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Essays On This Page:

The Old Mail Box

Getting Hitched

Anne Frank on War, Fear & Nature

John Burroughs: Creed for a New Season

Lessons My Father Taught Me

A Touch of Death

 

The Old Mail Box

I had not made a swing by the family house in years; at least not in the last five years.  But I did, on a windy day, with a whim of curiosity.  “Swinging by” can shove you over a distant dark valley on a rope-swing of emotions.  Swinging by where we once felt settled in a place called home can be a disappointing, even depressing experience.  The place always looks smaller; always dumpier than in the mind’s eye.  Too many more houses and people around, and too many memories inhabiting the old place—my home town home was no exception. 

The town where I spent my school years, Edmonds, sits on the seaweed shores of Puget Sound, just North of Seattle, Washington.  I have always been grateful how Nature raised me there–with the mountains of clouds, the land painted green by the rain, eagles and orca swimming their currents by.  Walking to elementary and junior high schools I could see West through the pointing branches of cedar, alder, elm and pine to the soaked and soggy Olympic Mountains.  Driving to high school just up the hill I was treated to another natural stage production, the jagged Cascades. 

Edmonds does not have quite the quaintness now, as back when I was a young boy—whatever “quaint” means to each of us.  Though the downtown harbors many stores more suited to grandmothers and kids, and seems to fish only for tourists these days, the seaside, or should I say soundside village still holds a draw for me.  I still find refreshment walking through to the waterfront where I can smell the salt air, listen to the quiet waves lapping the seaweed-draped, barnacle-backed rocks, watch the ferries come and go and participate in a train.  I say participate because when you are that close to the passenger or freight trains that rumble through at regular intervals each day along the shoreline you feel it in your body.  Your whole body echoes the loud horns that blow and can be heard all the way across to the peninsula and Whidbey Island.  There are moments in Edmonds when you can almost ride a train of thought right back to the days when tall ships sailed by and steamers carried people, logs and grain against the backdrop of the snowcapped Olympics.  I grew up with those sights, smells and sounds.  The family house was only a few miles up the hill from the center and the shore, the docks and the trainstation.  Salt air blew across our streets with the gulls.  We lived there from the ‘60s through the ‘80s and it always felt like a good place to live—a northwestern hearth where someone would, as my parents liked to say, “keep the home fires burning.”      

Mom asked if I wanted the low rambler with no stairs and a partial view of the Sound after dad died but I could not imagine moving back to the house let alone the town. I had been gone just long enough to know the world was bigger than our block and I found other ports to call home. The little place nestled up against the woods of Elm street (all the streets were woodsy names:  Cedar, Pine, Alder, Fir, Spruce, Hemlock, Walnut and on) once had a pleasant setting where we could chase rabbits and pheasants on surrounding acres of pure dirt and blackberry bushes.  But that phantom house no longer existed.  Most of the woods were still there but every available plot of blessed dirt was now covered by larger homes with higher views from second story windows.

We moved to that one-story house when mom’s arthritis got so bad she could not climb the four levels of stairs of the other house without intense pain.  I have childhood memories of dad pulling on mom’s legs while she cried out in a mixture of relief and misery (on a lighter note, he was a leg puller of a punner too, making us all cry out).  I could never remember my mother walking without difficulty—a cane; a wheelchair; a limp.  Even after having both hips replaced simultaneously in the first operation of its kind on the West Coast in the ‘60s, mom lived, not so much with a disability as an ability to live with pain.  I will always admire her for that.  We left my early childhood home in the town with three descriptive names, Lake Forest Park, to live nearer the water and the ground (no steps).  So it was my mother’s arthritis that moved us there, along with closer proximity to dad’s work at Boeing in Everett.  I was entering fifth grade and my sister seventh.  A bit more excitement came with the move.  Our cousin Scott and his folks, aunt Agnes and uncle Warren, lived just a few blocks away.  “Family” was a tangible, tastable word in those years, especially when we gathered the “clan” for dinner.

My parents bought the place back when a home could be had for under $20,000 and it even came with a shed big enough to convert into living space.  Dad built a fence along the North side of the drive and I painted it.  He put up a big backboard on the end of the carport so we could shoot baskets.  The shed became what all sheds become—a catch-all stuffed with “stuff” of all kinds.  But dad kept a good-sized floor area in the middle open for a favorite family activity:  ping-pong.  For years that shed/shop/storage/play space was our true family room, away from televisions and phones, books and bedrooms.  We could shed all our worries there by pinging and ponging, laughing and sweating together. Of course mom could never join us.  Her joints were too torn by the bone and muscle disease to play with us though she traveled the world in later years with canes or a wheelchair upholding her wanderlust (bouncing back and forth across the earth).

One of my early memories of the once-gravel driveway is playing catch with dad.  I was a Little League pitcher and dad bought himself a professional style catcher’s mitt to catch for me as I practiced.  That short road, with tuffs of grassy weeds dappling the drive, became our mound and home plate for hours of throwing and giving pointers—“Good throw!” “Try again!”   With sore arms and legs (running after lousy tosses) and bellies weary from laughter, we trotted in to put down the leather and pick up a lemonade.  Though dad could rarely attend my ballgames, he was my coach, trainer, equipment provider and greatest fan.  I know there were Saturdays when he must have hurt driving off to work seeing me dressing in uniform for a game at Meyring park down the street.  When he could make it, his calls of encouragement made me throw harder, faster and more confidently.  I can not remember for sure, but I think dad may have been present at a game or two when I was practicing new curveballs learned from a book for pitchers he bought me.  I had a lot of strike outs and pats on the back from the team, the coach, and more importantly, dad after those games.

Up at the house, high school friends zipped down the dead-end road almost daily to visit, shoot baskets, smack the ping-pong ball until it broke or strum guitars.  For a few months some of my sister’s friends set up a recording studio in the shed with huge speakers, a full sound system and reel-to-reel.  Until our cranky neighbor complained (every neighborhood has one doesn’t it?) and we had to shut it down, I enjoyed going in there at night pretending to sing with the microphone backed by the mammoth amps.  A girlfriend and I had a few heavy afterschool “makeout” sessions snuggling in my ‘64 Dodge Dart parked in the driveway.  Truth be told, that old convertible had its windows steamed up by more than one girlfriend during the twenty years I drove her.  Lots of mileage in the aqua classic.            

Some might find it a thing to envy that I lived in the old brown, white and brick house for four more years commuting to college in Seattle.  I admit it was my nest, with a window looking straight out through a magnolia over the Sound toward the snowy mountains. After my classes and part time work, Mom appreciated the company in the evenings while dad worked his shift at Boeing.  After dinner I sometimes read her my latest philosophy paper as she nodded nicely, eager to get back to her novel.

When he was not working weekends dad and I would do projects around the house and yard.  Well, I should say, he did the projects.  Now and then I would join him.  Dad was the sort that liked to wait for assistance to be offered instead of asking for help.  I think sometimes he was miffed that I was in my room reading or off hanging out with friends while he was mowing or planting or sawing something.  Once, when I offered to help him in the yard, dad acted surprised and went straight to the closet, pulled out a new bb gun and said, “I was waiting to give this to you when you asked to help me.”  Of course I felt bad, but not for long.  I had a new rifle and could not wait to try it out—after doing yardwork!  Fact is, I tried out the gun on a redwing blackbird perched on an alder limb and when it hung upside down, dead as the branch, I gave up shooting then and there!  Dad was the occasional hunter, but his skill was much more constructive.  He was the mechanic and woodworker while I was more the reader and writer.  All in all he supported my studying and told me more than once how proud he was of me.  I believe he took pride in my writing and speaking abilities, skills he had never formally developed.  Dad could build 747s in the largest building floor space on the planet but he never went to college.  I always felt proud and admired him for that.

At the close of the ‘70s I moved away to California pursuing a Masters degree.  Roberta, my sister, had already moved out to give college a try and then work as an x-ray technician.  A few years went by and I would visit once a year, if I could get away.  Letters, placed with care in the metal mailbox by the lilac bush, would arrive at my small apartment shaded now by oaks and redwoods.  Many letters were from mom.  Others, often including a generous check and loving note, from dad.

My daughter Sharel was born in San Francisco in 1981 and I made the decision to be as much of a “housespouse” as I could be, spending a large part of my time being a dad myself.  I went through divorce and homelessness with my little girl.  We moved around until I could find stability in work and housing.  Mom simply packed up and left dad one day while he was at work.  “We were just roommates,” she told me.  They had shared a house but not a love.  “Why did she do that?” was dad’s tearful call to me.  He did not have much of a clue.  I think he was comfortable with his life and preparing for his approaching retirement with anticipation.  Mom was dreading the thought.  Over the years I suppose I became closest with mom.  All those evenings eating dinner, watching M*A*S*H* and talking about anything at all without arguing explained a lot about their empty marriage.  It made me sad but I understood the inevitable course emptiness takes.  I too left empty marriage with its sad and heavy baggage behind.

Dad flew down to California for my graduation from seminary.  It was his first time flying on one of the planes he was building (his fear of flying went way back to wild rides aboard troop transports in North Africa and Italy). He retired after thirty years at Boeing with plans for enjoying some leisure, a closet full of fishing rods and reels, a small boat and station wagon, a cabin in the mountains by a river.  Then he was told, we were told, he had cancer.  Unbeatable: I thought that described him.  But this disease flew at him faster than his planes and my old fastball. He retired to die. 

I spent some days with dad in the old house while he was fading.  His soft face was now shrouded in a scraggly beard (“I’ll shave it when I get better”).  He was so weak.  His big hands so limp.  Sitting by him while he slumped his head in weariness I asked “Dad, did you ever wish I had done something else?  Did you hope that I would work at Boeing like you or become someone else?”  I needed to hear some assurance from him, some words from the heart.  And that is what he gave me.  “I’ve always been so proud of you, Chris.  No, there is nothing else I hoped for you.  You’ve been a wonderful son.  I’m still proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve become.”  I couldn’t speak.  Tears rolled down.  He squeezed my hand. I could almost see a leather baseball in his grip.  He softly breathed.  I thought of all those times as a teenager when he would step over to hug and kiss me and I would turn away.  Now I felt nothing but affection for this frail man with the large, loving heart. 

