The only true aberration in the world is the absence of love. (James Baldwin)
Jean smooths the paper placemat, places the napkin, knife, fork and spoon here at my stool at the far end of the counter.
I’m glad you came. The next time you come, I challenge you to sit over there between two people you don’t know.
It’s my third trip to The Coffee Pot, the tiny breakfast and lunch café next to the movie theatre on Main Street. Last week I came here with my sister.
Jean smiled and said,
You came here once and you never came back. I wondered what happened to you.
Oh, I’ve been thinking of coming, I stammer. Thinking of what a good idea it would be to find a day to come here each week.
Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.
Tuesdays, I’ll take Tuesdays.
Today, my first Tuesday. I’ve chosen a familiar spot here at the far end of the counter, this time without my journal.
I hear Jeans’ challenge.
No, the time is now.
I pick up my backpack and walk over to sit on the stool between two people talking to each other.
They don’t look surprised or chagrined and keep on talking.
I introduce myself and meet Ron and Barb.
How often to do you come to the Diner?
This is not the Diner. This is the Coffee Pot.
Oh…that’s right. How often do you come to the Coffee Pot?
Three, four days a week.
I meet Bruce who is is sitting next to Ron, a beefy guy with a black eye patch and tee shirt from the “Aches and Pains Motorcycle Club.” He too is a regular. Five days a week.
Between the Methodists and Congregationalists at the far ends of Main Street, down the hill from the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, a few blocks up the street from the Bible Baptist Church, “The Perfect Church For Those Who Aren’t” is the most popular and poppy church in town.
No long sermons to fall asleep through. No hymns to tunes to we don’t know or words that have been changed from those we grew up with. Just hot coffee and connection, a community of strangers becoming friends, a warm hug as you leave. And yes, a great breakfast with homemade toast.
You need to have three things to retire, Bill reminds me, as he scooches down a few seats to join me.
You got to have enough money to get by, good enough health and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Six out of seven mornings he’s got that. I never did ask him what happens on that seventh morning. Perhaps we all need a day to sleep in.
So many studies have shown that people who put down their paper and say hi to the stranger next to them on the subway or get off their stool to sit down between strangers at the Diner, I mean The Coffee Pot, are happier.
Like me, many of us get shy in a place like this where it seems like everyone knows each other and has someone to talk to. We fear that the stranger will resent the interruption and reject us. Instead we find like I did that those strangers are surprisingly receptive, curious and pleasant.
As we finish up breakfast, Bill invites me to join him next week for his morning radio show at the station across the street.
It’s true, I’m happier when I talk to strangers. A lot happier than I was sitting alone at the far end of the counter. Maybe that’s why happiness has tagged along with me all day.
A few days later I show up at the Laconia Community Center for 10:15 pickle-ball. My sister left me her old racket and another challenge to step out of my comfort zone and learn to play. I don’t know much about Pickle-Ball other than it’s now the most popular new game in the country with fanatic and ecstatic players like my sister who can’t get enough of it.
Today, here on the court, the gift of strangers. Chuck, Cathy, Donna, Mike. Super-friendly and helpful with this newbie (as my sister promised me Pickle-Ball players would be). They show me how to hold the racket, where to stand, teach me to keep score.
Whap! Whap! Whap! I can see why my sister loves this game – fast, fun and competitive.
Every week I’m away from work each month has a theme. This past week, perhaps “Stepping Out.”
That sounds better than “Getting a Bunch of Chores Done” though there has been that as well.
I hang back at the far end of the court, run forward to Whap the ball over the net.
Donna calls over to me,
As you get more comfortable, you could stand closer to the net, right up there next to the kitchen.
Several years ago, Dad hung up his skis, but not before taking one last run.
It was his birthday, mid-March and he and Mom had come North to mark his 85th. He wanted one last ski run, in fact, took two or three, as he reminded me today. After Mom took some pictures and they marked the moment, he went home to hang up his skis.
His skis stayed there on the rack in the garage for several years until last winter when I happened to show up on the morning that he passed on his boots and skis on to the neighbor across the street.
Dad will tell you that he skied until he was 85 because he knew when to stop. For all his many years of hiking, skiing and snowshoeing the slopes and mountains of northern New England, he knew when it was time to turn back down the trail.
This early spring, how I resist the end of a season that I do not want to end. So after church, one more loop around the trail, across the street from where Dad took his last ski run four years ago.
An overcast day, downright dreary as the Deacon said at church this morning. And yet an inch or two of snow last night made for the promise of a silky smooth path. Slow and wet as well to help me navigate with ease my way down the steep hill I’d been avoiding descending all season.
In the last two days I’ve sat with the daughters of two elderly women who were dying. A call from the hospital Saturday morning, another Sunday, late afternoon. The hospital here doesn’t have a chaplain, doesn’t have someone to come and sit by the bedside, hear the stories, mark a passage with a prayer.
