Saturday, July 25, 2020

Waking up in a Helicopter

I was inside my head, ruminating over circumstances, and I was definitely feeling down. With about an hour to go before sunset, I finally convinced myself to haul my body out of a chair and at least get out for a walk. Three miles down and a cool shower later, I was lying on my bed anticipating the next pass of the oscillating fan, thinking that my sense of self-worth had racked up at least one accomplishment.

Seriously. It was that kind of day.

At some point, my wife interrupted: Dinner would be ready in about five minutes, son was in his wheelchair headed for the table, and daughter’s boyfriend would be joining us. It didn’t matter that I was still full from my pandemic sedentary one-meal-a-day and it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel like I’d be particularly good company. “I’ll be there.” The next act of will was just sitting back up and getting dressed.

Again, yes. Seriously. It was that kind of day.

I don’t know who was talking or what the context was, but I somehow woke up at the table hearing someone mention “helicopters.” So listen: I have no particular love of helicopters – I’m not really an aficionado; however, the sights, sounds, and memories of them sometimes take me back to my service in the Army with the 101st Airborne Division. While helicopters were not a specific part of my daily life there, they were certainly part of the ambiance ~ and, yes, I do have a few good personal stories guest-starring Hueys, Blackhawks, Chinooks, and even Apaches. Before I knew it, I found myself at the table, sharing a few of each.

In recounting each story, one after another, I was transported back to another time and into another set of circumstances. In one place and time, maybe there was just something funny to see; in another, some obstacle to overcome; and in yet another, a reminder of who I was or a clue of how I came to be.

Looking a little to the left and a little to the right of each event, there were reminders of how I found myself in that situation and perhaps how I was changed by it. That pattern became even more clear with a little more altitude. Looking a bit to the left and a bit to the right, I recalled myself a wandering aimlessly in college before my father died. Working different jobs wasn’t moving me forward or getting me back to college, so one day I hit the eject button and joined the Army. While there, I had a basic plan. It was routinely confounded, sure, but I remained on course – right until it was confounded. Once I was injured, the Army – and all the things I intended to do therein over the next 20 years or so – were no longer an option. Over the next year, I worked to remain honorably engaged with the mission In an environment hostile to the “invisibly broken,” and I accumulated quite a few stories – and quite a few hours with the helicopters. I also remained mercifully distracted from not knowing what I’d do next with the rest of my life.

That was more than 25 years ago… and this day felt very familiar. What comes next? Who knows? What I do have now that I didn’t have then are those stories reminding me that this isn’t the first time my world’s been turned upside-down… and in this instance, I had the nice distraction of sharing some of my stories with my kids and with a young man who may have known little to nothing about me except through hearsay.

No helicopters this time ~ but maybe I picked up a worthwhile story for another day. In the meantime, for the first time in a while, I slept peacefully.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I Was Thinking

It’s 1:30 in the morning, 77-degrees Fahrenheit and 79% humidity. After a few days with afternoons near 100-degrees, it's the first time in maybe three days I've ventured outside for more than a minute or two at a time… and at this hour ~ in this season ~ the songs of the toads and crickets and the quiet itself are overwhelming.

With the family asleep, I thought I'd enjoy some mint tea on the patio and maybe write a little. Settling into my chair, I relax and ask a quiet mind for topics to consider. Somehow, though, circumstances such as they are, the only visions appearing from just inside the fog are dark and bitter. I don't want to feel like that right now, nor do I want to post that poison for others. So I don't.

Instead, I pause for a breath... and then maybe another… and habitually return to my tea and consider what this all may mean and what I should do.

Acting on instinct at a time like this may well collapse all of what is possible into a much smaller universe of negative outcomes. What do I mean by this? Well, first is a practical matter, and that is that I may be noticed. If the universe is on the fence about what to do with you and you start playing the fool, your action pending an outcome may affect that outcome. The second is not such an obvious matter of cause and effect, but it may be more important: If your mind is poisoned with a negative view and you dwell on assuming ill intent or the worst case scenarios, you may be blind to any positive options offered or works in progress. Either way, the end is the same: You may only have whatever solace comes with an "I was right" or an "I told you so” after the fact.