The time came for me to leave.  I was torn by my decision but I had to get back to care for my own child, my sweet little daughter. My grandfather and uncle Warren arrived to drive me to the airport.  Dad seemed asleep as I carried my suitcase to the door, held open by my uncle.  I turned one last time to see the man, my coach, the proud father.  And at that wrenching moment, across the living room, dad lifted his head.  I cannot clearly remember if he even opened his eyes.  Our lifetimes stood in that doorway.  “Good-bye!” he said with some semblance of strength.  I hope he heard me say “Bye, Dad!” through the choking and tears.  One of the hardest moments of my life.  It was the last time I saw him. 

So, years passed.  I went by to see the place—still swinging with feeling.  I could still hear the trains rumbling by a few miles away, and feel them.  And the ferry to Kingston could still be heard horning into port carrying its cargo of cars and walk-ons, coming and going.  Some new owner was remodeling the house and I wandered in.  Hearing that this was my family home for years the paint-spackled lady welcomed me and took me around.  We talked about what used to be in each room and what improvements they had done.  I do not think I saw improvement.  I only saw what could never be seen again:  all of us gathered for dinner and dad bowing his head to say grace (“ever mindful of the needs of others”); mom walking akilter, hobbling to cook a potroast in the orange-carpeted kitchen; sister sitting at her desk writing a school assignment; me, kicked back in my little gray-cushioned chair with headphones tight over my long, wavy hair listening to “classic” rock; each of us sharing a roof, a life and a history in the renovated rooms of my mind. 

The new owner walked with me out to the street.  I asked for a cutting from the root of the lilac tree dad had planted and nurtured next to his garden for so many years.  Now it stood almost a yard over my head.  The woman handed me some shears and I clipped a bit of time, a shoot of dad, a growing sprout from the land where I last felt grounded in family; where goodbyes still echoed.  As we stood and walked toward my truck I asked about the old mailbox.  “This is so funny,” I remarked.  “Dad put this here a long time ago when I was in high school.  Why is it still here?”  The woman smiled and looked puzzled.  “I’m not sure.”  Leaning closer to the tarnished postbox I touched dad’s name and address he had carefully written with a black felt pen.  “Do you still use this?” I asked.  “Oh yes.  We get our mail every day.”  Then she suddenly said, “You can have it if you want.  I guess we could get a new one.”  For a moment I considered her words.  Would I really want this old rusty thing?  What on earth would I do with it?  “No, that’s o.k.,” I answered her.  “It’s kind of nice thinking about this being here.  It’s a bit of history I guess.  It’s just funny that it’s still being used after all these years.  I’m even surprised the postal carrier puts mail in this.  Isn’t there some confusion with my dad’s name all over it?”  “I guess not.  We get our mail just fine.” 

I thanked the woman who lived in our family house, for the lilac root and for the tour of the house.  The house I knew really was not there and yet it was.  Driving away, with a small plastic baggy full of a root in rich earth beside me on the seat, I could not get over that mailbox.  In the rearview mirror I took another glance.  Dad had left his mark on that street, and surely on each of us.  And maybe, in some way, I had too.

Postscript

I still go back now and again.  I see small changes on the street, with the house, the land.  The trees are taller and block more of the view we had. A new wooden bridge and smooth groomed path lead through the woods at the bottom of the hill where we once wished we could pass on the way to school.

Most of dad’s plants are gone.  I wrap my fingers around the thick bark of the lilac tree–the tree that once was a low, twisted bush by the rock retaining wall.  I imagine the sap as having some of dad’s blood and sweat mixed in.  I think of the roots and how they mark my growing more organically than those pencil marks in the hallway where dad used to measure our height.  There is comfort in knowing I continue to grow, and so does the lilac-cutting in a large cobalt pot on the many decks of my many moves.  I am not feeling sadness as much now even though the train and the ferry try to accent the past with their low calls (“We’re still here”. . .whistle and rumble, “Remember?”. . .toot and horn).  I call it for what it is:  a pilgrimage of sorts, back to the drizzle of time past in cascades of memories that do not invite to return.  I know it well–there can never be a return.  What the swing by the old place gives me is I suppose uniquely personal; it is something sweet from the days when the lilacs bloomed in the salty breeze near to young love, pingpong paddles beat a rhythm and dad mowed the lawn sending that indescribably earthy scent of cut grass in through the sliding window of my bedroom where I was reading some Narnia or Nietzsche.  What happens in this return that is no return touches an inner river deep and strong still.  It has something to do with what has been in that marked and marred mailbox all these years.  In a crazy moment I sling a fastball that slaps into dad’s old mitt, wondering what might get pitched back to me if, this once, I reach over and lift the red mail flag on the rusty box before I drive back, that is, drive forward, stamped for delivery to some other time.

PS to the Postscript:  The lilac first bloomed on Mother’s Day (I’m sure Dad was smiling somewhere) on my small cabin deck in the woods of Whidbey not far from the “parent plant” back in Edmonds.  When I moved back to the Bay Area I planted most of it next to the cabin (“it is closer to home here”) and took a stalk of it crammed in my truck with everything else I owned.  Now, on the cement deck the lilac is once again full and greening, not blossoming yet, but standing hardy in the Bay breezes.  Still a constant companion on my travels from home to home, and a daily inspiration “delivered” to me by dad.  Maybe my life will always be cultivated in the presence of this simple swaying, sweet and bittersweet gift from the dirt of my birth in that northern state.

Chris Highland, revised 2010

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Getting Hitched

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

On a beautiful day in May, that is, just last month, I went and got hitched–got myself married to a beautiful, brilliant and bodacious younger woman (well, by six years).  We had been together, with some periods of separation, for something like nine years (she can give the exact facts and figures), so this was a step not lightly taken.  As I have been married twice before, this really was a step not lightly taken.

After searching for a suitable site for this “event” (we knew it would be quite a different experience in several ways I will soon explain)–we were either met with busy schedules or religious rules that barred our ceremony–we landed the garden at a local retreat center.  This gorgeous place in a very green gulch offered a perfect, hedge-fenced garden with lots of roses, herbs and flowering trees.  We secured a young bagpiper to sooth my soggy Scottish soul, a caterer operating out of a transitional housing center and a “troubadour” who was once homeless to serenade the reception.  

The most important and challenging part for us was to find three celebrants who we could feel comfortable with.  Actually the number was not the point.  We were looking for a Christian minister (my wife is one and I was once one) as well as a few representatives of traditions that have formed our paths.  It was a great feeling to find a former UCC pastor, now a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, a Zen Buddhist Priest friend and an old Rabbi friend and colleague of mine retired from a Reform Jewish synagogue.  We all met, enjoyed each other immensely, and Sara, our UCCTB leader, shaped the service just exactly right for us.

You must know, as I’ve mentioned that my wife is a Protestant (heavy on the protest) clergywoman, I am merely a “former” clergyperson and former churchperson and indeed a former Christian.  I’m now some kind of Nature-loving poetic philosopher type with no solid “tradition” to slap anyone else with.  So, suffice it to say, this ceremony could be tricky.  Sara cut and pasted our whims and wishes into an amazingly seamless cloth of many colors.  One of the most significant parts was the inclusion of an honoring moment for Carol’s parents, Charlie and Janet.  We chose to be married on the same day they did, only 50 years later. We wanted this to be meaningful and the ceremony made that happen beautifully.

Our old rabbi friend, Michael, took a nasty fall a few days prior to the wedding so had to painfully bow out.  We were disappointed but knew all would be fine somehow (weddings are 90% learning to let go anyway, aren’t they?  I suppose that’s a love kind of lesson?).

On the great day of the event, a rather unseasonable rain poured into the valley and we had to make the difficult decision to be in the meditation hall, the zendo, instead of the colorful garden.  This meant something wonderful happened.  We all, wedding party, clergy and all the guests, had to take our shoes off.  All the fancy footstuffs had to come off.  The quiet was very special, made even more incredible with the rain on the roof and frogs in the pond singing their hallelujahs.

Here is the way this “hitching” was hitched up and linked together:

The huge buddhist bell with the dragon was sounded, signalling the (end of singlehood) and the beginning of couplehood

A bridal procession with a small buddhist bell meandered down the path (each “maid” in flipflops)

The bagpiper piped in his socks (“Highland Cathedral” of course) and we all entered

Words of welcome by Fu, our Zenfriend, calmed, centered and grounded us, each and every one became present

Greetings from Sara, our UCCTibetBud, included a word about my daughter Sharel and other family who couldn’t be there, acknowledging the large, framed photos of Mabel and Bob, my parents, in front on the table–gone for many years but present with smiles and joy.  Carol and I had asked Sara to express our solidarity with Gay and Lesbian couples who are not yet allowed to have such celebrations.  Some of our gay friends were in the hall that day.  One is pregnant.  Others are expecting–expecting rights and justice someday soon.  

Now I get a bit fuzzy and I could look at it again, but I’m just guessing at the blurry moments of beauty here. . .

Carol’s sister Kathy (a freethinker) read from Walt Whitman (“We are Nature. . .”)

My sister Roberta (a conservative christian) read from the gospel of Luke (“Don’t worry about tomorrow. . .”–thanks JC) 

My composing “brother” Todd wrote the score for a song I stole for a tune and scribbled some new words to, calling the piece “Green Circle Song.”  Todd sang alongside his son Bryan (who has sung with the SF Boys Chorus and the SF Opera) and our friend and bridesmaid Deborah (a cabaret singer) leading us all in the simple singalong.

Charlie and Janet exchanged vows and both made us laugh and cry (Charlie, the old judge, is such a character!).

We spoke our vows, choking and sniffling on cue (to “struggle and snuggle together”)

Rings were shared (Sara described how we each had rings made from diamonds worn by my mother and father).

Rabbi Stacy, an invited guest, stood in for Rabbi Michael, singing the hebrew blessings in a sweet, sacred voice.

Everyone blessed us and we walked through the zendo to the tunes of the rain and the bagpipe.  Blissed we were.

At this point everyone gathered to dance with Macha, our Pagan/Wiccan leader, chanting in a spiral dance: “There’s a part of the sun in an apple; there’s a part of the moon in a rose; there’s a part of the flaming Pleides, in every leaf that grows.”  A few guests chose not to dance, and that was o.k.  Just sad that some considered this “witchcraft.”  Oh well.  This was admittedly a lot to handle.  And maybe we were a little bewitched with the spell of down-to-earth goodness of people finding a way to stir all their differences into the big beautiful cauldron of lovingkindness.  Not so scary, is it?   

