Happily Ever After: The Work of Love

The work of love is learning to share your life completely without accidentally giving it all away. Our earliest stories in life show us two main virtues to true love: to rescue or to be rescued. You know these stories. Our most basic behaviors, beliefs and thoughts are drenched in the brine of idealized expectation.

If you are stuck in life, you can be the unfortunate stepdaughter princess, always waiting without fully realizing that you are waiting, wiling the hours away with songs about wishes and stars until, one day when you least expect it, true love bursts into your life through the forest and gets you unstuck.

Or, if you are stuck in life, you can become the directionless prince wandering with his noble, shimmering steed on some nameless, purposeless errand only to find the damsel desperate for your hand. Only you can help her. You cannot ignore this moment. She is beautiful to be sure, but how much more beautiful she will seem to you wrapped in her dirty, desperate rags, her eyes bright with hope and expectations to be fulfilled.

The gender doesn’t matter. The story is the same. True love divides us into the rescued and the rescuer. Happily Ever After becomes our endless pursuit, the project around which one builds one’s entire life.

Our tales of True Love command we give ourselves completely to the person who most desperately needs our help.

And yet, we are all somewhat stuck inside our lives — sometimes happily, often with great joy and purpose, but situated nonetheless in a particular circumstance or lack that needs fulfilling. This is not a dark thought. It is acknowledged truth.

True love cannot save us. True love keeps us locked in, always being the rescued or the rescuer.

I prefer authentic love. Authentic love that sees the other exactly as they are. Authentic love that sees the self as it is rather than as it would prefer to be. There is no rescue. There is no rescuer. There is just the authentic self seeing and the authentic self being seen. This is, it seems to me, the most basic root of human need — to see and to know that one has been seen.

Happily Ever After is no longer the project. Happily Ever After is a life without pain, discomfort or inconvenience. Happily Ever After is the vision of heaven that drove me out of the church.

Better, so much better, to be fully present sometimes with pain, to be awake sometimes in darkness. Better to see and be seen exactly as we are. This is not easy. They do not write stories to prepare us for this. But if we can be authentic and allow ourselves to see and be seen, then we can share ourselves completely and know the peace, joy and comfort that comes only from being really and truly known. This is the work of our lives. Love is our greatest tool. To learn how to share our authentic selves without reservation and without the distractions of self-sacrifice. To allow the people we love to help us without rescue, to leave off with Happily Ever After and welcome ourselves to be completely as we are — improvised, imperfect, authentic.

Cups of Coffee

I am drinking cups of coffee this morning brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. She died last week. In the months before she died, coffee had become very important. She faced cancer bravely, but I can see now that her fight was always a war of attrition. We had good months after her diagnosis in July. We got her out of the house to eat and shop and just drive around and look at pretty things. Still, looking back through it, I can see how her cancer made her world progressively smaller.

She was tethered to oxygen. The initial diagnosis prevented her from being able to work. It was a kind of spontaneous retirement. Her work friends were her closest friends. Not seeing them everyday made her sad. They were kind and visited as often as they could. They brought her food. They mowed her yard. They texted and called. They brought her news from the outside world to keep her connected with the places and people they shared in common. Her friends had become ranger scouts reporting back to home base.

Wearing oxygen makes every excursion into the world a pain in the ass. There are devices and straps and tubes and things that want to tangle in the spokes of the wheelchair. When you wear oxygen and use a wheelchair, you calculate your trips carefully. You do a kind of math each time. You need to commit yourself to the idea of going out. The trips became fewer — mostly doctor visits and occasional restaurants for dinner.

She handled chemotherapy like a champ but, when the cancer moved into her bones, the radiation was a much harder hit. The pains and embarrassments of cancer began to mount. Each treatment took a greater toll. Pain set in to stay.

Eventually, her house became her universe. And then her living room.

After a month or so, the pain kept her moored in her recliner. She needed  a walker to get to the bathroom. It became a struggle for her to get into the kitchen. When she could get there, she couldn’t carry anything back with her.

Cups of coffee became very important. She had to plan each one. She hated asking for help but, in her last week, asked if I might come over when I woke up just to carry a cup of coffee. Of course.

And when I carried what would be my last cup of coffee for her, I realized just how small her world had become. This was a woman born in Paris, who had grown up all over Europe and then settled in Tennessee. She treasured her childhood memories of Germany and Greece. And now, her world had become the size of a cup of coffee.

It was, for all that, I think, the best cup of coffee. As her world became smaller, my mom-in-law, my wife and my family began to appreciate smaller and smaller things. Standing where I stood in early July 2013, before our struggles began, I would have thought the shrinking of her world would be a source of inevitable pain and despair. Those were always there, but, more than anything else, we saw in her a growing appreciation for the smallest things. The smaller her world became the bigger her appreciation.

