On gratitude and space pirates

In about three hours, I will pretend to be a space pirate with a group of strangers. Tomorrow, another group of strangers and I will dare to ask the question: What if the United Nations was attacked by axe-juggling clowns in the midst of a diplomatic crisis? It will be the culmination of some of the hardest personal work I’ve done in quite some time.

 

This is one of those stories that probably suffers from context, but somehow it seems necessary anyway, so…here goes.

 

A few weeks back, a group of friends and family decided that I ought to take a trip to one of the nerdiest events on the planet, GenCon (it’s a gaming convention – role-playing games, board games, that sort of thing). I’ve been a number of times, but not for the past 3 years or so. Money has been tighter than usual this year for a few different reasons, so I wasn’t going to be able to make it. The aforementioned friends and family had other plans, though, and contributed to what I am calling the “Jason Is A Giant Nerd Foundation,” collecting enough (way more than enough, in fact) money for me to be able to take the time off of work and run off to the glamorous city of Indianapolis for 4 days. It’s seriously just about the nicest thing that’s ever been done for me, and the fact that it came from a whole group of people? For me, it’s like that moment at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, minus the singing.

 

I promised above, though, that there was some personal work buried in this story. Here’s the thing…when I was asked if I would be willing to accept help in making this trip, I sincerely, desperately wanted to say no. Not out of a feeling that I didn’t deserve to do something fun, or out of a sense that it was too frivilous a thing for people to do for me, but because I knew that if it actually came together (something that I was in no way confident about), I would feel intensely…something. Intense emotions are not new to me, of course, but over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly risk-averse. I don’t mind feeling something intensely, but an unpredictable feeling…now that’s something that I’ve been trying to avoid, and as such I have sacrificed surprise on the altar of getting by (a trade which, honestly, might be necessary sometimes, but really sucks when it’s made all the time). I don’t know if it’s a product of aging or a response to how the last couple of years have gone or a combination of the two, but that risk aversion nearly cost a couple of things. One, the aforementioned opportunity to make believe that I’m a space pirate. And two, the opportunity for my friends to do something good and generous. So this morning as I look at my finally-finished stack of thank you cards to send out, I’m reminding myself that a gift is a good thing for all parties involved, and that sometimes the unpredictable thing is exactly what I need.

The definition of a "good problem": Having a whole damn lot of thank-you cards to write.
The definition of a “good problem”: Having a whole damn lot of thank-you cards to write.

Inigo Montoya would not agree

But I kind of like this line. It’s from a new book (released on Tuesday!) that I’m pretty geeked about. The Chicago library has exactly one copy on order, and I’m at the top of the list to get it.

He liked waiting, though. There was a holiness to it. Waiting was admitting that yes, you had done everything in your humble power – ate, dressed, packed, fed, raked, tied, bridled, and saddled – and entrusting the rest to God. 

 

 

Arianne “Tex” Thompson, One Night in Sixes

Freshly inked

So…this happened recently.

Tattoo

It started, as such things sometimes do, with a dream. In fact, I think I briefly referenced the dream on the blog sometime last year…yes! I did, appropriately enough in this t-shirt post.

The dream, which took place early in 2012, was simple enough – I had Tolkien’s quote, “Not all those who wander are lost” tattooed on the inside of my left forearm. I remember it being there, specifically, because I wanted to be able to look at the words when I needed a reminder of them. The dream was vivid enough that I was actually surprised when I woke up and discovered that I did not, in fact, have that tattoo. As the only person in my home without ink, and someone who doesn’t typically have dreams like that, it was a surprising experience.

This quote has always been special to me, because it serves as an important reminder that I don’t really know anyone else’s story, no matter how close we are or how insightful I imagine myself to be. It’s a good tool to give myself a nudge to practice compassion for the people around me. Even so, I spent quite a while feeling like the quote wasn’t the whole thing here.

Fast forward almost 16 months. Just before the retreat I took in June, I was reflecting on the image of a labyrinth, thinking about cycles and the frustration that I often feel when I realize that I don’t know where the hell I’m headed. This is, I should note, not surprising material given what’s been going on this year. It occurred to me, finally, that that labyrinth is, for me, a more self-reflective version of the Tolkien quote. It reminds me that my path is never going to be a straight line and perhaps I ought to practice compassion for myself, too, if I feel or appear to be lost. At last! The labyrinth image and the quote needed to go together…somehow. I was resolved to figure out the details and get it done before my birthday.