In this tight circle in the “cloudhall” of the Zen center, we held hands and sang in celebration with

Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Hindus, Sufi-Muslims, Atheists, Pagans, Nature-lovers and unaffiliateds. . .all affiliated in this intertwined, knotted and a bit nutty celebration of love.  People with little apartments and huge mansions and some without a home at all.  Clergy and former clergy, teachers, musicians, young and much older.  Gay, Lesbian, probably a few Questioners.  All together in the dance of life and love. 

Now, if you think about it, isn’t this what “hitches” everything together?

Don’t you wish you were there?

Don’t you think more celebrations of love ought to be this incredibly inclusive?

We’re proud and honored and full of joy that this occasion was our memorable day of union with a very remarkable circle of family and friends.

What an event, a ceremony, an honoring, a dance and a joy!

June 2009       

 

Anne Frank on War, Fear & Nature

 annefrank

A friend loaned me a copy of Tales from the Secret Annex, a collection of stories and reflections from thirteen-year-old Anne Frank, who died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen prison camp in 1945.

Particularly drawn to her thoughts on Nature as experienced in wartime, I was immediately impressed by her description of a friend, Jackie, who was, not surprisingly in the context of WWII, anxious and fearful.  Jackie grew calm looking at “the things of nature” according to Anne.  With the wind in the trees and the gathering of mountainous storm-clouds, she discovers within herself a happiness “that no one can take away.”  Anne concludes this simple sketch of her troubled friend  with her own wisdom gained in hiding:  “Anyone who looks at nature, which is the same as looking into oneself, long and deeply enough, will, like Jackie, be cured of all despair.”  This could not have been written better by John Muir or Henry Thoreau.

Anne is honest and forthcoming about her own fears.  In one selection she tersely, almost calmly, writes, “It was a terrible time through which I was living.”  It was March of 1944, barely one year before this young philosopher was to die in the concentration camp.  Her family was living on the edge in every way, with continuous daily gunshots and explosions nearby.  Anne expresses how much she was “in the grip of fear.”  Her parents were not able to calm her.  Her trembling lasted for almost a week before the war hit them directly and forcefully.

One evening explosions came closer and closer before the whole Frank family heard “a tremendous crash, the noise of much breaking glass, and an ear-splitting chorus of yelling and screaming.”  Anne threw on what clothes were near at hand, grabbed a small pack and ran for her life.  “All I felt and knew was that I had to run.”  Amid the terrible sounds and burning houses she ran until all grew quiet and she could take a breath.  She stood alone; alone in a meadow wreathed in night.  “Above me the stars glistened and the moon shone; it was brilliant weather, crisp but not cold.” 

Completely exhausted, Anne laid down on her small bundle of blanket tossed on the grassy meadow.  She looked up at the vast sky and gathered her senses.  Her fear was gone–oddly, she felt only peace.  Falling asleep under the heavens she awoke at dawn and saw that she had run to the far edges of the town.  “There was no one to be seen; the dandelions and the clover-leaves in the grass were my only company.”  Stretched on the damp blanket she wondered what to do, yet she couldn’t help thinking about the calming feeling and the beauty of the night just passed. 

Finding her parents safe, they moved on to another city.  Considering what she had been through, witnessing the destruction of her home, her neighborhood and village, her entire way of life, she understood what caused her fear to disappear that violent night.  “When I was alone with nature, I realized–realized without actually knowing it–that fear is a sickness for which there is only one remedy.”  Anne opened to the insight that drifted into her mind on the cold ground of the meadow that night.  “Anyone who is afraid as I was then should look at nature and see that God is much closer than most people think.”

With a stunning, mature comment she concludes:  “Since that time I have never been afraid again, no matter how many bombs fell near me.”  This incredibly strong young woman offers a powerful, lasting inspiration for any one living in a state of fear or a time of war. 

Reading the words of Anne Frank I recall the more contemporary words of an email I received a few days ago from a young Iraqi doctor whose family lives in fear every day in the capital of that war-shattered country: “The world needs the common people to make a change,” Dr. Mohammad writes.  He is concerned that after the seemingly endless war finds some ending, little will be left of his country.  The sectarians “will destroy the tiny beautiful things left in Iraq.”  He ends his note to me with a mixed sense of hope and futility, saying that his family is desperately trying to leave their beloved homeland because they don’t want their baby “to be born in this cruel environment.”  I continue to follow Dr. Mohammad and his family on his blog.  

Perhaps it is the time, the season, to hear all these voices, past and present, who seem to call us to acknowledge that fear knows no borders, and neither does Nature.  Fear is not a Jewish or a Muslim, a Christian or a Wiccan or an Atheist war–not one tribe’s or one person’s inner or outer war.  Nor is Nature, the calm and the cure, owned by any nation, any creed, any army, any tribe or person.

As each day we are witness to the terrors of our time, the anxious world, the destruction of lives, homes and habitats for all creatures, we might find a meadow of peace in the storms by remembering the courageous words of one young girl who lived and died victorious over fear; at the very least, we could hope in her last hours she steadied her eyes on some image of the natural world, unfazed by those who would urge her to look to another world, and found her blessed Nature close at hand, while all around her, as all around us, the unnatural machines of madness and fear were tearing up the precious land and the priceless lives.

Chris Highland

December 2008

  

John Burroughs: Creed for a New Season

{adapted from Life After Faith by Chris Highland}

 

John Burroughs

 

“Nature is a great traveler, but she never gets away from home.”

~John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe (1920)

 

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“We are housed in our opinions, and we resist being turned out of doors and having another and a different roof built over our heads.”

~John Burroughs, The Light of Day (1904)

 

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“Our religion is at fault, our saints have betrayed us, our theologians have blackened and defaced our earthly temple, and swapped it off for cloud mansions in the Land of Nowhere.  The heavens embrace us always; the far-off is here, close at hand; the ground under your door-stone is a part of the morning star.  If we could only pull ourselves up out of our absorption in trivial affairs, out of the petty turmoil of our practical lives, and see ourselves and our world in perspective and as a part of the celestial order, we could cease to weep and wail over our prosaic existence.”

~John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe (1920)

 

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“We are all made of one stuff undoubtedly, vegetable and animal, man and woman, dog and donkey, and the secret of the difference between us, and of the passing along of the difference from generation to generation with but slight variations, may be. . .in the way the molecules and atoms of our bodies take hold of hands and perform their mystic dances in the inner temple of life.”

~John Burroughs, The Breath of Life (1915)

 

 

 

Tides and Seasons

 

We live in unsettled seasons—insurgent seasons of both restful, re-energizing hibernation as well as vigorous, vibrant migratory movement, when world events seem intent on driving us deeper into our dens and nests, or higher to fright and flight.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, I write this in winter, in this seasonal and seasoned mixture of light and dark, when on cold wet mornings and warm, light-filled afternoons, one can observe the unceasing movement of tides below, waves and currents of clouds above. It is as if Nature is indecisive, or chooses, decides for indecision.  Clearly, there is much deciding going on.  On my island (where a local bumpersticker says “Isle of View”) the winged tides are in full view, larger and lesser.  The great and the small below and above–finches, flickers, eagles, geese and herons. The curious observer sees fowl and water incessantly moving in their ancient, natural, instinctual circles.  One does well to weather these cyclic periods alongside the elements and kindred creatures as a part of them, in their current.  There are those who saunter up beside us reminding us of our relation with unsettled Nature, who turn our eyes and ears toward all the Life and lessons around us.  In the most uncertain of seasons when the changes are intensely unsettling, few are better companions than John Burroughs along the tideflats and migratory pathways.  His voice calls out firm and clear in all seasons for those of us who navigate the currents of our tides and migrations, who seek a settling though it be in temporary nests.

 

John Burroughs (1837-1921) was an adventuring naturalist on the open sea of ideas.  This man of all seasons delighted in opening up the world of birds, animals, mountains and fields to popular America in the tradition of Thoreau and Muir (born just one year before Muir,  he shared an era, a friendship and a trip to Alaska in 1899 (1).  He was an admirer of Whitman and a friend of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Theodore Roosevelt.  In his nearly thirty books appearing between 1867 and his death in 1921 the sage of Slabsides (the rustic house he built in the woods of upstate New York) revealed an intimacy with Nature and with the great questions that arise from that intimate relation.

 

What may capture the attention of contemporary readers most is Burroughs’ somewhat novel naturalistic philosophy.  He presents us with his own migrations, peregrinations, in wild areas usually left to professional philosophers and theologians.  Burroughs brings his experienced scientific senses into a deep dialogue with explorers of ideas.  With his naturalist’s eye wide open he treks about the great questions of life and the universe, drawing us into the migration, the tidal flow of all things, toward an acceptance of the cosmos and an emergence from the dark, ignorant past into the full sun of a clear day (hence his books Accepting the Universe and The Light of Day).  He offers us a fundamentally positive hopefulness–something we can live with in the great house of the universe.

 

The natural world presented Burroughs with a tide of ideas.  For him, Nature was a vast classroom of wonder displaying lessons for the scientist and for the philosopher.  In Field and Study he wrote, “To find an interest in natural history one must add something more than the fact, one must see the meaning of the fact.” (2)  The only way to discover this meaning is to leap into the woodsy classroom.  “The wild life around one becomes interesting the moment one gets into the current of it. . . .” (3) Significantly, this naturalist launched his scientific mind deep enough into that current to be carried along into the wilds of spiritual thought as well. 

 

Burroughs is both intriguing and disturbing in his dismantling of modern religion.  He is equally radical in what he replaces the old religion with.  His perceptive scientific mind pushed him to take on the most sensitive issues of faith.  Yet Burroughs had no interest in founding some new religion.  He said that one who attempted that would just as well get crucified.  While he understood that the masses of people “are not yet prepared for a religion based upon natural knowledge alone” he was confident that “the time is surely coming.”(4)

 

In this chapter I am concerned to show how Burroughs took the old religion machine apart, replacing it with something organic, living, breathing.  We will briefly trace a path from his day to ours directed by his guidebook (and perhaps his map and compass).  It is my firm conviction that indeed the day has arrived, the time has surely come, for what could be called Nature’s Religion.

