Archive for the ‘recovery’ Category

Yesterday I sat outside my house on the side patio. After a while I noticed that two mourning doves had landed in the corner of my yard on the wall surrounding my small decorative pond and fountain. They arrived as if from nature’s chef, an amuse-bouche, free, surprising, desirable. The tiny pond is a cool oasis full of water lilies, duck weed and water Hawthorne and around the edges grow nasturtiums and coreopsis and alyssum. It’s a lovely cool spot covered with a trellis full of passion vines.

One of the doves wandered over to the rocks around the pond to drink and began to splash around. Then leaving the pond, it walked along the bricks at the top of the stucco wall in front of it and sat down beside its mate in the shade of an orange blooming cape honeysuckle. It was a warm day here in San Diego, high 70’s, but there in the shade the doves sat side-by-side and settled into a mid-day repose, a luxuriating sloth, a robust calm, ataraxia, robust tranquility. Their legs disappeared. They sank into the cool bricks and widened. They so settled that when I moved my chair out of the sun, only 25 feet away, they didn’t move a feather to fly.

During the coronavirus pandemic, as we social isolate, for many of us there’s less to do than we are used to. In such a limiting milieu as this, I find myself flitting between uncomfortable feelings. What is it? Boredom? Lethargy? Anxiety? Malnoia, that vague feeling of mental discomfort. Unlike the doves, I don’t settle well in the shade.

Caralyn Collar, a blogger I follow at beautybeyondbones puts it well in saying, “we’re grappling with … restlessness.”

Yup! Nailed it! Caralyn is restless. I’m restless. The world is restless. Our children are restless. My cat is restless. Early the other morning while it was still dark, I stepped out to look at the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through my telescope. Unbeknownst to me the cat came out with me, at 5 AM! When I went back in, she was locked out.. When we got up we were like, “Where is the cat?” We found her huddled under a bush in the side yard. She was glad to come back in. She was lucky one of the local coyotes that roam our master-planned community didn’t eat her.

We all want to escape, run out the door, get out again. We want to get out to malls, coffee shops, stores, restaurants, breweries, the gym, parks, the beach, church, friend’s homes, work, parties, hangouts — and get food — anything but grocery store food — and hugs.

The restless don’t rest that well. I confess I’m addicted to movement. We all are. We are addicted to motion, ambulation, talking, meeting, driving, projects, errands, shopping! We’ve had a lifetime of consumerism. Sure we can still buy online but buying things on Amazon is getting old! I want to touch stuff! I want to hobnob with the checker.

What to do?

Sitting the other day watching the two doves in the shade under the honeysuckle on the cool bricks, I found myself admiring their equanimity, their composure, their even disposition, their ability to just be there, to rest.

The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God. I think we like the Holy Spirit just like we like our consumer culture. We like the Holy Spirit to be in motion, to come to us frenetic, with brio, with verve, with spunk, with clangorous tongues of fire, agentic, shedding gifts, flying lead bird to the next wonder-venture. And while all that is fine and good, my resting doves, by the pond, reminded me that the Holy Spirit is also a Spirit of comfort and of rest, and that our God is a spirit of rest, and invites us to enter his rest.

The doves came and sat with me. Sometimes God comes that way, just to sit with us, in silence, to sit with us in our uncomfortable feelings, to sit with us in our anxiety and to sit with us in our restlessness. He knows we are restless, and he knows the true rest is found in him, in sitting with him, in silence. Seeing that he isn’t all on edge to jump up and fly and fidget and fume and fix, seeing that he knows how to sink his legs and feathers into the everyday-shady-brick-mundane gives us permission to be content, at times, with doing nothing. God our quiet feathered flâneur.

I think I could take lessons from my neighborhood doves! To rest some of the day away with no shame attached — that’s progress. That’s progress in moving away from addictive motion and persistent restlessness. They’ll be time again for all that; perhaps this is the time to get better at resting.

This evening as I take my walk I hear a dove cooing gently, roosted, retired, settled for the night, signaling its intrinsic restful contentment.

This morning I very carefully measured my burr-ground coffee into the portafilter on my espresso maker. I raked off the top, tamped it down, twisted it into the machine and ran the hot, pressured water through for 21 seconds.