She suffered a brain hemorrhage and lasted almost two days before passing. In those last hours after the hemorrhage, she could not move or speak. She was just breathing and that was a difficult chore. I would not have thought it possible, but her world had become smaller still. Her world had become her body. Less than her body. A portion, some unseen pocket of her body where the spirit still propelled the heart and lungs to function. For most of those hours, it was impossible for us to know if she was even there with us or if her breath was just the trick of a body that hadn’t yet learned how to stop breathing.

In those moments and the moments that have come since her passing, I like to think that when her world became so incredibly, impossibly small, her appreciation and gratitude for the world grew incredibly, impossibly large. I like to imagine that, in those final, isolated moments when she was locked into herself that she felt herself swallowed by gratitude and that her capacity for amazement and wonder had become infinite.

In the very last hours of her life, we had small signs that she was still there and that she knew we were there with her. This was a mercy for us. It was a comfort for my wife. In that moment, we were her world. And we were bathed in that wash of gratitude and appreciation.

We miss her. The funeral is over. Friends and family are returning to their homes and their lives. We will develop new routines. Learn to call a new kind of life normal.

There are difficult days ahead. I am drinking coffee brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. I want, every day, to appreciate each cup in the way my mom-in-law had learned to do. Having tasted that particular blend of joy, appreciation and sorrow, I don’t want to lose the richness of that kind of gratitude.


My mom-in-law died very early Sunday morning. She had been sick with lung cancer and all the sordid complications, pains and harrassments that come with the disease. When diagnosed in July 2013, the doctors guessed she might have 5 months. She lived 9. Eight of those months were pretty good.

When my family realized how short our time together was going to be, we learned how to be very honest with ourselves and each other. If we needed something, we learned how to ask. If we wanted something done, we did it with little delay. We cried and worried a lot at first, but soon found ourselves laughing as much as we were crying and then laughing more often than crying.

When we hurt feelings, we quickly apologized. We said I love you more often and practiced patience and humility when foundering in painful or embarrassing situations.

My mom-in-law had been sick and, when she died, was about to be become even sicker. Her passing was a strange kind of mercy.

If you listen, life carries strange echoes.

I was away from home the day my wife’s mom got the first diagnosis. My wife called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

I was away from home the day my wife got the call that her mom had suffered a sudden, unexpected brain hemorrhage. She called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

Both of those drives were the most awful miles. Having had my wife’s voice with all of her pain and grief in my ear, I felt right there with her and yet, I had to cross 150 miles of interstate to be with her. I often live divorced from the realities of time and distance. Feeling both between us made me afraid and bit frantic.

And yet, both of those awful drives were a kind of mindful meditation. Both times, I was pressed forward by two inescapable realizations.

Everything we build, develop or make with our own efforts and our own energies is temporary. No matter how important or useful or beautiful, everything we call our life is temporary. This is terrifying, but it is also comforting.

Being temporary and recognizing our temporariness frees us to understand a greater truth. We are not here for ourselves. Our lives do not really belong to us.

It doesn’t matter what church you go to or which way you say your prayers. We are here for one reason. All of us. We are here to help each other be brave in the face of our own individual temporariness. We are here to comfort, to encourage and to remind each other to practice our lives with openness. There is always sadness. There is always fear. There is always discouragement.

Uncertainty is not an aberrant state. Uncertainty cannot be avoided. Uncertainty is our lives. We can help each other work with uncertainty so that it is not a source of fear or pain.

There is beauty and confidence and assurance waiting in uncertainty. We are here to remind each other and to help each other practice remembering.

Find an Anchor

We spend the majority of our lives in a kind of dream, believing that things are a certain way and that patterns of events from yesterday and the day before predict how things will be today and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Our sleeping selves move through this dream anesthetized with ideas of certainty and expectation.  Our dreaming minds build a compelling narrative that we have autonomous lives and that we are in complete control of these lives and can drive them around like cars wherever we like at whatever speed feels comfortable.

And then, an interruption. We are roused from our dream and realize that our lives are not predictable, that there is little certainty and the small vehicles we call lives do not really even belong to us. They are loaned and temporary, like clothes and houses and moods. We can drive them, perhaps, a short distance but, if we are paying attention, we find there is no road.

And then, our waking selves make a choice. We can close our eyes and sink back into the comfort of the dream or we can stand awake with the fact of groundlessness and take comfort from knowing that our lives do not really belong to us but are borrowed for each of us to use for the benefit of others.

And there is comfort in noticing the smallness of our selves and in the work of opening ourselves as much as possible to join with the smallness of others so that our small, shared individual lives become larger, better and more useful to the world.