 

A Religion of Nature

 

It is time, it is the season, for the “religion” envisioned by John Burroughs. Of course, it has always been with us in some form, some practice. Nevertheless, the season is in fullness for a way of life based on natural knowledge and wisdom regardless of whether the masses are fully prepared for it or not.  It is the seed and root of a religionless religion.  Or, to be more precise, a way of living and understanding that transcends the old terminology including “religion” itself.  A “Nature Religion” is a contradiction. (5)  There have always been indigenous or developed earth-centered or environment-based religious beliefs and practices.  Natural philosophers as well as some Naturalists have identified something sacred though not necessarily religious in the natural world.  Poets, perhaps especially Whitman, have sung the praises of a divine world.  What Burroughs recognized and somewhat urged us toward (echoing Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, Whitman, Muir and others) was an open air religious sense driven by reason, science and an enlightened divine ideal.  For us to grow up and be healthier as a human community, we must, in Burroughs’ mind, abandon the God of the Puritans, and Calvinism in particular–a deity who was “a monster too terrible to contemplate.” (6) We must not just bury the awful God of those reformers.  It is ours to seize the heart of the religious sentiment, present in all religious tradition, and reframe it for a grown up world.  Burroughs acknowledged the wisdom, the fundamental gift, of the historic religions.  Yet he saw that we can and must do better.  Burroughs was pleased that even in his time, large numbers of people were already understanding that “the earth is divine, and that God is everywhere.” (7) A universalist message to be sure, yet centered in Nature as the primary teacher, not easily packaged in a formal religious structure. What Burroughs meant by this Universal God sets the context for the whole discussion.

 

A Reformation in Word and Idea

 

In this reformation of spirituality, with John Burroughs as our tentative fieldguide (if not reforming, reframing heretic), it seems natural to begin with his view of God, the divine. It is clear from his writings that any serious rethinking of divinity must begin and end with the Cosmos, and for Burroughs the seminal question becomes “Is there an outside to the Cosmos, a beyond?”(8) He answers this question as clear as the blue sky:  “We accept Nature as we find it, and do not crave the intervention of a God that sits behind and is superior to it.” (9) His sympathies lie with pantheism.  There is no one who “sits apart from Nature” to rule, judge or determine anything.  Ultimately this means, “When we see [humanity] as a part of Nature, we see [humanity] as a part of God.” (10) There is no beyond, no Other, no outside.  There is only what is, and we call this Nature, Cosmos, the Universe, and sometimes we name it God.

 

This ought to be emphasized: the Nature Religion conceived by John Burroughs does not diminish and does not entirely eliminate God or Religion.  In his perspective there is a sounding that gives us our depth–a magnifying of the divine when the universe is flooded with sacredness.  All becomes God and for this reason all becomes religion.  That is, the only religion that will survive our more scientific world will not be dogma or creed but “spiritual attraction, as faith, hope and love.”(11) It is natural to feel this attraction to that which we are intimately related to, namely the body of universal Nature.  This religion, if it is to be called religion, is participatory, relational, not set apart or distanced by inventing a Super-human “out there.”  A relational religion centered in Nature recognizes a human element, however small, to Nature, with all the problems that raises for our egos.  Humans can not claim to be better, “higher” creatures, only a part, made of the same stuff of all things. 

 

Burroughs admits that difficulties and contradictions crop up when we identify Nature with God but even greater difficulties arise if we refuse to identify the two, which are actually one.  Confronting “evil” is one huge obstacle.  But for Burroughs, nothing short of a radical inclusion, a balance of the good and bad is obvious and necessary.  “Nature embraces all; she fathers and mothers all; [knows] no evil apart from the good and no good apart from the evil.” (12) Elsewhere this embrace of contradictions is stated, “When we call the power back of all ‘God,’ it smells of creeds and systems of superstition. . .; but when we call it Nature, it smells of spring and summer, of green fields and blooming groves, of birds and flowers and sky and stars.  I admit that it smells of tornadoes and earthquakes, of jungles and wildernesses, of disease and death, too, but these things make it all the more real to us.” (13)  Our challenge is to be in constant dialogue with that reality, to be honest with the confluence of these rivers we judge good and bad and admit we do not understand it all, “that in these seas we can find no soundings.” (14)

 

Following the fundamental reinterpretation of the ideas of God and Religion, what of the other, orthodox terms and the power they hold over our religious thinking?  Is there a way out beyond the restrictive stables, corrals and fenced pasturelands of theology?  In this natural tradition, walking in the footsteps of Muir, Thoreau, Burroughs and others, we can leave the hoofprints of the obedient flock, either sauntering off from the stampede to leave behind the old babble or redefine those words for our day–as Burroughs would say, in the light of day.

 

If we choose to continue using any old terms–and I am not convinced they are useful with the baggage they carry along–it may help to look briefly at some possible reformulations.  Baptism used to mean an initiating bath of water to purify a sick and sinful soul.  It became a ritual signifying entrance into the church family and the kingdom of heaven.  For the practitioner of a natural spirituality “baptism” now means a plunge into a mountain stream or the wilderness itself in order to be cleared of the “dust of the city” and the distractions of everything that separates us from Nature.  It is that shocking splash into consciousness that reminds us who we are as natural members of the family of Life.  The only sin is our imagined distance from the divinity of Nature–it is quite literally in our head. There could be no fall from our garden paradise (except perhaps from the saving grace of Reason). We have indeed eaten of the tree of knowledge whose fruit causes no banishment–there is only a rising to our full stature as wondrous creatures in a wondrous world—the trees of life and knowledge ripe for the picking.  Our reconciliation comes about when we repent (that is, alter our thinking) and come back, not to God/Nature but to our senses, literally to our senses!  We are awakened, regenerated into the divinity of our humanness. Church originally meant those “called out” of the world (the ecclesia)–the community of the faithful saints.  For us, there can only be a calling deeper into the world (an Inclesia), drawing us into the universe, with a grounding in communities that include those with fur, feathers and fins–our congregation is wide, colorful, diverse, and our chapel (synagogue, mosque, temple) has no roof, walls or limitations.  This is the most encompassing religion with the greatest god ever conceived built into it. 

 

What are the scriptures for a person who saunters the natural way?  The only text is laid open in the mountains, streams, trees and all wildlife.  “Nature’s Bible” Muir called it.  Burroughs agreed, as did Thoreau and Thomas Paine before him.  Wisdom can be read on the open pages of the earth, it is living and active, “sharper than a two-edged sword,” not bound in leather (the skin of dead animals whose wisdom is lost) or gilded in gold (more highly valued than the mountains and streams from which it is ripped).  These higher scriptures cannot be handed on by tradition any more than a mountain range, a flock of geese or a school of fish could be handed on.  These scriptures are nothing less than the scattered pages of unbounded, radical freedom.

 

 

What of clergy, preachers, those who expound and explain The Truth to us?  These are left in their pious pulpits hacked from living forests in favor of the guiding companions whose pulpit is the earth, who are not any closer to God/Nature than any one of us (can anyone be closer to the earth than anyone else?).  Those educated in the scripture of Nature could be theologically trained as well, yet we look and listen more to those who walk us deeper into the visible, knowable truths of the universe than of the invisible and super-natural.  Our preachers are the Muirs, the Thoreaus, the Emersons, the Fullers, the Whitmans, the Burroughs as well as the Einsteins, Hawkings, Erhlichs, Benyuses, Dillards, Olivers and on.  Our reverence for the natural world causes us to honor the biologists, geologists, astronomers and even psychologists who probe into the material of which we are made.  We no longer require the shepherds who pasture us as their sheep.  We lift our heads– not as a herd or as lone wolves but as sacred creatures who belong to the universe–to learn and share findings with those who, like us, are the earth chaplains of Nature’s spiritual way.

 

What happens when we, in the name of a new natural spiritual path, substitute new understandings and meanings into the old language of religion?  The archaic, impotent mythologies along with their linguistic control words and saintly guardians of a gutted gospel dissolve in the fresh air and sunlight of a natural spirituality, a fresh and lively, enlivening “good news.”  Utilizing Burroughs’ incisive viewpoint, we see a necessary evolution of terms, a review, redefinition and balance of the words of dead religion with the living ideas of Nature’s non-religious Religion.

 

The Path Ahead

 

Why must we replace the old religion with this new, strange “religionless religion?”  Is this not the origin of every new religious tradition that arises, expounded by every discontent who sees the failures of the ways of the ancestors?  Yes, there is no argument with that reasoning.  All religions were once “new” and heretical, strange and offensive in their alternative “gospel.”  That some of us are discontented with the old does not mean all the former is jettisoned for a contemporary invention.  Yet there is the case–the case for a Natural Spiritual Way (religion).  A religion of Nature is not something entirely new or unexpected.  There are distinct examples of this freshly cleared path in native cultures including tribal nations, celtic, druid, aboriginal, goddess and wiccan practices dating back thousands of years.  Does anyone really believe that the Hindu religion, at some four thousand years of age, is the oldest expression of the human quest for the sacred?  Christianism is young even in comparison to Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and Zoroastrian systems of wisdom tradition. Emerson called this intimacy with Nature the “most ancient religion” and so it is.  It is the oldest tradition ever handed along because it cannot be handed by anyone to anyone–because it is, strictly speaking, no tradition.  It is the living reality of simply everything that is, completely accessible, controlled by none.  A “religion” of Nature cannot be boxed, labeled and sold as Religion.  Therein is the irony and the challenge.  What are we to call it?  And how do we live this vis a vis the historic wisdom traditions known as Religions?