In contrast to that, yesterday, I pretty much stopped using peppermint bark. On my last bite — the day before — the chocolate had been too warm, the chocolatey bite too bitter, the pepperminty mintlyness too minty, and so I had enough, then too much. Done! I’m done snorting chocolate peppermint bark this Christmas!

“Ah,” dosage, timing — the start, the stop — measuring, exactitude — it matters.

The coffee this morning from the espresso machine came out dark, rich, creamy, chocolatey, not bitter — perfect on my tongue, perfect, sliding down my throat — excellent! After that shot, I sat in silence for three hours, reading, reflecting, praying; it was the perfect amount of coffee, but the hours, I had to stop too soon to take my daughter to work, approximately 0.10201 hours to soon — about.

We dose.

We all do.

And we get dosed constantly, by life, with hits of love, sleep, violence, caffeine, power, cat fur, sex — perhaps–  a lot of TV. It matters.

They say that the number of combat tours military personnel serve has a huge influence on how much they suffer from PTSD, and how severe it is. The higher the dose the greater the danger of psychological harm, the longer it may take to recover.

Dosage, think about it. It is at the essence of the summum bonum, the good life, of aponia, the Greek thing about the absence of pain. But, consider this also, dosage is at the very core, the very essence, the very brutal quintessence of every, horrible, heart-breaking harm and addiction.

The more, more, more — creates what we abhor! The ones who can’t stop complaining, or those trapped inside of an opioid, or the ones who can’t stop liquoring up or sexing up or beating themselves down or dominating the rest of the world — this is hell for them and us!

There are important questions regarding this issue:

Who can control intake?

Who can’t?

Who thinks they can, but they can’t?

Who is wisely enjoying the good things life has to offer?

Who is blitzed by these same things?

Some thoughts:

The whole subject needs a great deal of personal honesty.

Portions work.

Floods, binges and overdose don’t.

Corpses don’t work.

So, what to do?

Dose up, with the best things of life. Try contact with children, hard work, time with people loved.

For me, I want to tank up more on God, friends and healthy food, working smart, writing  — also stillness and silence.

But limit yourself. I’m trying to also.

Measure. Rake. Evaluate.

Fine tune. Use moderation.

And some things, and I think you know this; some things need to be stopped, and completely avoided, forever.

Like what?

You know.

Don’t you?

You have heard the phrase, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” The Bible never said that. Sorry.

This saying is actually derived from a quote by Gandhi.

Well, you might say, even though these precise words aren’t in the Bible, the principle of the saying is there, right? Yes, the concepts are there, but not in exactly that language.

Romans 12:9 says, Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good.

That is about the clearest verse that speaks of hating sin and loving people, but note that it doesn’t say sinners. It says others. I do believe we can say, it’s Biblical, to hate sin.

It is right, moral, appropriate to hate wrongs like rape, murder, incest, child abuse, torture and sex slavery. We hate the harm they do to precious people.We grieve over such sin. Allepo and Mosul, I grieve the harm to women, children, old.

But one of the dangers in “hate the sin,” mentality is that we have a tendency to hate other people’s sin — sin we don’t have — while tolerating, excusing, overlooking or even loving our own sin.

The other evening, my wife and I were coming home from concert, she was driving, and she took a longer route than I would have to avoid some traffic.

The backstory is that she has been hating her commute from Chula Vista to Point Loma, all the traffic, and has been telling me that a lot.

So, when she took a route that I wouldn’t have taken, on the way home from the concert, I said, with all the sensitivity and wisdom of a good husband, “If you choose routes like this, no wonder it takes you so long to get home from work.”

As soon as I said it, I knew I was a sinner.

And she being a saint, she didn’t explain that to me, except to say I had hurt her feelings.

My name is Randy Hasper, and I am a sinner. And I think the church would function better if it functioned like an AA group. Mostly, I need to not get ramped up about other people’s sin; I need to take care of my side of the street, my sin, and seek to make amends to the people I have wronged.

Ashamed of my own words, I apologized to my wife. Repent quickly.

I think of Ann Lamott: , “God put us together with other people on the planet to make us crazy enough that we give up on our own bad ways and surrender to his love and forgiveness.” The point? Be more concerned about your own sin than others.