So what about all of this thinking itself? All thinking is “wishful thinking,” isn’t it? If I’m on the lookout for a positive outcome or a negative outcome, I may well find it – after all, I do like being right, even if it’s about something terrible… and if I’m focused specifically on this outcome or that outcome, I may well be blind to others. I conclude that I might as well focus on who I’d like to be should a positive reality happen to come along.

… either that or I limit myself to outcomes that can only be compatible with a worldview that is not compatible with me. For instance, if I have to force or to trick an outcome that feels positive to me, do I want to live with the reinforced notion that I am separate from all of this and somehow above all of that, and that to succeed or to maintain the result means more force or more trickery? Certainly that would mean expecting that everyone else is treating me in that same way. Would people really enjoy a lifetime living in that world?

The temperature of the psyche is visible everywhere, even in the quiet in the middle of the night ~ even against the croaking and chirping of invisible toads and crickets. Half of my thoughts are true while the other half are lies while the truth itself ~ if it exists at all ~ is far from where my attention lies. So instead of examining the details of this conversation with myself, maybe it’s enough to realize what it’s saying about me.

So let that be my writing for tonight ~ the most positive thing I can say given my circumstances and given my experience, presented from the perspective of the person I will become.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On Showing Up

Symposium Thursday…

A question, from somewhere near the back: “Who’s talking? What’s the topic?”

First there was the glare, and ~ just in case the glare didn’t say enough ~ then came the lecture.

On Thursdays, after core hours, the halls would start to buzz as the crew shuffled from the informal coffee reception in the faculty lounge, the offices, and the classrooms, and that buzz would move with it’s own peculiar energy toward the third-floor’s small, auditorium-styled classroom.

There were faculty and there were grad students ~ and depending on the topic, there may have been some inspired undergrads or folks from other academic departments too. We’d be in there for an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half, in a show of support for the speaker, the department, and for mathematics itself.

Well, at a minimum it was a show of support: I mean, there’s no question that the symposium was an opportunity for us to come together professionally as a community. But in reality, and more often than not, there would inevitably be something of interest for you.

The guest speaker was often a peer of a faculty member, likely a collaborator in some research. Sometimes, the speaker might be from industry or another department, highlighting some application of mathematics or an open problem they’re facing ~ a potential opportunity for research… The speaker might be a visiting alumnus, describing experience after graduation, and maybe even opportunities to join in. The speaker might be a graduate student highlighting an interesting problem or a prospective approach, or maybe practicing a talk to be delivered elsewhere, or maybe practicing standing at the podium and addressing an adversarial audience in preparation for a doctoral defense or even a teaching assignment.

The symposium was a lightweight way of introducing students to the foundations of academic community. There, we bring our thinking out from the shadows to see how it fares in daylight. There, we raise questions and we consider approaches. There, we solicit insight and find inspiration. There, we examine solutions with adversarial scrutiny. And there, we share and celebrate both individual achievement and collaborative successes.

For many, the symposium is the first glance into a world that exists alongside and a bit beyond the core curriculum, the exams, and the degrees.

But none of this happens without instilling the tradition.

None of this happens without celebrating the culture.

None of this happens if the doors aren’t opened for us.

And none of this happens if we don’t show up.

The cultures we create ~ and the cultures we ignore ~ will all be as present as you were as you take your place today at the podium.

Having set the stage, your time ~ begins ~ now.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Taking Refuge in the Storm

[I encourage you to listen rather than just read ~ the ambient rain and thunder are worthwhile.]

Last night I was planning to take this post in another direction, but the afternoon’s circumstances doubled-down … and now maybe that direction has proven more true.

I remember when I was younger, maybe 40 or so years ago, listening to the weather reports on the radio as a hurricane bore down upon our location. We were inland and out-of-the-way enough that hurricane season ordinarily brought at best some tired rain, maybe enough wind to fly a kite, and certainly washes of swampy humidity. That’s what made this one an event: This one, against all odds, persisted as it crawled up the coast and finally turned inward for its kamikaze run.