 

On my forest walk today I paused several times to listen to the wind and the creak of trees swaying in their circular orbits.  I touched the “brush” along the path that brushed my arm as if I was passing through a gauntlet of silent painters.  I stopped to sink my hand into moss.  On one trail that I cleared (“opened”) five years before, I bent to pick up dozens of fallen branches from the winter storms, tossing them aside for the next saunterer.  As I did this, walking, touching, clearing–I thought about John Burroughs and this Nature Religion I am drawn to.  I asked myself, Is this simply about these simplistic “lessons” of the world and each person learning and repeating what they think they “hear” out in the wild places?  I wondered if my interpretations of what Nature “teaches” sometimes is just my way of “making sense” of it all (and I do not wish to fall into the trap of the old anthropomorphic theologies by doing to Nature what they did to God, making Him/Her/It into a superhuman).  Finishing my loop of trails and loop of thought I came to a working conclusion.  A great deal of the practice of Nature Spirituality is fairly basic and simple.  Of course, a child can do this!  It is fundamentally about stopping and listening to what is going on in the natural world here and now.  Then one goes on content in knowing that life is a series of stops and listenings.  Sounds like Buddhism.  We can thank Gautama for reminding us to pay attention.  We can thank Jesus for reminding us to be compassionate persons.  Now, we offer them a respectful bow, leave them behind on their trails and move on, learning lessons of attentiveness, compassion, preservation of the wild and many more instructions readily available to all around each loop and bend.  The historic religions are primarily reminders and not much more.  They could be compared to the faded, cracked and yellowed documents viewed in glass cases in a museum; informative for searching our past we may still learn from their time-worn words, yet they are old maps for new trails.  Reminding us of the most fundamental truths of our existence certainly has purpose.  Some of the old may offer us truth still.  Yet pointing us back to Nature and our own nature is grounding.  There can finally be no other “truth” than this.  I am indebted to the reminders of the ancient traditions, in meaningful ways they aided my development down the current path (an analogy that comes to mind is that religion offers paved roadways for our travel and now it seems best to move off the asphalt onto the gravel and the earthen paths).  But I have moved along with gratitude and a broader horizon ahead.  The truths learned in Nature by the great prophets of history are immediate–not mediated–available to me today, right now.  My text is their text and in some ways their God is my God. 

    

If You Were God

 

“If there is one thing certain in the history of mankind, it is that sects do outgrow their creeds and are compelled to pull down and build larger or else be terribly pinched for room.” (15) Burroughs makes this observation in a discussion of a “hint” from Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin had described a religious group known as Dunkers who refused to write down their confession of faith because, “From time to time [God] has been pleased to afford us further light.” In their understanding, the true and guiding principles of faith grow as they live their faith.  Franklin thought this was remarkable, noting that this group was “perhaps a single instance in the history of [humankind]” as opposed to all other religious groups who are sure they and no others hold exclusive title to the fenced property they call the truth. (16)

 

Imagine you were a god.  It is not that hard to imagine, is it?  You create a beautiful paradise thousands of miles across.  You form a few frail creatures and give them imagination, curiosity, wonder, and place them in the center of this vast garden world.  To complete your heaven on earth, you tell them to remain in a small cabin and never leave!  Their main duty:  to maintain the furnishings, all the while praying, reading one book and preparing to leave the cabin—when they are programmed to die.  Is this not hell on earth?  What kind of god would you be to put such horrible limitations on beings you say you love?  Yet, is this not precisely what we find in much religion, especially Abrahamic faith? 

 

Burroughs, and Franklin, call us out of our cabins into the fresh air and sunlight of an expansive, welcoming creation—a garden home to enjoy with fullness.  This is not a well-ordered, programmed hike around in order to be close to God and worship a transcendent Creator “above” or “over” us.  This is an immersion into God as God is Nature, the entire world, the whole universe, cabin or no cabin.  Burroughs takes this one more profound step.  He says “The Cosmos knows no God–it is super deum [above god].” (17) In this expansive vision we can let go of God and all god-language, all religion, without fear, because we belong to the universe, it is our home, our heaven.

 

Lest one should quickly judge this “light” for being little more than a romantic glow or new-age blissful/wishful thinking, consider the balanced reasoning Burroughs packs into the discussion.  His Nature God was no warm and embracing deity to comfort and coddle.  In accepting the universe Burroughs was also accepting the realities of what some call evil.  There is disease as well as disaster, suffering and death.  Yet this is not “evil”—not cruelty or judgment, or a bumbling impotent Potentate at work.  The struggles of existence are, as Darwin and other scientific minds have observed, what have made us and continue to make us the wonderfully complex creatures we are.    

   

A Naturalist’s Creed

 

For many more years than I care to add up, I repeated the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday in church.  “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” and so on.  This very old statement of faith and catalogue of beliefs is the classic style of religion’s power.  If enough people repeat the same words enough times in their lives, they are guaranteed to “know the faith,” have “correct beliefs” and be in God’s good graces.  Like the Lord’s Prayer, the words of the creeds began to stick in my throat.  I couldn’t stomach them, let alone make them come out of my mouth any more.  The words I use to describe my distaste for repetition of belief say it all.  I began to feel a nausea, a kind of physical reaction, to droning on with a congregation, blah-blah-blah.  The words had no content, no meaning, no life.  If you asked people what the words meant you’d get mostly blank stares.  The creed was just words you were supposed to say, if you were a good and faithful Christian.  My physical and mental response to the repetition of ancient words had much to do with a more natural understanding, a more physically-centered experience of the sacred and spiritual.  It was like my natural choice to give up saluting the flag or saying the pledge of allegiance.  Once I understood the power of rote in controlling the masses, the herds, I chose—in good heretical fashion—not to say what I was told must be said.  It always seemed quite weird to me, reciting the same things over and over, Sunday after Sunday, to prove one’s piety (or patriotism, in the case of the flag and pledge).  I needed to let it go and hope for some fresh words and renewing experiences to make sense of faith and life.    

 

Burroughs has offered us a new way to appreciate living creeds.  He saw that “a love of nature has high religious value.” (18) He observed that the disease of old creeds and theologies has led some to find their spiritual health in the ordinary miracle of Nature.  Alongside some seminal passages in Thoreau, Emerson, Muir and Whitman, the following lines from Burroughs offer the closest “This I Believe” kind of Nature Creed that I have read.

 

“It has made [those who love Nature] contented and at home wherever they are in nature–in the house not made with hands.  This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills are the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore.  A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through.  Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance.  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.  There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants.” (19) 

 

This portion of one of my favorite passages in Burroughs’ work brilliantly presents what he calls “the faith of a naturalist.”  This is the only faith I can assent to anymore.  It may be the only spirituality worthy of our time, practical for a grown-up humanity and critical for our survival–our health and Nature’s.  And, in truth, our health is inextricably linked to all of Nature.  Here again the wisdom of the naturalist reminds us, “We do not realize that we are a part of Nature till we begin to think about it.  Our lives proceed as if we were two–[Humanity] and Nature–. . .but the two are one; there is only Nature.” (20) (You will note that Burroughs is not consistent in capitalizing the word Nature).   

    

Today I emerged from my cabin on the bluff to watch eagles gliding across this sandy bay of the island, choosing from the menu of the sea, feasting on the edge of tide pools and perched on a high piling—the queen and king of the ocean’s bounty.  To observe them, to observe any of the natural world, is a peculiar art. I wanted to “capture” the experience.  I caught myself grabbing a pen, a camera, to hold what I saw and experienced. I suppose I grope for some form of creedalizing experience.  I am confined in my “cabin mind”–a mentality that wants to incessantly box and package direct encounter with the ineffable.  Again, this is a grab at contentment, that “holding in” and longing to contain.  It is not wrong to try, not wrong to share it.  It is only a potential opportunity to let the boxes and cabins go, if only for a few moments.

 

In The Breath of Life Burroughs looks closely at the stuff of life, finding words to express an almost mystical devotion.  He says that the molecules and atoms of our own bodies “take hold of hands and perform their mystic dances in the inner temple of life.” (21)  This vibrant life is going on without end.  It is a dance we join just by breathing and we never leave the dance even in death.  As he says of our lungs, “Through these spongy lungs of ours we lay hold upon the outward world in the most intimate and constant way.  Through them we are rooted to the air.” (22)  This is our vitality, what makes all life a livelihood.

 

Building a House with Burroughs

 

A religion of Nature has many reststops along its winding trails.  The vista points are not for “settled conclusions” however.  No one builds a dwelling at a vista point or reststop.  The same holds true for a new spiritual community. There are always more viewpoints, always new truth to see or hear.  “Every person builds or tries to build a house of truth of some sort. . .but how foolish to expect us all to build alike or go to the same quarry for our material. . . .” (23)

 

If we are already home, why build a house?  I suspect the answer to this question could have vast repercussions across the round globe.  How many dwellings are forced upon the earth without thought for the greater home in which we live?  Are we not simply renting room in the planetary house?  As Muir lamented, we strangely cut down the first temples to build cathedrals.  Yet we do far more damage with our common houses than houses of God.  One would like to think that if we built each house as a house of God we would be better off, yet our record shows otherwise. On the other hand, if we understood our whole world as the “house of God” and that the best we could do is build chapels or anterooms, then perhaps we would all feel more at home. And is it not true and honest to admit that each room, no matter if it be a marble mansion or a mud hut, is merely one of those temporary reststops, campgrounds?  All dwellings are tents (or grounded ships) really.  Even Moses knew that (though David and Solomon forgot it).  It does not matter what we build and where so much as how we set up our tent and how we set up our relationship with our surroundings and groundings that shelter more than our tent. 

 

In this “house built by Nature” the philosophers are Burroughs, as well as Emerson.  Its preachers are Muir and Ingersoll.  Its activists are Fuller, Garrison and Carson.  Its poets are Whitman, Oliver, Frost.  Its legal defense is Darrow.  Its statespersons are Jefferson, Paine and Teddy Roosevelt.  Its home-builders are surely Thoreau and once again Burroughs.

 

The cloud of witnesses extends through the years.  They call out for the attention of inattentive minds who, whether they know it or not, wait for someone, anyone to tell the truth, spreading the gospel of the natural world of observation, but much more.  Our “clergy of the earth” become caretakers of our house, for our reason and a reasonable spirituality.  These are the prophets of perception who somehow stood in the mire and sand or sank to their knees in the marvel and mud and came out with transcendent terminology, which is often not transcendent at all.  Not in the slightest.  It is quite consistently poetry to be sure.  But the best poetry need not speak from a higher plain or mountain peak.  It is a poetry of the most natural, the most natural poetry, meant to convey the real and common, the truthful ordinary, in the most natural, down-to-earth fashion. 

 

The poetic-truth writers who offer me these revelations of natural divinity now, in this period, have come to include the author of Wake-Robin and The Light of Day, bird books and descriptive natural history localized alongside spiritual observations that critique all the traditional observations.  He was one who stood at the viewpoint with thousands of others and stepped to the forefront, or drew back, in order to tell the story of the scene in fresh, one could say revolutionary language, and we are magnetized to saunter with him for a while, where everything and nothing is religious.  His name was John Burroughs and he now steps into the rough and rugged, moss-covered pulpit of our age.  He stands on that podium, head angled to the side, listening to the music, the sermon, the scripture, the voice of God.  He need not speak but show us how to listen.