Being the person I am, I promptly filed that resolution away and didn’t do anything about it until about a month after my birthday. Then I finally reached out to Bek, an extraordinary tattoo artist near Chicago, and said, “Um, I’ve got this idea, but I’m not sure exactly how it goes together. Maybe something with the quote running along the outer edge of the labyrinth? Any other ideas?”

We went back and forth a few times, with several almost-right sketches being sent over. Finally, though, I remembered that what I love most about the labyrinth image is that the path isn’t straight. If you measure the space between the entrance and the center, it’s so short as to be almost negligible. But if you measure the steps it takes to get there, it’s suddenly much, much longer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reminder, from time to time, that I’m headed in the right direction even if the way ahead is unclear?

Ah-ha. When do I need the reminder that Tolkien’s words provide me? Not before I enter, but while I’m in the midst of the journey. I need to hear them as I walk, when I feel the most lost and uncertain of my path. In other words, I need to stumble across that message right in the middle of the freaking path, or I won’t notice it at all.

Once that was settled, it was just a matter of making sure the words were spread out enough to not run the risk of interfering with each other. After a handful of minor revisions, we had the final version. I just got it done on Sunday, and removed the high-tech bandage a few hours ago, after the requisite 3 days. I really couldn’t be happier with the way it looks, and I’m excited as hell to have finally gotten it done.

(By the way, if you’re local to Chicago or close to it, I can’t recommend Bek’s work enough. Look her up at www.tattooheathen.com if you’re so inclined.)

Tarot Draw 14

Back in June I spent several days at Christ in the Wilderness, a retreat center in western Illinois, spending an intentional period of quiet and solitary self-reflection. As far as I know, there were three people on the land – me, one other retreatant, and the part-time caretaker who was filling in for the nun who is otherwise there, and was away for meetings of some kind. I stayed in a hermitage named after Paul of Tarsus, which included a twin bed, one chair, a small but functional kitchen, and a bathroom, all in a very open floorplan that reminded me of the first apartment I lived in by myself, if you removed the bedroom from that apartment and put the bed in the living area.

 

As for the land itself, there are several miles of paths through the extremely hilly woods and around the two large elevated meadows. I started keeping track of the chairs, tables and benches throughout the paths, but gave up after I reached twenty. There is also a screened in gazebo, a lovely small chapel, and a building called the Granary that reminds me of the chicken coop where I grew up (sans chickens, but with the same old wood smell and the same rather frightening number of wasps). In the hermitage and the Granary, I found several notebooks filled with words shared by previous visitors, and at the main house there is an extensive library of CDs, tapes and books in the library, most (naturally) of a spiritual bent. It is, very clearly, a space dedicated to the idea of solitude and contemplation. I could see immediately why it was recommended to me. The place is absolutely stunning.

 

My experience was, in a word, excrutiating, and I mean that in the best possible way. It was necessary the way setting a broken bone is necessary, but that in no way makes it a pleasant experience.

 

Other than my own thoughts, my most constant companion was music. I brought a number chant recordings on my phone, and listened to them a lot during the drive, in the hermitage and while walking the land. I was familiar with most of them already, having been present at events where they had been written (or at least where they were used for rituals). One that was new to me is called “Who Did I Say I Would Be?” Give it a quick listen, if you’re so inclined.

 

I found myself fascinated by the two alternating questions – “Who did I say I would be?” and “Who am I?” during one of my long walks, and when I got back to the hermitage I drew a card for each of them.

 

Who did I say I would be?:

queen-cups 


Who am I (
and I assure you I am not joking)?

king-cups
So, you know. That happened.

Since this is a different sort of draw, I thought I’d look at the cards together and compare and contrast them.

First, how are the cards similar?

  • Water, unsurprisingly, features rather prominently in both cards
  • Both the King and Queen are holding big damn cups (another shocking development)
  • Both figures are sitting on thrones
  • The cards share a similar color scheme (though certainly not an identical one)

 

Well, all of that makes sense. The differences between the cards, though, are really interesting.

  • The figures are facing in opposite directions – the Queen is facing to the left, the King to the right.
  • The King is looking away from his cup. He holds it in his right hand, and is looking up and to the left. The Queen, conversely, is looking directly at her cup, which she holds in both hands.
  • While both characters are on thrones, the King’s is on what looks like a platform that is floating in the water. The Queen’s throne is right on the beach, with no extra barrier.
  • Their cloaks are also interesting. The King’s is yellow and green, and some of the green is reflected in the water around him. The Queen’s cloak is blue and white, and on her right side it seems to trail right down into the water. It blends perfectly into the waves.
  • We can see the land in the Queen’s image – she’s sitting on the beach, and there’s a cliff face behind her. The King is surrounded by water. We can even see a ship in the background.