The weather radios buzzing with warnings to take shelter were suddenly overpowered by the intensifying wind. The skies turned dark as tall pines and hardwoods alike contorted in a macabre dance. Whether it was at my family’s prodding or due to a delayed re-acquisition of my senses, I don’t know ~ but I withdrew from my windowed overwatch and moved to the interior. I listened ~ and I felt ~ the storm washing through me with such power…

But there was no crescendo ~ no wild climax of nature. What followed was far more intriguing ~ something that I don’t know if I’d experienced prior. Years later in martial arts studies I’d learn the Japanese word zanshin ~ a certain residual, relaxed, and heightened awareness following the perfect execution of a technique. To an observer, it is done ~ but really it is not. The scene is still, yes ~ your opponent is down, but maybe not yet subdued. You remain connected to this moment and to your opponent until the energy is dissipated and the encounter finally resolved.

There was a sudden stillness and, upon opening the door, I saw there was sunlight as well. I wandered into the yard. .. and I wandered down the block. I wandered up and down the avenue, surveying uprooted trees and a few damaged roofs, the debris scattered indiscriminately. For maybe twenty minutes I wandered, appearing imperceptibly still on the scale of what passed, until the roar resumed and the darkness followed, the trees dancing in reverse as the scene unwound. The eye had passed ~ the stillness broken ~ as the storm retook control.

Yesterday I sat at the table’s head for an impromptu family lunch. It was loud and it was spirited ~ right until it wasn’t. There was an internal wind… and there was sudden darkness… and then there was a cold stillness. My wife was restrained in horror, my son looked for an escape from the table, and my daughter was in tears wondering what she had done wrong ~ and how she might resolve it. As her emotions railed, my own were absent; and as she lashed out, my verbal grip tightened. There was only zanshin ~ a very cold ~ and a very cruel ~ zanshin…

It took some time for us to sit down again and for her to ask ~ and for me to acknowledge ~ what repressed feelings ~ justified or not ~ that I may have brought to that encounter. In some reality, though, the awareness was there ~ and at any time, with that clarity, I could have released the grip ~ but I didn’t. Somehow, the energy was not yet dissipated ~ the encounter was not complete. To see it in any other light, I would have to ask whether I enjoyed the encounter as sport ~ or as prey… that somehow I used practices I’d honed for peace in some dark fashion.

The other night, I sat on the front porch beneath the overhang with an evening cup of coffee as a strong summer storm passed. I always find some peace in the power of lightning crackling and feeling waves of thunder washing through my core. Where others may sensibly retreat, I am routinely drawn to it. Maybe it takes me outside of myself for a moment. Maybe I feel the heightened awareness and the lingering connection ~ the zanshin. Maybe I see some hidden part of me, just below the surface, externalized, revealing itself to be recognized. Who knows? But whatever it is, it passes ~ and with it goes whatever dark part of me that I attached ~ at least for now. Or so I hope.

Monday, June 22, 2020

On Prayer

Before I begin, I pause with a silent prayer. It’s silent … but it’s not a secret … I mean, I’m telling you about it now … and I wouldn’t mind cluing you in on the words so you could use them too, but … really … there are no words. Instead, I’m looking for the silence inside that pause. It’s a moment to ground and center, to ensure my head is on straight before I begin. It’s a moment to ensure my intention is aligned. It’s a check that my ego is set aside. It’s a binding of my tongue that it not stray as the words depart my lips. It’s that last surrender to the faith that one who hears the words will find whatever message they are meant to receive, regardless of my own foibles and imperfections in their delivery.

And you know, maybe there is something that I would like to say ~ some insight, some lesson, some admonishment, something clever, or some other message that I want to convey, and maybe I even hope my thinking will benefit you ~ after all, that would probably make me feel pretty good too… But even if I can’t strip myself from the words, at least let me not stray so far from the course that what is meant to be heard is lost. Keep me at least pointed in the right direction ~ so that regardless of whatever I had hoped to convey, let me release what I was compelled to say and and let me depart that moment without the need to look back, without any question that some arrow found its target.