 

John Burroughs deserves a progressive congregation but he deserves more.  He deserves to be honored by our own stepping out into the light of day, to accept the parish of the universe as he conceived that marvelous universe.  Not because his vision was higher than ours or that his religion was superior.  On the contrary.  Burroughs, like all great and lasting spiritual explorers, opened the doors of the old religions to point a lighter way.  It was his eye that directs our eye toward one expansive vision that eclipses the reign of revelatory religion.  “Her works are a perpetual revelation” (24)  he announced of Nature.  Not an altogether pleasing revelation in every instance or an easier path ahead, but more illumined, liberating, life-enhancing. 

 

Unapologetically, Burroughs pointed a way to religion, but what a different quality of religion!  He envisioned a return to the source from which all religions have germinated and sprouted.  This proto-religion is sought by a serious, reverent, truth-loving mind gifted with imagination.  As he says, “such a mind will go to nature for its religion rather than to creeds and traditions.”(25) To venture along his path we need only leave the gods of our own making behind in the dark, cluttered, smoky cabin and saunter free in the limitless landscapes of this divine cosmos.

 

Notes to Chapter Seven

 

1.  Though they joked and jabbed onboard ship to Alaska and beyond, there was an admiration between the divergent friends.  Burroughs wrote in his journal that Muir was “a poet and a seer” with “something ancient and far away in his eyes.”  The World of John Burroughs.  Edward Kanze, ed. S.F.: Sierra Club Books, 1996.  P. 115.

 

2.  Field and Study, 1919, p. 195.

 

3.  Field and Study, p. 197.

 

4.  The Light of Day, 1904, p. 78.

 

5.  For a fine philosophical approach see Donald Crosby, A Religion of Nature.

 

6.  The Light of Day, p. 146.

 

7.  Field and Study, p. 243.

 

8.  Field and Study, p. 250.

 

9.  Accepting the Universe, 1920, p. 121.

 

10.  Accepting the Universe, p. 274.

 

11.  The Light of Day, p. 179.

 

12. Accepting the Universe, p. 280.

 

13. Accepting the Universe, p. 270.

 

14. Accepting the Universe, p. 277.

 

15. The Light of Day, p. 192.

 

16.  Ibid.

 

17. The Light of Day, p. 190.

 

18. Accepting the Universe, p. 116.

 

19. Accepting the Universe, p. 116-117.

 

20. Accepting the Universe, p. 229.  Note that Burroughs is not consistent in capitalizing Nature.

 

21. The Breath of Life, 1915, p. 23.

 

22. The Breath of Life, p. 50.

 

23. The Light of Day, p. 168.

 

24. Field and Study, p. 135.

 

25.  Field and Study, pp. 242-243.

 

Excerpted from Life After Faith, Chris Highland

 

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Lessons My Father Taught Me

mabel-and-bob

My father and my mother

The Man Who Gave Me Wings

I sometimes try to imagine my father at the age I am now, 53.  I was in high school when he was my age.  It was the era of Nixon, Vietnam, Archie Bunker, MASH, Kung Fu, YES, James Taylor, Carole King and counterculture.  Martin and Bobby were gone.  The hard lessons of the wild sixties were still spacing us out.  Earth Day had its birth day.  I grew my hair long and dad really disliked that (“you look like a hippie”).  I wore heeled shoes, wide pant-legs, big-collared colorful shirts and wild ties.  Hey, it was the wild and wide seventies.  I was also a Jesus Freak, but that’s another wide and wild story jammed with lessons. 

When I let my mind wander back to that time, dad a shade over fifty, I find my head swirling with questions, about him, about his life, his thoughts.  Feeling my age as I do, I wonder how he was handling it.  I want to know what he was dealing with, his optimism, his troubles.  I want to talk to him about it, man to man.  But he’s gone.  He died in his sixty-fourth year, when I was a new father and seminary graduate in California.  Cancer got him, as it got my mother seven years later.  A rabbi friend once told me, shortly after my mom passed away, “You’re an orphan now.”  Having been adopted, those words hit me even more deeply than I expected.  There was and will always be a sense of abandonment, of being left.  Yet this sense is tempered by the lives of these good people, and the life in me that I feel I carry on.  Their lives, their words, have added themselves to the great lessons of my own life.  Since their passing I have never ceased asking myself what was right about what they left me.  “Right” meaning, as the Buddhist eight-fold path I think means it, finding the path that balances, that makes life worth living.  A path of “right mindfulness, right action, right livelihood.”  That kind of “right.”  My mother left a tremendous amount of herself in my mind.  She is a precious part of me.  Here, in this essay, I choose to honor my father, and the central life-lessons that form his treasured legacy to me.

My father, Robert, came from a family of eight children–four girls and four boys.  Born in Nebraska and raised in Montana, Robert came to Seattle after the war in Europe.  Barely twenty years old, he had fought as a sergeant under General Patton, invading Sicily and moving north with the Allied forces.  He was wounded in the leg and received a purple heart for his service (it burned up along with his uniform and all other war items in a house fire). The other Highland brothers also served in the war effort, three being sent overseas and all coming back safely. 

His mother Olive was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Jordan, Montana while his father Will, a good Scotsman, ran the general store. Grandma came from a strong German family where she developed a love for literature and an incredible memory, reciting long poems by Longfellow and others.  Robert got his interest in reading and poetry from her.  He never went to college.  His lessons would be learned in other ways. 

In the late 40’s the Highland family moved to Seattle where both grandma and grandpa found work at the old Frederick and Nelson department store downtown.  After living in the lowlands south of the city for a time they moved to a hilltop neighborhood known as Beacon Hill where they lived out the rest of their lives together.  Grandma died of cancer and diabetes in 1973.  Unlike many widowers, Grandpa pushed on, moving near to my parents in the northend community of Edmonds where he puttered around in his old Plymouth and died at the very ripe (I can hear him chuckle) age of 100. 

Dad met my mother in Adak, Alaska–in the chain of Aleutian islands–while they worked for the government.  From Alaska they moved to California, opening a small diner in the north part of the state.  Dad was the cook and mom was the head waitress (the only waitress) and accountant.  In 1952 they moved to Seattle where Dad was hired at Boeing airplane company.  My sister Roberta was born in 1953.  Two years later I was born and squeezed into the family on Christmas Day, 1955.

There are of course many lessons dad taught by word and by example.  The ones here are only the most abiding and conscious of them all.

1.  “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

My grandfather was a William as am I.  Wills run in the family.  Willful people.  Headstrong, hardheaded, stubborn and outwardly self-assured.  Not really what dad meant by the phrase I’m sure, yet there are parallels.  To have a strong will, willpower, to make a go at life, to make things happen and succeed, is to push on and push through whatever obstacles come along.  There is, somehow, usually a “way,” a road ahead.  It takes an inner resolve to progress and feel there has been real progress.  No one can do it for you; no other person can do life for you.  You are the final authority and the one to take the consequences like a man, a woman, a responsible human being with a will, the power to choose and do what you feel you must do. 

Not a bad principle to be guided by.  I’ve found that this must be tempered with more than a temper, a headstrong blindness to reason or reality.  Clearly, will is not enough.  Not everyone finds a way, a path, merely by the power of will, let alone wishful thinking.  But the basic guidance that encourages each to find a way forward in the face of life’s challenges, is good and right. 

2.  “Any job worth doing (or life worth living), is worth doing (living) well.”

Dad was a hard worker.  Thirty years at Boeing building airplanes taught him to keep to a schedule and finish the work, well and on time. He must have been good at it since I know at least once he was asked to consider a supervisory position and he turned it down.  I suppose that meant he was not only good at what he did, he liked it too.  I also remember him saying that the hours, the stress and all weren’t worth the “promotion.”  Besides, he said, he wouldn’t make any more money than he did at his layout job.  He seemed to enjoy his layout work, using blueprints to “scribe” the steel and titanium parts that would then be handed over to the machinists for cutting and shaping into 747’s. Shortly before he retired I saw his work area with the huge black marble table, under the roof of one of the largest buildings in the world. He showed me the big tool box he kept close by, stocked with precision tools, some of which he made himself by walking over to the machines (where he once worked as a machinist) and turning out what he needed–when the greatest airplane company in the world couldn’t provide the best tool.

Dad was a guy who loved projects.  I now know why.  There’s something about having a list of things to do, small and large, short and endless, that keeps you active and improving where you live.  The downside of course is that you rarely have time for anything else, except for vegging on television or the computer.  Dad would work all week, and if he was free on the weekend, would have a whole lot of projects and errands to complete before coming in and watching the tube through the evening. 

Throughout my career as a chaplain and teacher I often recalled dad’s words and sometimes it helped me to focus on doing a bit better job at whatever I was doing.  I never could be satisfied with being sloppy or doing shoddy work and “took pride” (another of his phrases) in doing something well, as best I could.  Pride was never a bad word for dad and isn’t for me, because it isn’t about a false pride or simple-minded attitude of superiority.  It is knowing that you have done good work and aren’t ashamed to admire it.   Dad’s principle wasn’t about being perfect, but doing one’s best and standing proud by that work.

To be honest (and this is all about honesty) I also have my own self-proud and rebellious streak that has led me time and again to do things a little less to “standard” and not as well as I know I could have.  Sometimes this was simply to save time or because I didn’t see the need to put a lot of energy into the work perhaps because I didn’t value it too much.  I’m still like this.  In my mind a fleeting argument may arise, something like:  “I know, dad.  I could do better.  But why?  It isn’t that important.  I have other things to do, other work, a walk in the forest, or maybe I want to sit and read instead.  This just doesn’t mean much to me.”  Dad would probably be o.k. with that, to a point.  Yet his principle just shifts over to those “other things,” nothing’s lost or neglected, unless of course he felt the “project” at hand was, in his mind, important enough to “see it through.”  

3.  “Be ever-mindful of the needs of others.”

As dad bowed his head before every meal, with or without the family, in public or at home, he said his simple grace that included, “Let us be ever mindful of the needs of others.”  I imagine he may have learned that from his mother, and his early involvement with Christian Endeavor back in his Montana youth, but I believe it was simply because he knew it was right and good to have that mindfulness. 