And there is comfort in acknowledging the unsettledness of everything. In those moments, we can stand bravely while knowing that there is no ground. We are able to work with ourselves as we truly are. And if we can begin to practice walking with this knowledge there is comfort and strength and bravery without the need for certainty. We are awake. We are inhabiting our lives, no matter how small. We have found an anchor.


A small prayer that comes from months of working with illness, disappointment, loss and fear. And yet those months have also brought vitality, surprise, bravery, and love. Things are never what we think they are. I hope reading this brings some comfort to someone who needs it. The writing has brought some comfort to me.

Writing, Running, Meditation and the Inescapability of Time

Being on vacation this week with no specific plans or agenda has given me the chance to reconnect with three activities that always help rebuild my sanity and restore my soul: running, writing and meditation. All three are habitual acts which, when practice, help me crawl out of my head and back into my body. While running this afternoon I was struck by the common thread between them. The practice of each puts me into a direct, inescapable experience of time.

When running, there are no short cuts. You set a goal (either time or distance), you start running and, whether you reach the goal or shop short, the entire time you are running there is nothing else happening. There are no distractions. There is no escape from the fact of what you are doing. When you are running, your body is doing only that. Your mind may be thinking thoughts. You may not be thinking about running but some part of your mind is always aware that you are running. There is an autonomy that takes over the body when you are running. Running does not require careful thought or specific planning beyond the simple, consistent mantra to keep going. The thing I like about running is that direct contact with time. Twenty minutes is not an abstract thing. When running, you feel every part of twenty minutes. There is a focus that comes from no where else. When running, you are doing those twenty minutes and those twenty minutes are doing you.

Writing is the same way. The only way to get words on a screen is to put them there. You cannot simply wait for them to appear. You have to put them there. There is always a first word. Then a second. Then a third. Usually, the words quickly group themselves into sentences. When you are writing well, you aren’t concious of reaching for specific words. You build the page by sentences – one after one, like laying bricks side by side on a wall. In writing, there is no escape. You can”t cheat. You have to hold the seat and do the time and stack the sentences together until they make something that did not exist before. Again, like running, writing requires its own focus. You cannot write while thinking of anything else. You can’t write and do the dishes. You can’t write and pay the bills. When you are writing there is an order and a logic to your life. You are writing and you are only writing and when you are finished writing you are doing something else.

Running puts me into the mindset for writing. When running, I always get the next idea or the next sentence or some other clear, specific gift to help the words get on the screen.

Mediation is much harder. If you really want to be placed in direct experience of time, you should sit on a cushion and do nothing but sit. You realize quickly that the mind is a wild creature, an untamed monkey, constantly trying to escape the present moment and rush forward to some unseen moment that does not yet exist. It is a painful thing. It is unpleasant and frightening. It feels maddening and you are always a bit relieved when it is over. And yet, when you  practice meditation and cultivate the habit of sitting with no gaining idea, you find you are able to settle down into the moment. In those few seconds, your body and mind are the same. They share the same purpose. They are relaxed and calm. They belong with you, and you belong with them. This is called mindfullness.

And then moment is gone and your mind is rushing ahead again, careening away from your seat with manic speed and abandon. Why is your mind so desperate to escape? What is it that has your mind so frightened? And even as your mind rushes away and you feel the loss of those few perfect moments, you recognize the distinction between how it felt when you were sitting and mindful and when you are were sitting and grasping, desperate for the ending bell to ring. And that recognition, while tinged with frustration and loss, is also a realization that we are delusional most of our waking lives. That we live and breathe and move inside of time but constantly struggle to place ourselves outside of time. We are always wasting these few fragile moments that belong with us to reach for things that do not yet exist. We are psychotic and time-sick and vow never to sit in meditation again because the experience is so disturbing and unsettling. But then we stand and are grateful because we have once again learned to see how moments connect – how the present becomes the past and also becomes the future. And how neither the past nor future have ever really existed. Only the present. Only this place. Only the place where I am now and the place where you are and so on.

I am writing about three kinds of transcendence. Often difficult. Often uncomfortable, yet somehow, each brings me back into myself. I have a tendency to climb up into my head and stay there like a cat caught in a tree. It is good to know I can always find my way down if I am willing to be uncomfortable and feel the passing of time. The experience of discomfort is always worth it. It always places me safely back on solid ground.

