Life is in the Body

Sometimes we know when the end of our lives is coming. Sometimes we don’t.

I was holding my friend Beth’s hand when she died at 31 years old. We were at a hospice facility. I had been sure I could still feel her pulse. But her hands grew cold and the life left her face, and I realized the pulse I felt was my own. The moment was quiet, and she was at peace, surrounded by people who love her.

This experience didn’t match my memory from January of 1995, when my Dad came into my room in the middle of the night to tell me my aunt and my little cousin had died in a car accident, and that my uncle remained on life support, and that my other cousin was alive. He told me, and then he told me again. I had forgotten they were on vacation in Arizona. I was sleeping.

Wait, what happened?

An accident?

Marybeth and Laurel didn’t make it?

We don’t know about Uncle Mark?

What happened?

For years I woke up in the morning consumed by a fog, dark skies, and stormy weather. Grief is thick.

My mother would stare out the window at the river in every season, as the steam rose from her coffee, mourning the loss of her brother and his family. Or lie under blankets in the afternoon on the couch. The unstoppable one, stopped in her tracks by this loss. It felt like we talked about it constantly, and never.

My father unraveled, and that was enraging because we needed somebody to take care of our family. I had unexamined expectations about how my father should be in an emergency: stoic, consistent, unwavering and the other mastery over nature characteristics expected from men by patriarchy. It’s a cold and lonely mind training, this separating ourselves from our humanity.

The loss of my uncle, aunt, and cousin, and the subsequent shattering of my entire extended family to grief, was my first heartbreak, and it was distinct from any of the heartbreaks I observed in the teenage dramas at my school. It was the loneliest time of my life. In my friendships I performed smiling, laughing and joking, but in my mind most often I was smashed and alone.

We all disappeared into anger, or drugs, or pretending. We disappeared into everything we could get our hands on because the pain was overwhelming. Pretty soon, the reason for the pain was obscured. It had officially taken up residence.

This life is in the body, and when a young person with a seemingly healthy body passes, the shock sticks for ages. Because we plan to live long adventurous lives. And not everyone does. I learned this from the car accident, and my next move was to plan nothing, to only do things that made me immediately happy, and to shy away from any long term planning.

Running, running, running; no idea where to go.

Terrified I would miss life for this sadness.

Pain management, breath to breath.

22 years later, sitting with Beth as she died long before she dreamed, and long before she was ready, I came face to face again with the fragility of life.

A couple of weeks before she died, Beth sent me a letter saying that I must keep doing visioning work because I am helping people to plant seeds for their lives. I wrote her back immediately. As I wrote I knew, this is probably it. I think this is the last letter. I must tell her how much I love her. We didn’t talk about that terrible fight in the Catskills, but we both knew it was settled. She’d not officially asked us to be there when she died, but we knew. It is the spoken and unspoken closure we did that made this loss feel different, not any less painful.

In the hours after Beth died, there was a rare solar eclipse. I put on my cardboard eye protection glasses and reclined back onto the ground, exhausted. I feel grief, and it is okay. Feeling how I feel about losing a dear sister, that is living my life to its fullest right now. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do. It will have its way with me. Surrender. My body began to relax into the grass.

Loss has been my teacher that change is the only real thing. Even the sun will die. The future is an unfolding path to our shared fate: leaving this body. Sometimes we know the end is coming and sometimes we don’t. Our vision must be clear, and our actions must be now, working with whatever conditions present themselves.

Beth is alive in my life. Mark, and Marybeth, and Laurel are alive. All who came before me, their lessons, their mistakes, their habits, their failures, and their lights are alive in my cells. The information exists in my conscious and subconscious mind.

Dreams are real instructions. They don’t need to be thought of as something fantastical that should be filed away or tossed or beaten out. We will not finish if our dreams are sufficiently big.

We will be remembered for the seeds we help to plant.

We will be remembered for blossoming at the correct pace.

The future is unknown, and it’s okay.

Every amazing story has a twist.

Beth Ryder-Kenna was my wife’s best friend from growing up, and her closest friend in Boston. After Beth died, our house quickly was filled with their whole Portland, Maine posse. We drank and ate and burned candles and laughed and cried and prayed for strength.