This “principle” came home for me in a variety of ways.  I still remember the weekend in elementary school when I finished my homework and went outside to see if dad needed any help in the yard.  He looked at me and feigned astonishment.  “Oh!  Come with me!  I want to show you something.”  He was acting a bit odd about my simple question but I followed him inside.  He took me to the hall closet and reached way back behind the jackets to pull out a brand new bb gun in a box.  He turned to me and said, “I was waiting for weeks for you to ask if you could help me, before I gave this to you.”  I was embarrassed but thanked him for the gift.  There was some shame involved and dad knew how to dramatize these lessons at times with a sprinkle and shake of shame.  But I have to admit, I learned a valuable lesson.  From then on I was more aware of what dad was doing around the house and often asked him if he needed help.  Funny thing was, he usually said he was fine doing the work himself and thanked me for asking.  The lesson was passed along and the lesson took root:  don’t wait for someone to ask you to help them–take the initiative and go help

Another unintended lesson resulted from this incident.  In fact, in some ways this teaching had just as far-reaching an influence on my life.  I hadn’t had the gun very long before I was walking out by the woods behind our house and spied a redwing blackbird on a branch.  I raised the rifle, took aim and fired.  Time seemed to slow and I stood there to watch.  For a split second I couldn’t tell if my metal bb had struck the target.  The beautiful colors of the bird were revealed as it silently swung to hang upside down on the branch, gripping the limb in its final grasp at life.  If I ever fired that gun again it was at cans and bottles and stuff.  I never shot a living thing from that day forward.  I have dad, and the redwing, to thank for that powerful lesson.

A member for many years, Dad was quite active as a volunteer in the Presbyterian church.  He was an usher, a deacon, probably one of the most faithful Saturday workparty helpers and a regular, generous contributor to the collection plate.  In addition to his church work he helped with food drives, holiday baskets to needy families and other activities through the VFW and the Eagles organization.  I don’t think I can remember a period of time when dad wasn’t involved with charity work, and all the while holding down his full time job at Boeing, working on all his projects at home, and doing what he could to assist my mother, my sister and me.

I wish I had worked alongside him for some of his volunteering.  With my own experience as a helper I know how much you can learn about a person by working side by side together.  I’m sure we would have had much to talk and laugh about.  And maybe share a few tears in the face of all the needs we were mindful of.

4.  Basic, essential courtesy.

Riding with dad in his old blue dodge station wagon was always more than a journey to the store or a restaurant.  It was a lesson in courtesy.  Some people teach by example better than words.  Dad was regularly teaching this way, and I don’t really think he knew it most of the time.  Driving down the road he would see someone waiting to cross or a car waiting to merge.  Invariably dad stopped to let them go, even if it meant the person behind would honk or show irritation.

I don’t believe dad ever felt what is now all too common road rage.  He just wasn’t that much in a hurry to get anywhere.  He didn’t keep tight schedules or stress over making appointments–though I’m sure he was always on time, if not early.  In fact, this was another sub-lesson he passed along–get someplace early; you won’t have to worry about being late or pushing yourself to get there.  This respects the other person, and it shows self-respect.

While mom probably had many moments of feeling that dad was discourteous to her, in general I think he practiced his brand of courtesy in a fairly consistent manner.  In fact, having “manners” was very important to him.  At home, at the table, in the family and out into the community, dad believed it was simply the way you do it, the way you are, to have manners, to be courteous.  We were taught from a young age to say please and thankyou.  It becomes a part of you.  I find myself often wishing that others were brought up with the same basics.  

5.  Endless cleanliness & neatness.

People who know me well are smiling now.  They see what I do with countertops and sinks and organized cupboards.  Dad was a master of order and neatness.  Yes, of course there was an obsessive compulsiveness to some of it.  I know this because I caught the bug! 

Dad’s record-keeping was something to behold.  Or not.  I steered clear of his “filing system” of well-labeled boxes and folders containing all his receipts, from everything and everyone.  I remember countless times seeing him bent over the kitchen table with neat stacks of bills and other papers before him, writing checks and making notes.  I wonder what the tax accountants thought when they saw him coming, boxes under each arm.  Actually, with his mathematical experience and mom’s extensive accounting background, I can’t imagine they ever even needed to see the tax people. 

Dad kept the yard cleaned, the driveway and walkway clear, the garden weeded, plants pruned, the windows and cars washed.  He enjoyed seeing things “in order.”  This became such a natural part of me that I am just plain dissatisfied if things look unclean or a cluttered mess.  If I could only do the same with my cluttered mind sometimes!   

Our shop out back was one large room with lots of space to work and store equipment.  Dad would spend many hours sawing or painting or whatever in the shop.  He had all his little cabinets and boxes labeled out there too, from nails to napkins I suppose.  The shop was something else for me.  For my friends and me it was a rec-room for pingpong.  Dad enjoyed this too.  We all played pingpong on the table he bought and set up.  This brings to mind yet another good lesson from dad, though not directly related to cleanliness. 

6.  Always make time for play.

My punctual and picky father was happy to make a playspace even in the midst of his workplace.  Dad loved games–cardgames, boardgames, pingpong and pool.  He was an energetic opponent for my sister and me in spirited badminton or tennis matches. When I was a pitcher during junior high, dad was my biggest fan and practice catcher.  I always get tearful, as many guys do, when I remember these “Field of Dreams” moments playing catch or practicing pitches with dad.  In later years I can remember shooting baskets by the carport, rebounding from the backboard dad sawed, painted and bolted up there.

He found great relaxation in watching football, baseball, basketball and even boxing.  I have a few humorous images in memory of walking into the living room to see dad with tight fists and clenched jaw jerking his shoulders as he watched a boxing match on the tube. 

Come to think of it I can see a connection between these lessons from dad.  When you’ve done the work you need to do, clean up, keep things orderly so you’ll have space for a game or two.  Time is precious.  Take the time, make the time, to enjoy living and laugh while you do it.  It’s good fun, and a great way to spend time with family.

7.  A sense of non-sensical humor.

Humor makes life tolerable, makes others smile; laughter is not only the best medicine, it’s a painfully groan-producing cure for the crud; poking, ribbing, punning silliness, wordplay–all about taking life easier and making it lighter.  I first learned this and saw it firsthand in my father.  I suffered through it too!

I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t laugh at myself, as dad did.  His laugh was infectious and hearty.  He could laugh at the stupidity of others, a good joke, a ridiculous pun or himself.  If anyone knew how to lighten the mood and just make another person smile, dad was the master.

This lesson is probably the one most people around me appreciate the least–on the other hand, many seem to like my humorous joking. . .now and then.  Ribbing, puns, wordplay laced with silliness or sarcasm intended to brighten up the mood.  Not always successful, I must admit.  But it is part of my fiber, in my bones, my blood.

Jokes to dad were practical.  Yes, there were practical jokes.  He told me he once put some cheese under a co-worker’s desk at work.  After a few days he, and the other guys, watched as the man looked high and low, sniffing the air, trying to find the source of the foul smell. Joking was practical for dad; it worked for him.  He saw, he felt and he delighted in the results, the effects of a good laugh.  Like all the Highland brothers dad lived to make others smile, even through their disgust.  “Ohh, Bob!” one would groan.  But he was already in stitches and a wonderful gut-busting wound was open to stitch some more.  I suppose you could say this kind of non-sensical humor makes some sense.  But unless you’re a comedian, it won’t make too many cents!  “Ahhhh!”

8.  Life cannot be put off.

This is a hard lesson, because it was hard for dad and difficult for me.  Sometimes I simply say “Life is too short.”  Often, when I am conversing with someone about the shortness of life, I bring up dad and his death.  It still hurts a great deal that dad is gone, and it’s been twenty-three years.  What adds to the pain is something I say easily but it runs deep in me like a troubling current of a persistent stream.  Dad prepared for years to enjoy his retirement years.  He collected rods and reels, bought a boat or two.  I think he must have dreamed of taking some fishing trips.  I know he thought of seeing my sister and me much more.  Of course, he had his projects and volunteer work at the church, with the VFW and more I don’t know about.  But all this was not to be.  After thirty years at Boeing (he was hired three years before I was born), dad retired with a gold Seiko wristwatch and a handshake.  Within the year following his retirement dad discovered he had cancer.  Rolling his own cigarettes all those years, something he probably started during the war, finally caught him and he was not on the winning side this time. 

I sometimes think of this as one of dad’s “negative” lessons.  Something he showed me and I learned how not to live my life the same way.  Putting the full enjoyment of life off to the future, into the retirement years, is deadly in itself.  As Thoreau said, he did not want to come to the end of his life and find that he had not lived.  This is the tragedy of our age, isn’t it?  Dad probably knew it in his heart.  So he played and laughed, practiced courtesy and kindness, tried to be mindful and be proud that he did his best.  Yet, life and life’s frailties can catch up and derail the dreams, tip the boat, and the fish gets away.

I hope I continue to learn this lesson, to be reminded and to find ways to change and challenge myself to live now, here, the best, the good.  That would honor dad, and complete this final lesson that never needs to be the final word. 

A Legacy with Legs

Dad passed away in November of 1984, just after my daughter turned three.  I spent some of his last days with him and we said our goodbyes.  I sat next to him on his bed at home and asked him, with a choked throat, if he ever wanted me to do something else in life, to be something else.  I suppose I was looking both for direction and affirmation.  He just shook his head, with the uncharacteristic scraggly beard this clean-shaven man said he would shave off “when I beat the cancer,” and told me through a throat choked by disease, that he was proud of me and all that I had done.  He loved me and would always love me.  His words, among the last I ever heard him say, meant the world to me, somehow gave my life a renewed meaning.  It was as if he was passing along some of his strength and his goodness.  He was giving me what no last will and testament could offer:  a dad’s living lesson of love.  I could see his weakness, hear his frailty, but what I could feel was the tight grip of his muscular hand.  He was still my teacher, my catcher, and my biggest fan. 

Leaving to fly back to my little daughter in California was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I knew it would be the last time I would ever see my father alive.  I feel some guilt in saying that I didn’t fly back a few weeks later for his memorial.  I just couldn’t see it, couldn’t do it.  My own work needed me and so did my tiny daughter.  I was still reeling from a nasty divorce and a very troubling child-sharing arrangement.  Most importantly, I felt, I sensed in some deep way, that I had said all the goodbyes that were necessary.  Maybe that was selfish; I might have given more support to my sister and the rest of the family.  All I knew is that I couldn’t do it, and I have to live with that decision. 