Meditation: Your Life is a Borrowed Thing

Your life does not belong to you. It is a borrowed thing. Someday, you will be required to give it back. Until then, you must use your borrowed life as an instrument. Do good work. Contribute everything you can. Hold nothing aside. Increase happiness. Help others make the most with their borrowed lives. Learn without fear. Help others learn without fear. Be relentlessly generous. Give until you have nothing left. This is how you live the kind of life worth living. This is how you honor the gift you have been given. This kind of life does not come easily. Practice everyday. Do not tell others how they should live. Show them. Prepare the way for those who come after you. Return your life when it is required of you. Stand aside. Smile. Breathe.

(for JT)

There Are No Words

There are no words to explain what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut. There is no consolation to give the parents of gone children.

There is no rule to govern why it was some other person’s child and not mine. There is no way to measure how much future genius, energy and insight was lost.

I am angry. I am baffled. I am scared.

This happened. This can happen again.

And yet, I must send my daughter out into the world. She needs to be in the world. The world needs her to be in it.

And so I am working with impermanence. I am working with fear. I return to these like a mantra: attachment and impermanence; impermanence and fear.

I am not a prayerful person and yet I wrap my whole life up in one single prayer. That I can help things become bigger rather than smaller. That I can help open spaces rather than close them.

My entire life wrapped up in one single prayer that has no words, only action. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can be awake and alive. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can live.

Living Someone Else’s Dream

I teach at a community college and know that there are thousands and thousands of students with no idea of how they want to use their lives. Many are being trained for vocations in which they have little interest or enthusiasm. Somewhere along they way, these students have borrowed someone else’s dream. Some are starting on career paths with the belief that the point of their work will be to make money which will allow them the freedom to magically discover their interests and pursue a better life. That doesn’t happen. The pursuit of money fuels the cycle of disappointment.

Samsara is the Buddhist concept of being entrapped in the cycle of perpetual despair. We are trapped. Our children get trapped. Their children get trapped. We build lives that justify the experience of our suffering. We habituate ourselves to routines and expectations that do not serve us. Our children learn to do the same. They teach their children to do the same.

This doesn’t need to happen. Disappointment is a wheel. It doesn’t have to turn.

My wish for my students is to find a measure of the purpose Alan Watts describes in this video:

My hope is that more of my students can wake up to the realization that they are living someone else’s dream. They can stop the wheel and ask themselves, “What would I do if money were no object?” And then, they can commit themselves to learning about their true passions. Our world needs people who are awake and committed to becoming their best selves.

Gratitude is a practice

I don’t call myself a Buddhist but there is much about the Buddhist approach to life that feels right to me. I am drawn to the belief that my life, and everything in my life, is practice. Not practice for an abstract, future-tense state of being where everything is perfect and all potential fulfilled. Not time-served through adversity to merit everlasting rest in unseen perpetual bliss.

I’m not talking heaven or nirvana or any other metaphysical end state. I’m talking about right here, right now.

Life as practice means everything I do and everything done to me is raw material. I can work with everything to be more fully present in my life. This, I think, is the point of life. Not worrying so much about future states of perfection at the expense of the present moment. The future is never what I expect nor what I believe I will need it to be. Much better to focus my attention on right now, which is, of course, always exactly as it is.

This is not a recipe for nihilism. This carries me toward selflessness.

If my life is my practice, then I can work with everything and everything belongs. Being happy is temporary. Being unhappy is temporary. Being sad, frustrated, angry, elated are all temporary. These emotional states change. They intensify, and they weaken. They disappear.

Gratitude, however, does not disappear. Gratitude remains constant. Gratitude is not a feeling. Gratitude is a practice.

This time of year my mind habitually produces lists of the great things I appreciate. This is the Count My Many Blessings approach to gratitude. Keep doing this, but don’t stop here.

Gratitude as practice means seeing, recognizing and appreciating those things in my that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or just plain difficult. This stuff is my life, too.

And so gratitude as practice requires a list of not-so-pleasant things that make my life as it is. This does not come naturally to me. This requires a lot of practice.

Here goes.

Pay Attention. This Isn’t My Life.

There have been plenty of times I have thought to myself: this isn’t my life. My life isn’t the 45 to 50 hours I work every week. My life isn’t the stuff I do around the house or the trips to the grocery store. My life isn’t my Wunderlist website of long term projects or the daily Stky list of tasks I keep on my phone.

My life is the thousand beautiful moments happening every day, which I am usually too busy to notice.

Occasionally, my life leaps out and grabs me by the throat.

Today my life caught me by surprise. The trigger was a cataclysmic sunset, both beautiful and terrible, like the  edges of the world caught fire. This, like a poem, grabbed me and could not be ignored. I turned the car around to admire the conflagration and, too soon, it was gone.

Memories of another fleeting sunset while listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn play “Little Wing”. This is my life: small, subtle moments of profound beauty where the world is simultaneously made and unmade. Reaching out to capture me, when I pay attention.