But there is something else to say about our own sin. Be careful not to hate your own sin so much, that you end up hating yourself and shaming yourself and thinking that you can get holy by beating up on yourself.

The other day, one of my daughters dropped and broke my favorite espresso cup.

She knows how much my espresso means to me. Every morning, espresso brings me back from the dead.

She felt badly, felt some shame, some guilt.

But we have a thing in our house where if someone breaks something — because we are all a bit brain damaged in my house — nobody says anything except stuff like, “Oh, it’s just a cup, no big deal, here let me help you clean it up.”

Shame won’t bring the cup back. Beating up on ourselves or others for sin just weighs us down. Hate won’t make sin go away. After we fail, after we drop the moral cup, it is a looking to God that helps, not focusing on the sin, for then we hear him say, “Here, let me help you clean that up.

Putting our eyes back on God, forgives us, heals us, and helps us get back to doing the right thing.

So hate the sin … well … that’s right, but keep you eyes on God not on your sin.

The other problem with the “hate the sin, love the sinner,” thing is that the NT doesn’t encourage us to judge or condemn ourselves — or even other people — as sinners.

Matthew 7:1. Do not judge, or you too will be judged.

It’s true that we do all sin, and say they don’t, but to label someone a “sinner” puts us in an judging, “us versus them” position, where we become the “righteous” person looking down our nose at those poor, wretched, ignorant “sinners” who just cannot get their act together.

Forget that. We need to worry about our side of the street. We are only responsible for our side of things, not theirs.

Last night I took responsibility for my side of the street with my wife. She has been complaining that I don’t always hear her when she speaks.

I told her, “I know, babe, so for you I went to the doctor about this last week. He told me I now have a 95% to 100% hearing loss.

I told him about our problem, and he is recommending that from now on you just stop speaking to me. It’s not my fault. I will just have to suffer, in silence, in blissful silence, the rest of our married life.”

Finally, the last and biggest problem with the “sinner” label, in the “love the sinner” thing is that there is much more to us than sinner. We were all created in the image of God, and while sin has twisted and smudged that image, it hasn’t erased it.

There is gold in you. “There is gold in them thar hills.”

Think of how Jesus viewed us. Jesus hung out with unrighteousness people like us, but that isn’t how he labeled us. Jesus’s own billing, his marquee, it wasn’t “Jesus the Messiah: eating and drinking with prostitutes and sinners.”

That was the labeling used by the religiously judgmental. When he hung out with sinners, he didn’t act like they were sinners.

His sinner were his friends, not his projects. They were people with faces and names. They were his sheep in need of his care. They were beloved children. Jesus wasn’t their accuser. He left that to the devil — or the religious right.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Take the woman caught in a sexual sin. Sinner is not how Jesus saw her. When he told her to go and sin no more he was revealing that he saw that she was person who was capable of righteousness.

She sinned, I sin, and you sin, we all sin, but that is not our primary identity. Our primary identity, our root identity, is as the children of God. Getting back to that is what helps us stop sinning.

1 John 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

I remember once when life really beat me down, and I kind of lost myself, I called by friend Rob Mahan, and went to lunch with him.

I told him what had happened that made me lost my confidence, and he asked me, “So, then, who are you?”

I said, “Well, I am a pastor, a writer, a teacher,” and he was like, “Well, that’s what you do, but who are you?”

I was a bit confused. He was looking for a deeper answer. I’m dense sometimes. It took me some time to sort that out. I am — no matter what anyone thinks or says about me — a child of God. I am valuable, special, unique, useful, loved child of God. I am a person of value, not for what I do, but for who I am. Nobody can take that away from me.

This is true of you too. Never let anybody take that away from you. Nobody has that power over you, to proclaim you worthless, a failure, a mistake.

Sin is terrible, and the things we do to each other that take away worth are terrible, in fact they are so terrible they lead to the death of Jesus, but sin didn’t define him, and it doesn’t define you.

Jesus was the son of God, who triumphed over sin, and in him, you are a new creation, not a sinner.

Romans 8:1 There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

I am  done with being critical, with putting myself down or others down for imperfection, for weaknesses. And I am done speaking of others as if they are sinners.

It’s not Christian to be full of judgment. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I don’t actually recommend calling anyone a “sinner.”