I didn’t know I had so much to say. What a gift to have the time to say it. What a privilege to sit and hold all that needs to be put down so a new season can come.
How are you doing with aging?, my friend asks last week whose husband initiated the conversation about how much longer they could practically up live here in the woods.
Its not easy, no, everyone has told me that. And I not ready for winter to end, to hang up my skis, to contemplate aging.
My friend and her husband decide to put aside the question on moving to another day, take in the gift of being here now.
Last week we celebrated Dad’s 89th Birthday with Mom and two of his grandchildren, down the road from the mountain where he took his last run.
I’ve missed Dad who was out on the trail, skiing down to catch the one last chair of the day up the mountain.
It’s different now. Not bad but different, I can at last say that now. The time to treasure the gift of what is.
How long do you remain open?, I ask when I return to the lodge.
The return to frigid weather in Vermont on Sunday has indeed restored the snow-tube run to near ideal conditions. So Monday morning, before the sun turns the course to slush, may be the last good tubing of the season. I will be sliding. I hope you can join me.
Spring came on Monday to the Northern Hemisphere but here in the North Country of New Hampshire it still feels a ways off. Maybe this is what they meant when the locals told me, “The winters here are very long.”
For sure, not as long as they used to be. Everyone here will tell you how high the snow drifts used to be and how this is the warmest and “worst” winter in memory, at least for us lovers of snow. All week I’ve watched the remnants of snow disappear on the front lawn across the street. The grass gray and covered with dark leaves this early morning. The hills above town purple and red with dabs of dark fir. It still feels like months before we’ll see the likes of the bright yellow daffodils now blooming in my sister’s garden in Maryland.
Winter in fact did arrive last week in the blast of our biggest winter storm of the season and just in time for a visit from my nephew and niece and a most marvelous week to play in the snow, skiing, sledding and snowshoeing.
They left on Sunday and in this first week of spring, I haven’t yet been ready to move on and let go of winter. So before returning to work on Monday morning I met my friend Jay for a few last tube runs down the hill at his farm.
I look out the kitchen window this early morning and the sky is clear – such a rare gift here in the North where the sky is so often blanketed in thick gray clouds. It’s a place where you have to seize the moment when the sun is out and hit the slopes one last time before tomorrow’s rain comes.
Last week, Judy died. Doug called me yesterday to let me know he’ll begin hospice care in two weeks. I don’t know what to do with such news. How to grieve, how prepare for the death of such friends. All the quiet, beyond-words grief for the love, gratitude, grace in the particular gifts of such friends. It aches and pulls, drips wet down my face this morning as well.
I first met Judy when I was eight, and she, the new associate pastor at my family’s church. A lifetime later, we met again when Judy was on the church conference staff in New York where I served my first congregation. Another lifetime, and she had moved into a retirement community in Seattle. Ten years ago she had a major stroke that left her unable to speak. I visited her that week in the hospital and left a note at her bedside that I had come. Her sister, who I’d never met, texted me, Who are you?
Who was Judy to me? My pastor, my colleague, my friend…. Someone who knew my name….Someone who had walked with me in significant and particular ways in some of the key seasons of my life….Someone who was important to me…..Someone I loved.
I remember the lunches we shared in the dining room in Assisted Living. She stumbled to express the words she wanted to say as I listened, tried to understand and chattered on. And though it was frustrating and maddening for her not to be able to say what she wanted to, I also knew that whatever we wanted to share together was beyond what her wordlessness and all my chattering-on could ever express.
Several years ago, Judy passed on to me her clerical stoles that had been gifted to her by the church communities she had served. There is one particular one, a bright red quilted stole, that I particularly treasure and wear on Pentecost Sunday and moments for celebration. The story of that stole has been lost to time, but the love it carries remains.
Doug is my friend who found church in a boat on Sunday mornings and showed me the way of courage and confidence to step off the dock and learn how to sail. Out on the great sea of Lake Union in Seattle, we spent hours together as he taught me to jibe and tack while talking of the imponderables and impossibilities of church and God and the lessons that sailing provides to carry us through life.
We all leave a wake when we die, Stephen Jenkinson wrote in Die Wise, And we ride on the wakes of those who have gone before us.
Perhaps I’ll always long for one more day.
One more slide down the tube-run at the farm.
One more loop through the forest,
one more hike up the trail,
one more run down the slope.
Today, bright blue and crisp, the dawn of a day to seize. I’ll head out for a few last hours to hit the trail.
By not doing nothing is left undone. (Verse 37, Tao Te Ching)
Wander up the trail.
Set up camp.
Make a circle of stones.
Lie in the stream.
Lay on the rock.
Feel the warmth of the rock, the warmth of the sun.
Wonder when the hunger pangs will start.
Add to the circle of stones. A bright rock. A charred stick. A brown tuft of grass.
Circle the circle.
Seek out the dead. Dead blackened cactus and sticks.