 

So, what does it mean?

Comparing these cards is really interesting. People who know about such things have told me in the past that the Queens are about internal mastery of their suit, while the Kings are about outward mastery. The inward/outward focus feels really apparent in these cards. It looks to me like the King uses the water. He’s floating on it, and he holds his symbols (including the cup) in a way that indicates action somehow. The Queen, conversely, is of the water. The water flows over her, even though she’s on the beach. It looks like it’s washing over her and through her in a way that isn’t true for the King.

 

Something I hadn’t thought of before…this shifting focus thing seems to be true with the Page and Knight cards, as well. When I look at a Page I find that my eye is drawn to the symbol – the big damn cup, or sword, or whatever. The Knights are more action-oriented. Looking at the Queen and King, my sense is that the Queen is dedicated to the cup and the water that it represents, and the King intends to use it to accomplish his goals.

 

It seems like these two cards, in combination, suggest that I am oriented to see how my gifts may be of use, perhaps to the detriment of truly dedicating myself to those gifts. That’s not all bad, I don’t think. While I could say that the King’s orientation could turn the Water (or anything else) to his own ends, it could also be that he turns the gift to the ends of the people he serves. To his family, his community, his people. But while that is certainly a noble aim, I think it’s also one that might bring about a more surface-level relationship with that gift. The image of the King seems to say, “I know how to use this tool to do my work.” The Queen, I think, is all about depth and dedication. In this image, she’s entirely focused the cup she holds. If I want a model for using my gifts in service to others, the King looks like a good mentor. But if I want to dedicate myself and be in service to my gifts, then I think the Queen is the model that I should be drawn to.

 

Happy fun grieving times

So, some folks have asked how I’m doing, and…well, I guess I got around to asking myself the same question tonight. Oops.

 

The hardest thing, I find, is that I am pretty much incapable of being around strong emotions. I feel like a toddler, at times – picking up on the hurt and anguish around me, but seemingly unable to behave as though it is happening to someone else rather than happening to me. So when someone close to me is upset, I’m not empathizing so much as I’m feeling the same fucking thing. This does not, as you might imagine, make me an ideal person to be around.

 

And music…damn, there are times when I hate music. Did you know that lots of music is about feelings? And that some songwriters are really good at communicating those feelings? And some of them are not only good at communicating them through lyrics, but also through the music itself?

 

To wit, I offer Nickels and Dimes (go ahead and click the link below, I dare you) which I am apparently incapable of listening to without crying now. Not because of the subject matter, because…well, I’ve listened to this song for years without similar effect. Nathan Davis was a serious songwriter (he died tragically a few years back, because of course he did), and his live album ranks up there in my music collection, but even so. Addiction hasn’t ever been my cross to bear, and this track didn’t really get to me the way that, say, Still Rock And Roll did.

 

Now, though…geez. Apparently when the universe kills off my dad, I get all emotional or something. So we have this song, with the lyrics at the end that repeat over and over…and it’s not just the repeating lyrics, it’s Davis’ freaking delivery, building like he’s sacrificing his voice on an altar of sound, as if he can communicate everything inside of him over the course of that last 2 minutes of the track. Somehow it all just combines to hammer away at my resolve to focus on anything other than grief until that resolve falls away, at least for a few minutes.

I got no alibis, my excuses are over.
Nothing to hide behind, I’m gettin’ sober.
If I could dream of a reason to leave me,
There would be none like the reasons you gave me.

It’s good for me, I imagine. And damn, I hate that shit.

A new venture

I have a few half-written posts waiting for my attention here, most of them about cheery things like death and grief. Lately these topics are pretty close to my heart, and I do want to finish them up. For now, though, I’d like to share something pretty exciting.

On August 1st, a new website was launched to support a group that I’m affiliated with. Collectively we are called Expanding Inward, for reasons that make a great deal of sense to us, at least. Together, we offer group workshops, primarily in the form of weekend intensives using myth and story as a template for personal and spiritual growth.

You know what, here’s a better way of saying it, taken from our not-quite-mission-statement:

Expanding Inward creates, facilitates and celebrates opportunities to gather in a safe, supportive and healthy community context, encouraging deeply personal positive life transformation through Earth-based, ecstatic ritual. In doing this work together, we honor depth, inclusivity, spontaneity and the sacred in all of its manifestations.