They, and you, and we are much, much more than sinners. You and everyone else on our planet are beautiful, and we were made for a redeeming, righteous, intimate relationship with God.

And close to God we are gold, we are forgiven, we become powerful, we are free, we are good and we are whole.

Pluck, grit, spunk, mettle, fire — we admire it; it’s needed.

I can still remember a few years ago asking for a surgery to correct the damage done by a previous surgery. It took some courage to go there. I didn’t know if it would work, neither did the doctor. We went for it. It did work, over time, time that was constructed out of anxiety, bravery, fear, some loneliness, hope, a good bit of pain and mettle.

When we do the thing that we don’t want to do to get to the place we want to get to we tap into something deep within our human psyche — the will to survive, and thrive.

I remember interviewing once for job, on the phone, from my bedroom, with nothing left inside but the will-power to believe in myself. I had just come through the most breaking emotional experience of my life, and yet, with nothing left, I still had something left. I had me and my faith in God, and guts.

That interview went nowhere, but another one did, and as the result of my tenacity, I now have a highly meaningful, challenging and very rewarding job. I am in a good place, my leadership gifts are in full play, because I had the grit to keep moving.

Gone we can still be gamey, beaten still brave, trashed still tough. God has built a resilience into us. We are endothermic, warmed by the gift of an internal fire.

I have learned this much about difficulty and pass it on to you: If someone aims at you, charge; if they fire, open your mouth; if they hit you spit the bullet out and keep moving. If you are a doormat, get off the floor. If you are high, come back down to earth. If you are plodding through mediocrity — risk.

If God wills it, and you want it, go get it.

Friday night I motored out to sea with about twenty other people to throw ashes and flowers out of boxes onto the smooth water, the setting sun above, the calico bass below, white flower petals floating in a line out behind the boat.

It was a moment. I had trouble knowing what to feel. We rode home through the sloshing sea in the dark. An orange bonfire glowed on the shore. I sat alone for part of the trip.

What remains — a sense of the sea, an image of a pelican floating on the air beside the boat, a swirl of bright color in the water as a bass took a small fish on the surface, a swell picking up the boat and softly letting it down again, the flowers on the surface of the sea.

Monday night I talked to my daughter for a long time. We were both ruffled a bit by the day — picked up, set down, taken on the rise, sloshing in the dark and to each other we were a small bonfire on the shore, a splash of warmth and color on a small phone screen as we video chatted each other back up. We prayed for each other before we hung up.

Sunday after church I hugged some people and made a couple of lunch appointments for next week. Bonfires.

Life is loss and gain, up and down, moving close and then farther off, riding together, riding alone, thinking about it.

We are grass, caper and vapor, flowers on a tree, flowers in a box, flowers in the air, flowers floating in a saline sea.

I don’t like losing people. Nobody does. I don’t much like being close and then not being close anymore.

I think I’ll make more phone calls and lunch appointments, and do what people ask me to do for them, even when it is hard, and pray more, and grow flowers and not pick them, as much as I can.

I remain hopeful.

Work, work, work; push, push, push, rush, rush, rush —  that’s just what we middle-class Americans tend to do.

And after extended bouts of work, it’s hard to come down, even when we get a holiday break. I’ve been jittery lately — too many dead lines, shopping trips, meetings, duties and self-imposed, others-imposed, high flying, hard-driving expectations.

Yesterday, after weeks of working too hard, I went and sat in my backyard, with tea, and looked, at my pond, the sky, my plants, at nothing. I also took a nap, and wrote a new batch of proverbs that flowed out of my reflections.

I needed this kind of seeing and doing little, or nothing.

We all need deep rest. What is deep rest? It’s like deep sleep.

Deep sleep, also called slow sleep or wave sleep, alternates with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in a regular pattern of 3–5 cycles each night.

During deep, body-calming sleep, good stuff happens — the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, appears to strengthen the immune system, consolidate new memories and secrete growth hormones.

We need deep sleep. We also need deep rest — rest while we are awake. Deep rest is found in wakeful but quiet, comfortable body postures, in cessation of activity, in relaxed observation of the environment, in quiet reflection, in quiet conversation, in rumination, in meditation and perhaps for some of us in reading, writing or prayer. 

