body while simultaneously allowing it to feel a sense of ease and flow.

The wind has picked up a little now. I hear the songs of two different birds. Though the wind is cool, the sun is warm. I take off my sweatshirt.

Today I hope to see someone I care about. I care about her more than I care about running. Running can become a substitute for relationship, an escape from both the desire and the fear of intimacy, instead of a wonderful and energizing way to become intimate with one’s own body. It can be solely a method to become stronger and fitter, instead of a way also to be with oneself at one’s current level of strength and fitness. If I run wishing to be different—stronger, fitter, better—I may never make contact with how and who I am now. If I run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties of relationship, I also run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties in myself. If I run to try and rid myself of sadness, I may temporarily succeed as the endorphins kick in and my mood picks up, but the avoidance, the desire to evade or out-run my present experience, will seep into every aspect of my life. To attempt to flee the flood is to be flooded again when I return. Like Jonah I must wake up and face the town of unfaithful strangers. The town is within the beast in my own gut, and all my muffled groaning will not make those strangers disappear. They exist so long as I alternately resist and give into the strange siren song of my self-estrangement.

Today I may not see the person I hope to see. I may believe, not in the God of my understanding, but in the tragic misunderstanding that mistakes seeing and being with her, even in part, for contact with the true heart that does not need to be made whole, for it is whole already. I may despair that I will ever see her truly, in the way she deserves to be seen, the way God sees her, but that instead I will see her subjectively, screened by the dark clouds of craving and clinging, pulling toward and pushing away. Today I may want to push Life away, to say its whims do not suit me, its thorns are too many, and its blossoms too few. I may choose to pursue not the truth of my experience but anything and everything that might offer temporary relief from my pain. I may not know how to give glory to God for twenty-three hours of the day. I may not even believe it is possible. I may feel empty and lost, at a lifelong crossroads in which I make the wrong turn forever. I may feel severed from love, may feel as if I will never successfully weather life’s storms, as if shipwreck is the only truth, and rescue the only impossibility.

But as afternoon turns into evening I know I will lace up my shoes and head out the door. And for one hour my life will have a very simple purpose: to go forward, to run. Lord knows I was not put on this earth to go back into the womb. Lord who knows me, lead me out the door. Help me trust my own two feet to take me around the path, up the hill, and back home.

Come On Up To The House

I’ve been listening lately to the Tom Waits song, “Come On Up To The House.” This piece will be a reflection on it. Here is the song:

Come On Up To The House

Well, the moon is broken and the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

The sky is cracked, and so is everything else. As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Despite the fact that I can only see all that I lack, I’ve got to come on back to the house. Trust that by returning to this house I might just get the knack of living with my lack, letting it be there, not feeling attacked by it, not running away from it. Not asking always for it to be taken away. Learning to give despite my feeling that I have nothing to give. My cup runneth over, King David sings. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. But in the very preceding psalm he moans, My God, my god, why have you forsaken me? Let forsakenness live together with abundance. Get a higher unifying perspective. Climb on up to the house and from the window look down upon the lacking self, so full of longing, that finds no trace of comfort from the moon or sky. Be there in the empty room and see the broken moon shed a shaft of unbroken light across the clean wooden floor. Only a cracked sky can open up into the vast black universe of suns and stars and alternate galaxies.

All your crying don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood
You gotta come on up to the house

I can cry all my life about how I am lonely and wounded and paralyzed by self-consciousness and fear. How I am trapped in this body, how I am exiled in this world. How I cannot make myself understood. How I will never become who I am meant to be. It doesn’t do any good. I’ve got to get off that cross. Only then will I have both hands free to carry it. There is no time to be a martyr of my own self-condemnations, no purpose in playing the hapless victim of a soul-crushing world. The house is cold; we can use the wood. Come on up, carry that cross too.  Do not close the door on suffering or lock out the feeling of being locked in. Keep the door wide open: let the wind and birdsong in; let the scorpions and snakes in too.

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a-passing through
You got to come on up to the house

“The world is not my home / I’m just a-passing through,” Waits sings, followed by “You got to come on up to the house.” I am a visitor in the world who will not remain, but here I am. It is my responsibility to be here fully. I’ve got to be here, got to come on up to the house, that symbol of refuge and warmth and belonging. I need to make this earth my home, in spite of my feelings of homelessness. No feeling comes for no reason. The traveler in a foreign country is homeless, just passing through, but he does not consider his passage through a burden. He travels lightly, and as he moves he lightens his load more each day, letting go of what he does not need. He lives in a roofless house that keeps moving and feels no need to nail it down to a solid and unchanging foundation. There is no foundation that time will not shift. The traveler does not know what will come his way, when or if some great shift of consciousness will occur. He does not know if the changes in himself and in the country he travels through will bring him happiness or unhappiness. He is open and receptive; he is at home with not knowing what will come. Whatever comes to him finds him at home.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And you’re singing lead soprano in a junkman’s choir
You got to come on up to the house