We’ve actually held two successful events already, one last September and the second in March of this year. Organizing and promoting those events was made more difficult by the fact that we weren’t really “official” yet. The people who hosted us did an amazing job despite that limitation, and it’s my hope that by having a website (and something to call ourselves) will help make that process easier. Also, it just feels good to say, “Hey, here we are. This is what we do, and we’d love to have you join us.”

So, hey. Here we are. We’d love to have you join us. There are a couple of amazing events coming up, one in just a couple of months!

Tarot Draw 13

Three weeks ago today, I was packing up for a trip to Missouri. It was the sort of flurry of activity that I tend to retreat into when I know that slowing down is going to force me to look closely at my feelings, and lord knows we can’t have that. That said, one of my self-imposed intentions right now is to be as present to myself as I try to be to others, so I decided to pause for a moment.

 

For this draw, I pulled two cards. I’ll talk a bit about the purpose of the draw in a bit.

Six of Cups
Six of Cups

emperor

The Six of Cups

So, we have a lovely picture of two children, one boy and one girl. There are six chalices filled with beautiful flowers, and the boy is handing one of them to the girl. In the background, and armed adult stands, seemingly guarding the children from possible harm. I note that there is no threat visible or even implied in the image. So is the guard superflous, or is the threat kept at bay by his presence? Let’s come back to that in a moment.

The adorable children are straight out of central casting, aren’t they? One can almost hear their ultra-serious voices declaring their affection for one another. It’s that sort of interaction that most adults are obliged to say, “Awwww,” when they observe. They’re cute as hell, but what stands out for me is innocence. They seem to have eyes only for the beauty around them – the flowers, the sky, their friendship. If their lives are destined to be complicated someday, they don’t seem to know it. Their affection for one another is the most important thing facing them, and there is an innocent, lovely vulnerability there.

Now, back to that guard for a moment. He is pretty clearly making his rounds of the area. It could be that it’s simply his job, but given the rest of the image, I think it’s a bit more than that. It feels to me like the children are innocent, and innocence deserves to be protected. The guard’s job is to keep the adorable children sae so that they are free to be innocent.

 

The Emperor

I’ve drawn this card a number of times, and I have a complicated relationship with it. The Emperor is a symbol of structure and mastery. His power is the power of tradition and law, of rule and hierarchy. He rules because it is proper that he do so, and his appearance demonstrates that clearly. I mean, look at him. He’s the very image of patriarchal authority, isn’t he? He has his crown, his throne…he appears, to me, to be absolutely certain of his place and his rule.

One thing I really notice about the Emperor is his armor. While his crown and other symbols are golden, his armor isn’t. It appears to me to be functional, not symbolic. I look at the Emperor and see someone set in his ways, perhaps too rigid for his own good, but also someone who epitomizes strength and a willingness to stand and defend his lands and his people. If not for the armor, I think I would like him a lot less.

 

So, how about those cards, man?

Yeah. We have these two two very different images, one of innocence and vulnerability, and the other of strength and protection. The first was drawn for my father, and the second for me. I drew them about 32 hours before he died. There was no question that he was very close to death by then, of course, and I was looking for some idea of what to hope for for each of us, and what to attempt to manifest in myself, and what to try and make possible for him.

I look back at those children now, at their innocence and the single-mindedness that can come about when one is safe and innocent. It’s easy to see my father there. After 67 years of life, several of them spent suffering through a series of a series of illnesses and medical problems I hoped he would be spared, he had only one task left. It was time for him to let go, to set down the burdens that had, in many ways, defined years of his life.

But it’s not ever that simple, is it? In the spiritual work that I’ve participated in and offered, we often say that doing that sort of work requires safety above all other things. Vulnerability requires that it be safe to be vulnerable.

Enter, once again, that soldier standing guard over the children. And enter, too, the Emperor. Strength and power, protection and defense of that which he loves. If the images from these cards were part of the same story, I would like to imagine that the Emperor sent the solider to watch over those children. To do what he could, however little that might be, to make them safe.

Sadly, I am no Emperor, and Dad’s work wasn’t so easy as that of the adorable children…but the intention to be strong and to embody strength and safety for him to the best of my ability? That sure felt right to me. Still does, in fact.

Eulogy

The memorial mass for my dad was last Saturday, and I had an opportunity to speak briefly. I am not the sort to write out what I’m going to say ahead of time verbatim, so this isn’t a perfect reconstruction. It’s fairly close, though.