Yesterday I read in the Psalms, took a few minutes to let those wise words soak in and felt appreciative. Later, I went out to the front yard and gardened, and then, slowing time with my hands at my sides. I stood back and looked over my work. I laid-back on time, and with a deep-drawling, pause-pleasing, slow-slipping, soft-shoeing satisfaction, I rested.

Cats sleep 16 hours a day, or five years out of seven. We might do well to emulate our cats more, to cat nap, to cat rest, to cat-live, to slow-blink life softly down. After all, the domestic cats lead the good life.

To deep rest is to slow life down, not to stop life. It means to cook slower, eat slower, talk slower, think slower, react slower. It means to pick a slower wave, found in each life-washed moment, and to ride it gently and patiently all the way to time’s softly-lapping shore.

Rest — deep rest — it’s regenerative;  it’s good.

Two October ago, we trekked three thousand miles to see if the carotenoids and anthocyanins might heal us. The days were shortening. The Pacific Ocean was getting colder. Christmas was months away. None of that would have mattered a bit, if life hadn’t just smashed us sideways and flipped us upside down in a multi-person, relational train wreck. We were reeling through the autumnal equinox, staggering from the scene of a social crime and we needed treatment.

Every year people hailing from sunless, rainy climates migrate to Southern California for light therapy; we were reversing the journey, pioneering from San Diego to Maine for the reds and yellows and oranges of northeastern chromotherapy.

Arriving in the dark, we drove from Portland down to South Berwick. Our Maine hosts, Ralph and Donna, said they preferred to take the back roads and avoid what they called the “turnpike,” so we did. I leaned against the dark car window on Fox Ridge Drive.  In the headlights, I could just see the trees starting to blush. We hadn’t come too early.

The pigments were at work. The same elements that color the bright yellow squashes in our California backyard gardens, the purple lupines along our roads, and the red strawberries in our bowls, color the trees in Maine. They are the pigments, the carotenoids and anthocyanins. When they hang out and mix it up with sunlight and rain, heat and cold, place and genetics — and who knows what else — they saturate the world with color.  They are a virtual botanical mixed drink.  Leaves tanked up primarily on anthocyanins dress up and go out to party in red or purple. Leaves having downed  good shots of both anthocyanins and carotenoids parade about shamelessly in pure orange. Leaves drunk with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanins stagger happily through autumn decked out in yellow.

The postcard Donna wrote said, “Please come visit. Ralph will take off work and we’ll go around with you. We’d love to have you as guests at our home.”  It was a gracious, welcoming invitation, carrying a faint sense of a sweet-smelling kitchen, a fire heating up the family room, a tail-whopping dog on the rug and hot chocolate in mugs. We were touched by the genuine gesture of hospitality — and the timing. The things that have just happened in our lives affect how we read our invitations.

I recently ran into a friend, Jean, at a party given by another friend who had just gotten back from a summer in Kenya.  Our Kenya trekking friend was showing her travel pictures. I’ve been to South Africa. I have friends there, and the pictures brought back vivid memories for me. While standing in the living room watching the photo journal of the trip, the back of my mind ran silent movies of eating with my own South African friends in a cinder block home in Soweto, touring the Pilanesberg Game Reserve with them and traveling across the veld to visit a rural school in Swaziland. My whole trip to South Africa was so much about people. Perhaps healing is pretty much that too.

While photos of giraffes, AID’s orphans and dancing African teenagers scrolled on a flat screen behind her, Jean asked how I was doing. I paused, an African child squatting over her shoulder. I needed a second. The Africans kept moving as I tried to call up what I told her the last time I saw her. I was also sketching out how to respond to her question about my condition. Whenever someone asks me how it is going, I make up a short story, fast. We all do. Even when we offer only a word, or a few words, we play the raconteur, laying out one plot over another, one point of view over another, our story choices made with split second judgments of the social milieu we spin our narratives into. And it’s complicated, how it comes out and how it is interpreted. The story we tell is always embedded within the story happening in the present moment and both those stories interact with a story about us that already exists within the listener.

I said, “I’m recovering. It was tough to lose my job in the recession. But I really like my new place. We are working on social justice stuff, feeding homeless people here in town, helping Burmese refugees in City Heights, working with foster children. I’m moving on, but it takes time, to get over what happened.”