Don’t try. Try hard not to try. Remember that someone said, “In order to die you have to stop trying.”
Stop trying again. Vow to be led.
Wake up to write down the dream.
Don’t write. Vow to get off the page and into a different way of being. If there is any recording it will be in pictures.
Worry about Christian and Alison. I saw Christian pass on the trail but not come back. Something’s wrong. Come up with stories of what is wrong.
As the sun leans toward afternoon, walk down the trail to place my stone. Alison places a stone in the morning, Christian at noon, me, late afternoon. In placing a stone, we know everyone is okay. Two stones are here. All is well. So much for my stories.
They said, “Feel the weight of the stones you have been carrying.” Feel.
Contemplate the hill beside me. Scan it to find a way up.
Wonder on how nice it feels to lie down.
They offered, “Come back to presence with rattling.” Find two sticks to click, two rocks to bang, sparking in the night sky.
Bang the great rock, listen to it echo down the valley.
Rap and rap the great rock. Echoing.
Wander by moonlight. Be surprised at not being afraid.
Wake at early light.
They told us, “When you can’t think of anything else, pray for each other.” Pray.
And this, “Ignore all the lists. Be present to what is.” Vow again to stop trying.
Contemplate the great hill beside me I cannot climb. Look at it every which way.
There must be a way.
They said, “If you get overwhelmed, dig a hole in the ground and wail into it. The earth can take it.”
See the laughter bubble, the tears fall.
Take in this Joy.
Smile. This is my kind of backpacking – going nowhere.
Make routines. Become a maker of ceremony, simple ceremonies to mark the day – beginning, middle, end.
Circle the little trail I made, careful around the cactus.
Every morning, dunk in the stream followed by lying on the rock, warming in the sun.
Venture out to meet the palm who warns me off with thorns; invites me to stand back and witness. Don’t touch.
Circle the circle.
Contemplate the hill for a way out of no way.
“Slow down to the body of a 90 year old.” Empathy.
The last night, get out of bed to rap the great stone. Echoing. Echoing. Watch the hollow rock-face give way, stone crumbling to feet.
Wake up singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”
Be unsure where the giddiness and delight has come from.
Eyes closed, hands on our bellies, we are twirling. Hands on our hearts, our heads, blind-eyed, sensing, wondering, the most marvelous game of “Which Way Shall We Go?” Which way do our hearts want to go? And which way our heads? Our bellies? And what of all of us together? Which way shall we go?
We are little children twirling in the field, all so serious and all so silly.
Which way shall we go?
I open my eyes. Huh! There? Not what I thought, not what I thought I wanted. Certainly not what I’d planned.
But then I see it, yes, that point out there, at the far end of the valley, that white rock at the head of Indian Canyon. I picture myself there and it’s perfect, up there with a view down the valley, the great mountain before me, it’s just where I want to go.
That Christian and Alison who I’d stayed with in San Diego before the retreat are also facing the same direction as me sets me laughing. Of course! A few days ago we’d met over dinner. None of us knew what our astrology friends meant by “Saturn returning” but something about 30-year cycles. Whatever it meant it felt so right that of course here we were, three strangers, two 30-year-olds and a 61-year-old wondering on the weeks in the desert ahead.
We hadn’t a clue of course. Not a clue. All our stories far too small, except for our longing. For that something unnameable that drew us here, to give ourselves to something. To be known, figured out, found.
I walk with Alison and Christian up the valley towards Indian Canyon. I scramble down and over a stream, up a steep rocky bank towards the rock I saw. The story I told myself about this place was right about the view – there’s a great view down the valley and what would be a wonderful setting to wake up into. But its impractical and perhaps just plain dangerous as well. I struggled to climb the steep bank this morning and figure a few days into a fast I won’t want to. It’s a great spot, and yes, I’ll look on.
We head together up Indian Canyon, pass a spot just off the boulder-strewn trail with a prominent pillar of stone. The remnants of a fire pit, a good place, yes. A good place to be for three days alone. After Alison and Christian find their spots further up the trail, I return to claim this good spot as my own.
Of course its not at all what I pictured, the stories I told. I pictured desolate, arid, barren, dry. A good share of misery as somehow appropriate for my three solo days of fasting.
Instead, I’ve been plunked down in Paradise. A true Garden of Eden – a rushing stream beside my campsite complete with croaking frogs, a palm tree just downstream and other palms behind me up the valley. Nestled in a gorgeous steep valley. Not at all what I’d imagined and perfect. Somehow just perfect. A good space to spend the next three nights alone.
Sometimes the pain in my life can prevent me from seeing everything that is
Sometimes the pain in my life can prevent me from seeing Everything that is
Sometimes the pain in my life can prevent me from seeing EVERYTHING that is
I am standing now and pointing at the group, the sky, the ground, the cactus
This everything, everything, everything, EVERYTHING