 

————————–

In my spiritual tradition, we often say this about our beloved dead: “What is remembered, lives.”

 

“What is remembered, lives.” It’s so simple, isn’t it? In the abstract, I’ve always thought of that as a very comforting thing. It feels like it should be easy to remember, because of course I want my dad to live on. I want him to be remembered and to live.

 

Well, after a little less than two weeks of this, I can report this: Remembering sucks. It’s hard. Not because there aren’t good memories and good stories. There are plenty of both. But sharing even the best stories reminds me that there won’t be any new stories about Dad…well, okay, we might make up some new ones, but they won’t be true. And remembering even the happiest times we spent together makes me realize all over again that those memories are a finite resource. We won’t have the opportunity to make new ones.

 

So. Remembering sucks, and it is hard. But I am also newly aware of how important that work of remembering is, precisely because it is hard. Dad’s was a life worth remembering. So, briefly, here are a couple of things I’ll remember about him.

 

The first took place right here. In high school, I served as a lector here at Sacred Heart. I remember one time, I was absolutely butchering a reading. In my defense, 21 years after the fact, I would like to point out that it was a very difficult reading, with lots of names and lots of “begats”. I still remember the expression on my Dad’s face as I stumbled through it. He had a look of complete exasperation that was really something to behold. Some of you have probably seen that expression before. I saw it…well, let’s say it was turned toward me pretty often. While he didn’t say anything directly, I eventually learned something from the experience. What he taught me with that look was that if I was going to do something to be of service, if I was going to do something that mattered, then I had to bring all of myself to it. I should have prepared more for that reading. I should have committed myself to it, if the work was that important to me.

 

The second memory is really a sense of generosity of spirit and welcoming that I always had from him. I’ve made a lot of choices that are different from the ones my dad made. I live a life that isn’t the one he chose for himself. But even so, I never felt anything but love and respect from him or from my mom. There’s a reason that Thanksgiving is, was, and always will be my favorite day of the year. It’s because no matter what, I was always free to bring whoever I wanted to join us for the holiday, and I always knew without a doubt that they would be welcomed and treated like family, without hesitation or question. That unquestioning generosity is amazing, and completely unique in my experience. If there is one thing from Dad’s life that I want to manifest in my own, that’s it.

 

There is one last thing that I’d like to share today, and I’ll admit that I’m a little uncertain about doing so. I mentioned before that my spiritual tradition and my dad’s were very different. As I’ve thought about it, though, I’m struck by certain points of intersection. There’s a quote from Marcus Aurelius that serves as a great example of that for me. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd century, and he was also a stoic philosopher. These words may not reflect Dad’s beliefs, per se, but they reflect how he lived, at least as I observed him.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

 

 

Thank you, Dad. I love you.

Requiescat in pace

My father died Monday morning at about 12:30am. He was surrounded by loved ones right until the end, and while I am heartbroken by his passing I am also exhaling in relief that he is no longer suffering. His last few years were hard ones physically, but always with the sense (until very recently) that once he conquered the current issue, things would improve. Often they would, for a while, and then another problem (or combination of problems) would crop up. By the end, he was just in so much pain that being able to rest is certainly a horrible, relieved blessing.

 

I did make it down here in time to be present for his last hours, which is another horrible sort of blessing in its own right. I am thankful for the opportunity to witness him in those hours, and doubly thankful that those of us who were here were steadfast in our messages to him. The chorus of “We love you, and it’s time for you to rest,” delivered in different words from each of us, will be a haunting reminder of what it really means to love someone so much that you want what’s best for them even to your own detriment.

 

I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has held me and my family in their hearts over the past little while. It means so much to feel your love and support.

 

As for me, at the moment I’m a giant mess. I know that will change in good ways and bad as time passes, and I’m doing what I can to simply be where I am for as much of this process as is possible. I suspect that I will be wildly imperfect at that.

 

I have some more words percolating, ones that I imagine will come out here in the coming days and weeks. For now, though, there is little to say other than that I am relieved and heartbroken.

Just about time now

It’s 3am and I am in the car, 50 miles from my parents’ place. I am hoping to make it there in time to say my goodbyes while Dad is still alive, but I’m (mostly) okay with the possibility that that won’t happen.

Not much else to say right now other than that life is hard. Thanks to everyone who has shared kind thoughts recently, and I’m sorry I haven’t been as responsive as I would like.

Where interesting projects arrive, sometimes for mere moments