Maybe it’s some bastardization of Catholicism, Zen, and even Aikido practices, all mixed with a life’s experience plus a question, “Why?”, all resulting in some temporary understanding, but here’s what’s at the root: I do not pray for what I need. If there is a God, I trust this God knows me perfectly, to include knowing what I need. If God requires that I ask or that I explain, or insists upon testing me, then this God is not God. Similarly, I don’t ask to be heard or understood. I used to, but it was exhausting. A life of trying to be heard finds more who aren’t listening, and trying to be understood finds more who won’t understand. Instead, I remind myself that what needs to be heard and what needs to be understood will be. I’ll do my part in every moment, but it’s simply not up to me.

And when passions are roused and I am moved to speak or act, for better or for worse ~ I try to accept that my part in it all was fulfilled.

… and within that pause, maybe having found that silence, having set aside ego, having set aside the needs to be heard and understood, having set aside the concern that my delivery can affect what you hear at all, and having set aside my rationalization of it all, I end my prayer … and we are ready to begin.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Words Without Lineage or Legacy

About three years ago, I purchased a small, handheld video camera to carry around and record some thoughts. For the most part, it remained in a camera bag alongside a nice, handheld digital audio recorder that I purchased a few years prior to carry around record some thoughts… Yeah, you hear where this is going already, no?

All in all, the camera bag typically got more use holding those items than carrying them.  After all, it does require a dedicated effort to haul around that extra gear in day-to-day life ~ and besides, there was the smart phone, which does at least an adequate job of taking ordinary photos, videos, and simple voice recordings when the inspiration hits...

Still though, the cellphone lacks that certain gravitas I had in mind for those musings I imagined I'd want to record.  That level of importance would require forethought and preparation, assembling my thinking in advance, preparing the gear, ensuring I had a suitable place with adequate lighting for film and sufficient quiet for sound, all of that plus the necessary privacy to avoid interruption or heckling during the process. It would also mean I'd need to set aside the time alone afterward to process it all into something worthy of delivery.

In retrospect, I might have predicted that those items would never make it beyond the "script" stage ~ or, as I like to call them today, the "blog posts.”  Checking the stats, I see I have well over 300 posts here on Sword Mountain, spanning back about ten years, including around 25 posts living in the Drafts folder, likely not to be revisited.  Each post was either written for Sword Mountain itself or was an import from two or three other blog sites in consolidation.  There are still two or three other specialty blogs out there with unrelated content, each holding several large bags of words. There were also several social media accounts with everything from pithy nonsense to photos and video, most deleted or curated out of existence.  There are also several notebooks-slash-journals stacked here and there, many returned to the universe as burnt offerings from any number of the fire pits.  There were also computer files scattered about with similar content, most dragged & dropped into the trash can without the equivalent "in real life" satisfaction.

There is no shortage of my words scattered about, but as I grow older I become more keenly aware of the shortage of readers.  That became more pressing as I approached the age my father was when he passed and I reflected upon how little I really knew about him, now a man my own age, with his own hopes, dreams, sacrifices, achievements, and disappointments.  My purchase of that video camera was in part to help remedy that feeling, to help make the content more digestible in an era where it seems fewer read, but the habit didn't take hold.  Frankly, it left me feeling a little more removed from the people I would have liked to have reached.  So, instead, there were more posts to the blogs and more late-night scratching into notebooks with my cheap fountain pens.

My words ultimately are without lineage: They have no authority, nor anything else of note that compels anyone to read them.  Further, my words offer no legacy: They're just an ordinary fellow's musings without inherent value, inspiring no desire to possess them.  And all of that is... okay: I'll continue to write because I write ~ no big deal. Moreover, in retrospect, the lessons I took, for instance, from my father, were available precisely when I needed them, most well after his death, and few if any from anything he said or tried specifically to convey. That is the nature of these things, no? That may be the teaching for this lineage, and ~ as as legacies go ~ it’s received in time.

Now regardless of the words, there is still the voice. I’m reminded that, to some, it conveys more than any of my words ever could.  So I've taken to recording more as a practice.  Eventually, I may find my rhythm, improve both my delivery and my technical skills, and settle from pretentious delivery into conversational ease, 

And who knows? Maybe it will be heard. You know, like that tree falling in the forest. We’ll see.