Beth Ryder-Kenna was my wife’s best friend from growing up, and her closest friend in Boston. After Beth died, our house quickly was filled with their whole Portland, Maine posse. We drank and ate and burned candles and laughed and cried and prayed for strength.

Writing Process V1

Why does pressing send give me clarity about how to restructure, what to cut, and where to develop a piece of writing? I don’t know, but I’ve started using it to my advantage by adding more interaction and externalization into my writing process through engaging friends. It also helps to have a secret blog. Only a few people I know read or comment on it. Just the act of pressing “publish” brings me enough clarity to refine it. Because so much of the writing process happens in the mind, it can be hard to see and understand where I am in the process. This causes me to become lost and blocked. In this post, I am exploring the early stages of an idea.

When I engage my friends in early stage writing, I benefit from their reactions if they have time to share, but I notice this externalization step is not a request for line edits and critique. That comes later in the process. At the beginning, when an approach is taking hold, the people I love to talk to mostly respond with some form of, keep writing. Experiencing the connection with the person - and the context we share - helps me to access the bigger body of truth I am trying to find. My early stage writing usually doesn’t resemble the final product, especially when the topic is hard or personal. Sometimes I don’t even know what I am trying to say at the beginning, it’s just a feeling, and I change my mind as the idea unfolds. This open space to make mistakes and learn is critical.

For the next few months, I’m going to work with the process drafted here and see what I learn. I believe this is how I have been writing for a long time, but I did not previously recognize steps 1-4 as I do now.

Writing Process V1

1.   RECEIVE: become inspired by an experience or observation

2.   INTERACT: talk and listen, notice how this exists in the society

3.   COMPOSE: start the work of expressing it in sentences

4.   EXTERNALIZE: “press send” to a trusted person(s) with no expectation of feedback

5.   DEVELOP: continue composing the concept

6.   EXTERNALIZE: “press send” to a wider group of trusted people with no expectation of feedback

7.   REFINE: clean up language variety and sequencing, narrow content, get an editor if needed, bring in feedback if needed

8.   PUBLISH: make it available publicly

9.   REFINE: tweak as required if there are any final sequence shifts

10. MOVE ON: promote and get busy on your next piece

This observation about the need for interaction and externalization in my early stages of the writing process removes the pressure to compose perfectly, because it adds iteration. In this reality, my task is to produce something with minimal refinement. So it’s always about circulating the idea, not holding back until it is clear. This opens space for vulnerability in my voice, and I work my way out to something for public consumption from there. I don’t share early stage writing with people who I feel guarded with - even if I love them. This is about being in touch with the people who just understand, and in their own way, even if they say nothing, I know they would always say keep writing. Period.

The early stage writing love fest is what helps me develop complex, even painful truths, into something I can share with ease. And it is truly amazing to reciprocate when people send me early concept drafts, and to watch their ideas evolve. When the right people bear witness, amazing things happen.

kermit typing.gif

Being Close

My grandmother taped the Karate Kid from HBO and I watched it when I was home sick from school for my whole life. This was often, especially as a teenager who didn’t find inspiration at school. I know the movie by heart. Ask any of the annoyed people who’ve watched it with me. It plays in my mind, and it informs my vision of what is possible even when I am not aware. We’ve all got stories in our minds that influence our actions and beliefs.

What I love about the way the date scene embedded above is edited are the glimpses into Daniel and Ali’s friendship. For those in the dark, Daniel and Ali went through alot to arrive at Golf ’N Stuff for their first real date. He’s new in town, and he’s already been beat up more than once by her ex-boyfriend’s gang of jerk friends. She’s rich and he’s poor.  Daniel is reminded their love won’t work in the world at the end of the date, when her friends roll up in luxury convertibles and mock his mother’s old faithful jalopy. 

During the heart of the date, Daniel and Ali are not constricted by their context. They play arcade hockey, and right before he scores a goal, their eyes lock in anticipation. Bouncing on the trampoline, they fall in an embrace, laughing. In the photo booth, their bodies are close and they hold hands. As they look at the photo strip, you see a moment in his gaze of wanting her body. Then it cuts back to their friendship, which is portrayed as meaningful conversation with each character beaming.