The week when I was writing this essay, I glanced out of my small green cabin in the green, in the greenwood, to see an astonishing sight.  A sprig of delicate buds emerging from the topmost branch of the lilac, potted in cobalt blue, standing about three feet high outside the window.  A small thing.  A sprig.  But this was the lilac bush once tended by my father in the front yard of my youth.  Set in the corner, in a prominent position by the retaining wall that could not retain the cucumbers and nasturtiums spilling over like a spring flood.  Some years after the gardener had left, I stopped by the old house and struck up a conversation with the new owner.  We walked into the house, being remodeled in a way almost indistinguishable from the home I had known from grade school through college—the house chosen by my parents for one main reason:   no steps.  Mom’s arthritis was the standard for architecture.  The new owner, in her paint-spattered workclothes, took me around and I told stories of what was where and when.  We strolled into the yard where the large lilac was in full blossom and bloom, purple and fragrant.  I took a sprig in my hand and drew a deep breath, explaining that this very plant was nurtured by my father in years past.  The woman offered a cutting from the earthy roots and I was pleased to accept.  I placed the tiny cutting, the size of my palm, into a clear plastic  bag for the flight back to California.  Fifteen, maybe twenty years have gone by.  I have transplanted the lilac root as many times as I have re-rooted in home after home.  That week, while writing about dad and his lessons, buds were about to flower for the first time.  Just like him, just like his odd sense of humor, two flowers emerged on a Sunday, Mother’s Day.  I laughed with a tear in my eye over that.

Dad ended every one of his daily “mindfulness” prayers of grace with the standard phrase of comfort he surely learned in his Montana youth, “in Jesus’ name.”   Reminiscing about dad and the lilac I recall two branches of teachings from the Gardener of Galilee:  “I am the vine, you are the branches; I abide in you as you live in me” and, toward the end, “See, I am with you always.”  It is not a mere statement of mysticism or a twisted religious sentiment for me to say that I hear dad’s voice in these ancient words.  It is dad who abides, buds and flowers in me.   It is dad who abides, today and tomorrow, in his only and adopted son.  He will never leave me.  The youthful-looking lilac assures me, I am, in so many greening ways, his leaf, in some seasons, his sprig and his bloom.  How could I ever forget dad, or his lessons?  I have returned to this northwest soil where he lies and find myself transplanted like the plant with heart-shaped leaves.  I know, in some unexplainable manner, I am a wayward cutting from a root, his root.  And the lessons continue to sprout and surprise.    

A few feet across the sidewalk from the old lilac stood the old mailbox.  It stood, and it stands.  Like all the old lessons, being sent every day of my life, I discovered that dad’s mailbox, the one he marked and nailed to the post by the other boxes, remains, abiding, strangely delighting.  Every year when I drive down the deadend avenue I stop by the old rusty mailbox and stare at the name:  Robert W. Highland—dad’s name, his marking, his marking pen, his hand.  I smile, I look over at the lilac, and he is present.  This memorial site has much more meaning than his grave.  This is living—a still-used mailbox shaded by his lilac.  Every time I drive away up the hill I shake my head and shake off a tear or two.  Dad, you left your mark, your flag, your stamp–and I am one. 

One other instruction I live with is that I should have asked more questions of this man who marked his world.  I want to know so much more about the man, his life, the war, his loves and losses.  I want to feel his big handshake and hear him laugh again.  I want to see him get choked up at something I’ve done or said, filled with pride in his Christmas Boy.

In this man I turn to a person, not so much a legacy of lessons.  A legacy of a life.  Life with heart, with legs and a kick in the step.  The word legacy has to do with a bequest and to bequeath comes from the old-world term quoth:  to say.  Dad said so much through his life.  His words were playful, instructive and they could be painful and biting.  His life was the same.  I find it interesting as a writer that dad didn’t leave any written material (except his very important war letters, but they were left by my grandmother).  He was, as the famous words say, his word made flesh.  I can only hope to do the same, and be the same, with my own rusted name on a post, or a book or essay; my own lesson living on, rooted, transplanted, to bloom another day, in other lives, leaving a smile in the wake of my wings.

Chris Highland

April/May 2007 /2009

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A Touch of Death

The touch of his face felt as waxy as the look of his skin.  There was something intensely unreal to the look, the touch, yet at the same instant it was the most real I could ever see, could ever touch.  I had touched death before, another’s, my own.  This time the waxy look and feel of it melted onto me a little more. Death had a face, a young face, and it was as if my own life mask was beginning to heat and drip, re-molding into something I could not put my hand on yet.Because I knew my touch was not my own alone this touch held a deeper significance than any I could remember.  A few miles away sat a man, a father, who could not touch his dead son and who never would.  The night before, I had listened to the father whisper his grief to me, eyes as wide and captured in that dark, chilled space as a caged leopard.  And so he felt; so in some sense he was.  He blew a curling cloud of smoke down and away like his voice, making visible the words of his story that made my eyes water along with the drifting smoke.  He had made some unwise choices, been stupid and selfish.  Now he was encaged in a cold, dark, loud and smoky jail cell.  So near his family, so far.  Torn apart but forced to “keep it together” he chose to speak to someone and that someone was me.  All I could do was show up, be there, hear him–to be what I was, a human being and a chaplain.  I was a chaplain, his chaplain, for that night at least, the night he was living while his son lay dead.His son had died suddenly the day before.  A collect call home from the phone in the cell confirmed it.  He could do nothing.  Steel and cement contained him with emotions no parent should ever feel or feel contained with.  The other men in his cell laughed, smoked, slapped dominoes on the steel tables, stared at some meaningless television show, lay on bunks reading or snoring.  This man, crouching inches from my face, whispered his pain with the cold and empty breath of helplessness.  I listened, ear next to the dusty bars, and could only listen though the listening was difficult surrounded by slamming doors and cursing cardgames, the flushing toilets, shouts, arguments and blaring boxes of distracting entertainment.  The father could not be distracted.  He was publicly grieving in silence, in an inner cell of guarded privacy.  Our private conversation of death went unnoticed surrounded by living, breathing, moving cells locked into their own hidden security. There was something freeing in listening to this one voice among many, the voice of the unfree. 

Our quiet moments enveloped in noise, straining to hear, holding each other’s eyes, led into a simple request.  Would I be willing to go to his house where his family was holding a wake, a vigil, by the body of his son?  Would I go and be his eyes, his fingers, his grief embodied, to touch his son for him?  Someone shouted for a deputy, another, for a pack of smokes.  All I could hear, all I could feel and think about, was one quiet, simple question.  I nodded, he gripped my hand, we sighed and composed ourselves to face others.  But there was only one face, his.  The next face I would look into would not look back.   

I have no memory of any other conversations with any others that night, no other words or faces, the touch of no other hands, the look of no other eyes but the father’s.  I did what I always did, what no one in there could do that night or for many nights:  I walked out the doors.  Door after heavy door.   Steel gates sliding and slamming.  Before me, behind me.  Pushing open the last glass door I emerged into the night, the real night, with fresh, enlivening air, sounds of cars and dogs barking, stars overhead.  As I crossed the parking lot I shuddered with the almost sickening sense that I had warped across worlds.  With some trembling I unlocked another door, one I could control, and sat behind the wheel of my truck.  I had to just sit for a long minute, to touch my own face, my own feelings.  And I drove away from the bright lights spotlighting that dark place like a stage, wondering if all the passing people really felt safer, protected from the men and women I had just sat with, spoke with and touched.  My winding drive home was question mark after question mark.  I locked myself into my dark cell of wood not steel, and with the usual half-sleep walked along corridors of half-dreams all night.

The door was open.  The house was full of family and friends.  Incense filled the air along with puffs of pot.  The color-coated autumn day was clear but oddly warm.  A woman walked up to touch my hand and welcome me.  “He called and said you would come.”  A child ran by, another sat and stared across the room.  A couple sat close, touching hands, whispering softly as they leaned temple to temple.  The couch was set up like a bed, not a casket or a grave; it was a place of rest, a memorial with the memorialized present, silent.  Photos, candles, pieces of his life around him, on him.  I smiled and nodded.  These were not a people afraid of death, to look at it, have it among them, give it a central seat in the room.

At that moment no one stood or knelt by him, by the son.  I slowly moved to his side.  I crouched low and close as I had done with his dad.  The young man had something of a look of peace.  His skin was slightly pale though the brown of his ancestry almost glowed.  There may have been music playing.  I have no memory.  Some may have glanced to watch the stranger kneeling by the body.  I didn’t see or hear.  I leaned close to sense the person, the life lying there, but leaned closer to the dead, to the open cell of death.  And I placed my palm on his forehead, closed my eyes but couldn’t keep them closed.  I drew a deep, calm breath and felt minutes blow passed.  I was praying without words or even prayer.  I was touching what was once conscious life conscious of my hand, that it was more than my hand.  I was a father touching with a father’s hand.  All fathers’ hands.  I felt the touch of my own father’s big, squeezing hand as he said goodbye and faded behind me as I closed a final door.  I felt for an instant the fragile fingers of my baby daughter on the day of her birth.  None of this conscious.  There was nothing there, no one.  Not a thought, a prayer or even a tangible god.  I placed my hand on death with respect, with respect for death, and for life, the son’s, the father’s, my own.  I smelled the incense that could never incinerate separation, finality–only remind of it, welcome its swirling, ascending freedom.  Nothing was incarcerated here.  I drew a long breath and bowed, a grateful breath of free air freely taken.  I was the father.  I was the father present, touching, breathing, breathing free, who was releasing, liberating the son.  I was nothing more, no one more than one man serving another man by a simple act of touch. 

When I last saw the father he was still inside.  Inside the same cell, the same feelings.  He firmly grasped my hand and nodded at my words.  His face looked like wax, ready to burn, to melt.  He was now listening to me with the same attentiveness that possessed me kneeling by his son.  He grasped every word of my description, of his son, the gathered family, the life I felt there.  Maybe he felt he had now said the beginning of his goodbyes, that he was freer to grieve and go on.  I don’t really know.  How can anyone know those thoughts, those feelings?  His nod was a bow, a thanks without words when there could be no words.  I cannot recall anything we said or if it was a minute or an hour.  I know we touched.  I know our eyes were wet, blurred.  I know I felt privileged in a way I have rarely felt.  I would like to think he caught just a scent of that incense as I left, in the wake of freedom, through an open door to the vigil of whispered wishes.

©2006


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