It is awkward, the thing about moving on. I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was way too painful. I really didn’t feel like ripping into some of my former colleagues at a party with unsuspecting friends present. It’s in such poor taste and can upset the host. It’s also bad for digestion. I avoid it, generally. Besides, I didn’t have to go on. She took up the story and began telling me about the church in town she didn’t go to anymore. Stories beget similar stories. She had just been to a reunion. Certain people were there. She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Her voice quieted as she said, “It brought up some feelings I thought I’d worked through.”  As she was talking I was thinking about how the craziness beats in on all of us at times, turning boring, commonplace narratives surreal. Homey places where we put our feet up and sip hot drinks become places we run from scalded.  People who were safe become people we fear. Rwanda and Burundi, in 1994, come to mind.

At that moment, I didn’t see the African orphans behind her anymore, just her face near me, looking up at me. Our half-veiled emotions riveted us together. I stood there processing the narrative before us, the story I did know within the story I didn’t know, and then I said to her, “It’s okay.”  I paused, formulating more words. “It’s okay to have people you don’t want to see. I have a couple of people like that, from what happened to me. Perhaps, in time…” She nodded, silently, looking straight at me. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Then she wiped her eyes with the skin on the tops of her knuckles. “Thank you,” she said with a slight smile.”I needed that.”

Maine was something my wife and I needed.  I remember standing in the yard at Ralph and Donna’s home watching the leaves fall. It was just what I’d hoped for. The wind gusted in the big tree in the center of the meadow, and a flurry of yellow leaves wobbled down with papery sounds. They fell in slow flutters and occasional arcs toward the ground. Donna told me that when it is quiet in the woods, on freezing winter nights, that you can hear the leaves snap off the trees. I walked up the road with her dog, to the top of the hill where a red maple was on fire with color. I walked back down in the leaves that lay piled at the edges of the road. When a car came by the leaves gusted up, as if raised from the dead for a few seconds only to sink back to a quiet resting place again.

The next day, Donna and Ralph drove us over to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There is a photo album on the end table in my home where I read that has pictures of that trip to New Hampshire in it, one of a blue stream full of yellow leaves,  one of a smooth lake mirrored with vermilion, gold and lime colored trees, one of hill after hued hill, piled up to the horizon with a dusting of orange, brown, green, red and yellow. They strike me as some of the softest and most therapeutic color tones I have ever seen. There is something about the miles and miles of celebrating colors, something festive, party-fun, good. I remember now, looking at these pictures, that the days Ralph and Donna escorted us through the wonders, every turn in the road made me reel one way or another with delight. I was drinking with the leaves, inebriated with color, happy to be alive.

Back at their house, after our day in the White Mountains,  I remember sitting at their kitchen table.  Donna put a big casserole of shepherd’s pie in front of us. Fluffy mashed potatoes crowned the dish in a flurry of peaks, paprika accenting them with a dusting of red. Tall glasses of white milk sat in front of the plates. We ate and talked.

Ralph and Donna talked about the accident. I had heard them speak about this before. But it was sacred, listening to them again. Their feelings, thoughts and words arced down deep inside of me. As they took turns talking, I listened with the intensity of a soldier with a deep unsown gash, hanging onto every movement and word from the field doctors bent over him.

Their son Josh died in a motorcycle accident. It happened when he was on a trip with their church. He got on a bike in a parking lot for fun, zoomed off down the street, and then they didn’t have their son to hug anymore. His room was upstairs, across the hall from the room where we were sleeping. Some of his things were still there. There were stars on the ceiling.

There isn’t simply one thing that gets at it. The leaves don’t change colors simply because the days get shorter. There aren’t any certain lines on which all leaves fall, neither are there any perfect lines that end our discussions of things. Ralph talked about questions that lead to more questions. He offered me no formula to write in my journal, carry back home, mix up in my kitchen lab and apply to my wounds and bandages.

But of course, I didn’t want that. I have had the privilege and burden of teaching writing at the college.  I have sat at home reading papers that only a teacher could, should or would read. Over time I have come to see that a formulaic interpretation of psychologically painful events is much like an amateurish freshman paper critiquing a novel only partly read. It is a thing awkwardly cobbled together late, under the disabling influence of a deadline —  a hodgepodge of unsupported quotes, blown transitions and an unproven thesis.