The quest in Karate Kid is about Daniel getting the girl and winning the fight. We can obviously do better. It’s foreshadowed from the start, and resolved through a series of bad sequels, that Daniel and Ali are not going to last as a couple. The bigger and underemphasized theme in this story is his need to belong. It keeps getting funneled into romantic chases and physical triumph. You see the drama in this first date scene. It ends sour, each character lonely. The story is a trite and narrow piece of the truth. Aren’t there more options?

We need more stories of people learning to take hold of themselves, through allowing what may even feel like risky emotional bonds to form. Our interactions develop our character. How much potential are we leaving on the table because we are afraid of wanting something that is not allowed to exist in the world? Humans fill our relationships with expectations and then unravel in disappointment when our lives don’t match the story in our minds. These are prime moments to grow in our presence and release attachment.

Cultural conditioning around intimacy - and I point directly to my white, small town U.S.A., middle class background - has us believing that being close entails possession, privacy, and obligation. In this paradigm, holding someone’s hand in friendship and looking into their eyes can feel dangerous. These conditions are hostile towards curiosity and joy. I wonder how life would be if fostering intimacy was one of the society’s treasured design principles. I’m trying to imagine this possibility when encountering the many faces of love, across my relationships. The task is practicing ways of being that allow us to explore boundaries with safety, which requires listening and adaptation. It requires being home in ourselves.

Diesel Cafe photo booth with Erin, 2010

Diesel Cafe photo booth with Erin, 2010

My wife Erin and I, after 10 years together, are thinking back to the beginning. The ways in which our lives are intertwined now makes it hard to relax without thinking about our obligations. We remember how to be playful by having a life full of friends, where caring and intimacy are allowed to exist. We have always questioned the notion that being close with others threatens our marriage. Quite the opposite seems true. How did humans arrive at so few accepted pathways for relationships? Why have our physical boundaries become so rigid? What trust is required between people and in the societal contract for love to flow?

We are connected. The idea that it is possible to be alone in this body, with this mind, on this planet, is an illusion. If you are like me, you have been conditioned to protect your heart. I am asking myself why. There is nothing to break in the open heart. It can be painful when old beliefs shatter, simply because they are known. Despite our best thinking, the future is unknown, and it’s okay to be in love with each other anyway. I am going to die and so are you. Every little bit the heart opens is a move towards living the dream.


People Everywhere (Still Alive) by Khruangbin


My own learning on connection has leaped thanks to Gibrán Rivera and the Evolutionary Leadership community. I made a video about it!

Tribute to Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died this week. Her poetry will continue to inform how I pay attention to the world. Every so often we come across a writer who makes us feel as though we are not alone in our thoughts. She is that for me, and I will be reading her work every day in these tender early moments of her passing. If I had to choose, this is my favorite of her poems.

Mary Oliver “Of Love”

I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all but ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway beautiful people to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some — now carry my revelation with you —
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes, every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world — its fervency, its shining, its
innocence and hunger to give of itself — I imagine
this is how it began.

Bold As Love

Axis: Bold as Love, the 1967 album by Jimi Hendrix, fell out of the sky and blew back into my life like a wild storm. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I needed a reminder that conformity to the ways of this world is a decision, and it does not always align with what we truly love. Somewhere along the path inertia can get us, and confuse us into thinking that the way it’s always been done is the only option. For many of us, living our truth and being ourselves in public risks our safety.

In the epic If 6 was 9, the album’s A side culmination, Hendrix vows to let his freak flag wave on and on. You can feel him shredding the constructs and conventions that polite society require from one note to the next, and he makes no apologies for it. He speaks softly and sure: “I've got my own life to live. 
I'm the one that's going to have to die
 when it's time for me to die. 
So let me live my life the way I want to.”

Hendrix died suddenly in 1970 at the age of 27. Aren’t you glad he didn’t listen to the people who said his guitar playing was weird and had no place in the world?