In the meantime, listen to listen to this post, and check that YouTube channel to find some others that may be available.

Monday, March 30, 2020

How Many Times Have We Died?

When my father died 30+ years ago, I died too. I was 19. My biggest stress was finding my way as a college underclassman. I was upstairs in my room with my girlfriend, carefree, when a police officer knocked on my door. He told me my father was downstairs having a heart attack.

Whoever I was before that moment was gone forever.

A few years later, my hands grew numb hanging from a heavy rope on an obstacle course. The moment before my grip broke, I was a gung-ho soldier in the military intelligence corp, training hard with hopes of becoming a Green Beret. That fellow died in a training accident, reborn as a disabled veteran.

We received my son's diagnosis days before his seventh birthday, days before a large party with his friends and their siblings and parents. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. My son died that day ~ that is, the life I thought my son might lead was done, and with it the life I thought my entire family and I would lead. In fact, he was the same the moment before as he was the moment after ~ it was I who died again.

Last October, I was chatting with a friend on a Saturday morning. We worked together for years and shared a few hobbies outside the office. Both veterans, both around the same age, kids, neighborhood, ... He was telling me about his evening plans as he wrapped up where he was. On Monday I heard from his wife that he had died Saturday at home. When he died, I died too ~ knowing someone so much like me was gone in an instant, his family left to sort it out and carry on.

My daughter is ready to graduate college with a calling to be a teacher. To hear her passion, she's as dedicated to that mission as I was in my military service. Every time I hear of a new school shooting, shelter-in-place exercises with children, and with viruses threatening to move through those highly-social campuses, a part of me dies while she's still alive.

The other day it occurred to me that I hadn't seen an Instagram post in a while from an old on-line zen pen pal. Most recently she was posting photos of life in Rimini in Northern Italy ~ herself, her mother, her friends, the neighborhood with balcony signs with messages of hope as the corona virus ravaged the country. I sent her a message ~ no response. With just the uncertainty, a part of me died.

Here in the Baltimore & Washington, D.C. area, the match i lit. Over the last week, I've watched Maryland announce its first confirmed infection, then our county's first, ... A bit more than a week later, the state reports over 1,200 cases with 10-15 deaths total. People are asking when social distancing will end and people can go back to work. The President is arguing with state governors and accusing hospitals of hoarding respirators. Up until very recently, he was hoping to have churches packed on Easter, about two weeks away ~ this while my own simple calculations suggest Maryland will have more than 30-thousand confirmed cases by Easter, and the local press refuses to seek and report projections. As we shelter at home, I realize the impact the virus could have on us within two-weeks of contact ahead of any preventative therapy... Somewhere in there I died again wondering if I might have two-weeks left with anybody close to me.

Anytime our certainty or expectation is disturbed, we experience that sensation. Even if it's walking into a McDonalds and finding the shake machine is not working or arriving at the pool with towel in hand and hearing the lifeguard's whistle following a thunder clap, the future you had planned was confounded if it ever existed at all. They're small-scale examples, but they resonate, no?

Maybe there's no point in saying it, but I suspect that if we look under the hood we'll see that all of life is like this ~ a continuous GPS box announcing "Recalculating route to your destination" while we navigate through thoughts of the way we assume things are. Who knows?

Remaining supple each and every time we die may be an entire life's work, hardly a choice ~ though we may also all be free to find whatever lessons or meaning we like or need from the experience. Maybe we learn to fight to the end, to settle and find peace, to pursue passions, to deepen relationships, or to "live in the moment." Maybe, regardless of uncertainty or outcome, we get a sense of the underlying machinery, that whatever you think right now, whatever you feel right now ~ it is all so very real and solid right now, but also so fragile and ephemeral, destroyed and replaced with a diagnosis, a text message, or a thunderclap... Who knows?

It seems this is a very valuable time to find whatever understanding there is to be found, even while life as we understand it crumbles, or is changed, or we discover it wasn't much more than a dream...

For what it's worth...

... and remember: Don't suffer alone. The post is aged, but still relevant.