But that is not what Donna and Ralph offered. As I listened to them story their life, I was struck by a scenic beauty that acted as a backdrop to everything they said. There was a soft shade of gentleness behind every question and commentary. In all their thinking, in their psychology of loss, in their sociology of survival, in their theology of pain, ran a dusted hue of kindness. I noticed that Sunday, when they took us to their church, as they spoke to friends there, they were as tender with them as they were with us. And in these interactions something unexpected began to happen to our stories.  Ralph and Donna’s story began to intersect and merge with my story and the stories of all my friends and their friends. A kind of narrative fusion began to take place — all our terrifying experiences, our tragically lost relationships, our agonizingly arranged  interpretations blew from the road to the air again, to lift and turn and arc down, to settle and to rest where the pigments cover the rising mountains to the horizon.

People think of the Jewish story teller, Jesus as primarily a great teacher; he is known for his sayings, parables, stories, but he was as much a healer as teacher. The accunt of Jesus reports that once when Jesus saw a man with leprosy, he was “filled with compassion.”  I think his compassion was not justfor the physical problem, although I believe he must have cared much about that, but also for the man’s damaged sence of self,  his lost connections, his broken relationships with family and friends. To be a leper was to be a pariah, to be separated from  hugs and kisses and sexuality and love. It was brutal and agonizing, the distancing factor of having scary skin. And we are told that Jesus had compassion. In other words,  Jesus felt the deep pain of the man, the loss of his identity, the loneliness of his existence, the anger he had inside, the stunned confusion, the cry of  injustice. “I am left out,” cried the leper and Jesus said, “Be in.” The account reports that Jesus healed him.

Make what you might of it, not much beats compassion when you are suffering. A daughter rubs her father’s feet on his death-bed, saying by touching him, you are still a person, worthy of attention, deserving to be touched. Touch, compassion, psyche healing even when the physical  deterioration cannot be stopped, is eloquent to a watching universe, a shout int the dark, “I love you!”  When I was so sick after a surgery, lying in the bathroom alone one night on the floor, one of our small kitten came and lay down with me. The gesture, from an animal, the soft warmth close — I haven’t forgotten it. Not being alone in that isolating moment of suffering — significant! The color of compassion is shifted toward the warm, fallish end of the light spectrum.

It always astonishes me, how close truth hovers in the backdrop of life. On the day that we went driving in the White Mountains we came to where the “old man” had fallen down above Profile Lake. The old man had been a series of five granite ledges, that when viewed from the right angle, looked like a man’s face. He was a state emblem, but a fragile one at best. During much of the 20th Century he was held in place by cables and spikes. Between midnight and 2 am on May 3, 2003, with a rocky roar, the old man just slid down the mountain. People were so dismayed they left flowers at the bottom of the cliff.

The time goes so quickly. We are back from Maine. Southern California, along the coast, is such a beautiful thing. The palms here stay green and bright all year long. One of the many lantanas in my yard is always in bloom — purple, yellow or orange. But I don’t need seasonal reminders that things change because I know they do.  And when that change is for not for the better, I am of the opinion that the carotenoids and anthocyanins are among the things that heal, and love.

When I go shopping at the grocery store, I pick out the small orange and red and yellow peppers. At lunch, I sometimes edge my plate with them. And when I make smoothies in my blender, I dump in the bluest blueberries and darkest red strawberries. They are rich with the pigments I love. They sooth me, but I know what they are and what they aren’t. I know that they aren’t a spike or a cable, certain to hold me up forever. It’s not a dark perspective, just true: the bottom of the cliff waits.

But so do other things — friends yet to travel to, places yet to surprise, narratives yet to be shared. We have been through a few things that have changed us very much, my African friends, Donna and Ralph, Jean, my wife and I. And for some of us, there may be places that we are not quite ready to visit and people who for now are perhaps best not seen.  But we know that in the fall, the hills change. They brighten with the therapeutic pigments. And lately, I have been hearing more and more stories of loss that sound, at the emotional core of the narrative, similar to mine.

I lean toward the voices that tell them and hope to grow more gentle, like other story tellers I know.