Empty Chair

There is an empty chair at your Christmas table. Maybe you lost someone 40 years ago. Maybe you lost someone earlier this week. Our Christmas celebrations recognize abundance — the gathering of friends and family into our homes, the tables laden with roast and casseroles and treats. Our Christmas trees are rooted deep in piles of gifts given and gifts received.

But Christmas is also about what’s missing. The people we loved, we lost and we need back in our lives. When we slow down to recognize the empty chairs, it isn’t only their absence we feel. There is greater abundance. We laugh. We tell stories. We remember. Their lives fill our lives.

We hug our children. We kiss our wives. We celebrate the long unbroken line that is our family meal. The table stretches farther before us and farther beyond us than we can possibly see. And yet, we each have our plate, our place at this table. For this moment, maybe the next, until one day we too have passed and the empty chair is ours and it is our time to hope our lives have helped make the meal richer for all.

Recipe Not Written

Take out the recipe index card, the one typed up and laminated, rescued from the handwritten scrap of paper in the back of an old spiral notebook. Look over the ingredients. Preheat to 350.

Measure out the proper dose of mayonnaise. Two cans of cream of mushroom soup. Whisk four eggs. Dump in a bag of cheese. Crush the little cheese crackers. Bring five bags of broccoli to a boil, then carefully separate florets from their stalks. Pay attention. This step takes time. Allow the soft stems to participate. Keep out any tough, unpleasant bits that might poke or jab.

While doing this, listen to John Coltrane. His life’s work is the official soundtrack of gratitude and abundance.

Think of your wife sitting quietly in the other room. You have been together all of your adult life. You have seen each other at your absolute best and absolute worst. You still choose each other every day.

Think of your 10 year old daughter watching videos in the den. She has your sense of humor and is your greatest, surprising joy. So far, so good. Be careful not to screw her up.

Think of your mother and father busily preparing the main meal at their house. Wonder if they can know how important they are, even though you hardly ever call or stop by anymore.

Think of your brothers who live too far away. Wonder what their lives are like and if the sun is shining where they are today.

Think of your grandmother who is always ready for a visit and your grandfather who you never met because he died a few weeks before you were born. And the grandparents you knew but never got to spend much time with because you lived too far away from their kitchen full of quick wit and basement full of books which sometimes you got to peruse and pilfer.

Think of your mother-in-law who welcomed you into her family years before you realized you were joining. Her talent for giving the right gifts — small, clever things you never knew you might need.

Your wife’s aunt who died too hard and too young and how she made her life the art of perpetual motion and generous action. We sang Free Bird at her funeral, which was a time I felt closest kinship with God.

Think of your closest friends, these families we make for ourselves as we move through our days. How they think of you, notice your mood, ask the useful, difficult questions.

And the people with whom you work, who bring their gifts and talents to mix with yours to make good things happen.

Think of your students as they struggle and prepare to find out what they might become.

And the people in your neighborhood who wave and smile. The people in line at the gas station or grocery store who may or may not look familiar. You are in each other’s lives even though you can’t always see how or why.

Oven is ready now. Ingredients are mixed.

Place pan in oven. Set timer. Wait.

Enjoy the spreading, radiant heat of the kitchen. Notice the room you have made inside yourself to welcome this rich meal of shared abundance.

Grateful for Difficulty

This past year and the year before have been the most challenging years of my life. We continued to adjust to the loss of my mother-in-law. We did our best to help an angry, tired grandmother die comfortably and with as much dignity as possible. My considerate, sweet 8 year old daughter became an obstinate punk. My marriage wobbled under new stresses. I lost my way, for a time, both personally and professionally.

But here’s the thing. These past two years have also been the richest years of my life. Our losses are constant reminders of impermanence, a source of new urgency and clarity about things that actually matter.

My newly punkified 8 year old explores my patience daily and reminds me that respect in any relationship is earned through habits of sincerity and discipline. This isn’t only true between parents and children.

The challenges inside our marriage threw us both off our feet. We found a better way to stand together. At 41 years old, I fell in love again with the woman I have loved since I was 15 years old. I am learning there is no edge, no ceiling, no floor on how two people can commit and grow together. She is the best part of my life.

I am finding my way out of darkness and I am traveling lighter and with greater clarity of purpose. Instead of constantly taking things on, I am pairing things down. I am learning to set down the burdens that do not properly belong to me.

I used to believe a good life was crowded, exciting and easy. I am coming to know that the good life is simple, steady and full of difficulty.

And this is my new year wish for you: that your life be filled with difficulty, frustrations and obstacles. And that, in difficulty, you may find your better self. That your relationships grow sweeter and your days more urgent. Our time together here is very short. Every moment matters.

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.

January 1, 2014: This is Not the Post You Are Looking For

Today is New Year’s Day. You are probably expecting someone to post the secret recipe for life. This is not the post you are looking for.

I don’t have any answers. If anything, 2013 brought me more questions. Last year was a difficult year, and this year will be more difficult still. People I love are sick. I’m going to lose some of them this year.

I continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. Groundlessness has become my code-book for life. It is my faith, if you want to call it that. Some Buddhists call groundlessness “impermanence”. That is a good word for it, though the term tends to emphasize the impermanence of our lives. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, overemphasizes the fact of our eventual deaths. In this focus, impermanence narrows to the unpleasant surprise of our own mortality. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, makes too big a deal of death. By focusing too much on the ultimate unpleasantness, we miss a more important truth. Our daily lives are impermanent. Our minutes and hours are in constant change. Our understandings are always confounded. Our expectations dashed.

This is not a cause for sorrow or anxiety. Despair is the wrong response. When working with groundlessness, I remind myself, I must also work with gratitude. When you have given up expectation that things should be a certain way and you are working with gratitude, you are teaching yourself to pay attention. You are letting go of an invented narrative about The Way Things Should Be and are able to notice things as they really are. Gratitude is the habit of noticing the specifics. Gratitude is about paying attention.

I am not prepared to make any New Year’s resolutions. I intend to continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. I intend for my life to develop around this one theme: pay attention.

I’m not good at paying attention. It is, for me, very much a practice. Things always go wrong. They don’t go the way I intend for them to go. I am working to remind myself that the problem isn’t with Things, the problem is with my Plan for Things. Things don’t happen the way we expect or the way we believe we need them to happen. And still, we can be grateful.

And so, as I face another year of uncertainty and almost certain losses, my wish for myself is my wish for you as well. May you be faced with every obstacle and surprised by unexpected challenges and yet remain grounded in your acceptance of groundlessness and may you grow large with gratitude for things the way they really are rather than confused and frustrated with desire for things the way they ought to be.

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.