It’s dark, and it’s cold, and it’s been that way for as long as you can remember. You either have too many irons in the fire or none at all. Life is too hectic, or you have nothing to do. Come on up to the house. See the lit candle in the window. When it’s dark outside, the light inside shines that much brighter. It is not that coming into the house shuts out the darkness. Bring your dark hopelessness into the house. Bring your emptiness. Bring all those desperate songs you’ve sung in all those endless tunnels, through all those cold winter nights. But it is time to sing another song. There is no point in my selling junk, making a rotten profit from my shipwrecked soul, my divided mind, my sinking heart. There is value in everything I have been through, but the value is not monetary. Remember that line about old and new bottles. Stop re-living the past and re-selling the old. Come on up to the house and explore this new place. There’s no furniture in it. The rooms are bare. There is nothing to buy or sell. The house is not for sale. Its market value has never been established. It has no room for any of my old things: no closets to keep my old shoes, no shelves to store my old clothes, no cabinets to preserve my old wine. It only has room for the space in which the new can arise.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish and short?
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy and you can’t find no port
Got to come on up to the house, yeah

Nasty weather today. It’s the first day of April, but spring is announcing her entry with dark stormy skies and cold rain. Zevon: The phone don’t ring, and the sun refuse to shine. It’s the kind of day where I feel like shutting out the world, shutting myself up with my poor poor pitiful self, with my desire for the phone to ring, and my desire to hurl it as hard as I can against the wall; with my desire for life to be sweet and beautiful and long, and my feeling that it is and always will be nasty and brutish and short. But life alone is neither sweet nor cruel. Life lives outside of apparent discrepancies, outside the house neatly divided into separate rooms. Come on up to this other house. A strong wind blew off the roof long ago. Now roots push up and trees grow through the cracks in the floor, as in the ruined castle become jungle that my brother and I explored in the homeland. Linda Gregg: The cathedral with its roof blown off / was not less godly. It was the same / plus rain and sky. Birds flew in and out / of the holes God’s fist made in the walls. Come on up to the house where the air is too fine for human distinctions. Life seems brutish when like a bull you try to ram your way through it. Life seems nasty when like the hopeless romantic both you and Joni are, you want it all to be roses and kisses and pretty lies. Life seems short when you confidently assert that death is the end and spend your life resisting, with all the held breath and chained life force that is in you, the moment you breathe your last.

There’s nothing in the world that you can do
You gotta come on up to the house
And you been whipped by the forces that are inside you
Gotta come on up to the house

There’s nothing you can do because everything you do, when you do it because you can’t bear the vacuum that comes when you don’t do it, won’t help to free you. Let it be. There’s nothing you can do, but you’ve got to come on up to the house anyways. You can’t, but you must. Come on up to that place where you can. Where grace and help can reach you. There’s nothing you can do, but you don’t have to do nothing. Sit down and write anyways. Lace up your shoes and head out the door anyways. Keep working, anyway you can. Or sit there in the desolate house and do nothing. Wait. Keep your hands at your sides and let the forces inside you compete for mastery over you. Call you a good-for-nothing. Call you worthless and loveless and lame. Call you every nasty thing they can, until you feel like you’ll never amount to anything. There’s nothing you can do. Let them whip you without resistance. They cannot harm what in you has always been safe in the house. There is a force in you deeper than those forces, powerful enough to survive all their blows, to stand straight and tall; a force that cannot be made small, that was not born to cower in shackles beneath the whip, that knows it is free. It has committed no crime.

Well, you’re high on top of your mountain of woe
Gotta come on up to the house
Well, you know you should surrender, but you can’t let it go
You gotta come on up to the house, yeah

Your mountain of woe is the wrong mountain. It’s as if you have some intuition that you need to climb up in order to see the burning valley from a higher and broader perspective, but instead of setting out for new terrain, you build a mountain atop the pain you can’t seem to leave behind, and then look down upon it proudly. You get high on how low you’ve been. This is your mountain. You built it through relentless suffering. Why should you leave what you have painstakingly built? You are the architect of your own fractured psyche. Your dissatisfaction with what you have built is only proof that you are a true creator, for as the dancer Martha Graham writes, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest.” Oh yes, you have been blessed with unrest. So why do you rest on your own quite shakable and unstable mountain of woe? There is nothing adventurous or intrepid about that. Let your unrest force you to create work that truly reflects both where you are and its unimaginable distance from where you long to be. Surrender to and make tangible contact with your dissatisfaction, learn what it has to teach you, but do not put a halo around it and call it sacred space, untouchable and inviolable. Touch and taste the sense that no mere taste of life will satisfy you deeply. Do more than sample life, as if it is a rare dish, and you the expert taste-tester, chosen for your delicate palate. Instead, surrender to what life dishes out your way. Come down off the mountain, off the mound of your self-justifications. Surrender to your feeling that there is no ground beneath your feet. Place your feet on the ground and begin to walk.