Live Laugh Love

Life is short, so live it.  Love is rare, so grab it.  Fear controls you, so face it.  Memories are precious, so cherish them.  We only get one life, so live it!

dance naked

My neighbor passed away today, unexpectedly.  She was 70, and had experienced some health problem recently, but it was still a shock to hear the news; I just talked to her walking her dog yesterday.

Her husband was out of town, and called a neighbor to check on her when she didn’t answer his calls.  My other neighbor, 88 years old, made the terrible discovery and had to be the bearer of such halting news.   He was clearly upset when I ran into him, just an hour or two after, and before the authorities had even arrived.  88, health problems of his own, his own mortality now thrust front and center, visibly distraught.

I always thought that when you reached his age, you had already made your peace with your own demise, without any effort, like hair turning gray.  Clearly that is not the case.  We must all struggle with the inevitable, and age has nothing to do with it.  Some of us are forced to confront this much earlier than others, but even living a good long life doesn’t mean you ever want to let go; life is good, and there is so much beauty, even in the struggle.

But our bodies have limits, and the rules of biology and physics must be honored, and life and death is the realm of the gods, not us mere mortals.

What is up to us is how we react to these limits.  Once again I am humbled and awed by the courage and acceptance that Debbie displayed when faced with these inevitabilities…

I stopped down tonight to visit my distraught neighbor, his first night joining me in the Gibralter Drive Widowers Club.  The house will be quiet tonight, too quiet; it will feel like everything is wrong.  And it is; you just don’t spend 90% of your years with someone and then suddenly adjust to their absence.  It won’t feel real; he will be trapped somewhere between a bad dream and disbelief; we always think we have one more day.  There is not much that needs said at this time, because we both know what it feels like; and sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.  So we embrace and I honor his wishes to be alone tonight, and I certainly understand that, too, as memories of my first night alone flood back…

I stop in to see how my other neighbors are doing, too – you just don’t live next door to someone for 41 years and not feel the loss, too.  He and his wife graciously welcome me into their home, clearly happy for the company tonight.  We talk; about our neighbor and his wife, all the good times they shared, all the changes they have seen over the years.  We share a beer and memories, the memories of what makes life special – pride in 59 years of being married to your sweetheart (and a big 60th anniversary coming up in December!), pride in raising their two boys, pride in their hard work and accomplishments throughout their working careers, pride in their neighborhood and their humble house full of love.

Stories.  They are what make us human, what makes us unique.  In the end, it is all that we have; but it is all that we need, if we have written ours in full, if we have truly lived.  I am honored to have shared tonight in my neighbors’ stories, and the spark in their eyes recounting these cherished memories does not go unnoticed.  Indeed, it burns as bright in the eyes of someone who is 88 as it did the days they were made.

I can’t help but imagine a time much earlier, bodies young and muscular and functioning perfectly, hearing and eyesight still good, the new lime green carpeting in a brand new house full of dreams lit up in the hopes and dreams of an evening sunset streaming through the front picture window, just like tonight’s…big smile.

Life is precious, even if you are 88.

And life is short.

So write your story, everyday.  Visit your elderly neighbors and relatives while you can, while they are still here to share their hard-earned wisdom.  Comfort those who need a shoulder, if you have a shoulder to give.  Enjoy every sunset, especially the ones that light your dreams and memories.  Smile until your face hurts, cry when tears need shed.  If you are lucky enough to love someone, tell them.  And when times are good, sing out loud, no matter how off key, and dance, dance naked and rejoice!

Live, laugh, love…



When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.” – Paulo Coelho

Lightning flashes light up the woods and rocks in an eerie electric blue, but only for a second, the pitch darkness quickly returning like a thick heavy wet blanket, the thunder rolling through the hills and up my spine until the hair on my neck stands straight up in perfect posture.  The leaves scream in collective protest, like the roar of a crowd building and fading with each gust.  The wind tosses the trees, stretching them to their breaking point, and in the far off distance snaps and cracks tell of those pushed too far.  I am alone and small, just like the leaves, just like the animals that cower for shelter wherever they can.  We dig in, and steel ourselves to the storm as best we can…

And it passes.  Every storm runs out of rain, eventually…

After the storm, with the lighting and thunder receding into the distance far up the valley, visible and audible but no longer threatening, a light gentle rain settles over camp.  It creates a mesmerizing white noise, interspersed by the tick-tocking of larger drops as they collect on the leaves of the now-stilled trees and fall to the saturated earth with a plop when their gathering burden can no longer resist gravity.  Adrenaline is replaced by calm, even a weird serenity, that comes from weathering the storm.  I will be able to sleep now…

The gentle rain continues through the night, and into the morning, and the song played on the tent walls is the sweetest lullaby; true refreshment greets the gray light of morning.  Emerging from the tent, I am met by a whole new world of lush, lush wet, and green of every hue, a jungle bowing down to the life giving moisture.

The birdsong is charged this morning too.  It is not the joy and spark of a sunny day, but the confidence of survival, a confidence that banishes any vocal wavers and cracks to passing adolescence, replaced by the maturity of graduating the storm’s test.

These tiny creatures, with only lightweight feathers for protection, many weighing no more than a dime, tossed and turned in the tempest last night like the leaves and reeds, surely they are even more joyous than I for surviving the storm.  And this sense of gratitude permeates the entire forest, and it flows through me without effort, like the fog that connects the earth and the sky now…

Mystique is the main character this morning, accompanied by possibility.  Creation is possible, dreams are refreshed, life is renewed, life is gloriously alive, and we are here to take part one more day.  And for now it is calm, and I go forward with cautious confidence into the beauty and mystery and storms that lie in wait down that foggy, wooded path…

Oh Very Young

“And the patches make the goodbye harder still.”

There is a hill, with picture perfect views of rolling hills and farms, where patriarchal oaks and stately sycamores stand guard over stones that fade and crack.  A creek flows at the base of this hill, and a newly planted dogwood anchors a slight apex in the hill, a corner halfway between my past and my present.

Tonight I sit cross-legged in the past, in front of a stereo, playing records, with skips and cracks and pops and all, a young boy marveling over the intricate artwork of album covers with names like “Teaser and the Firecat” and “Madman Across the Water.”  I pour over the lyrics of my dad’s records as the songs play, and the poetry comes alive with the full emotional power of music; it moves you.

It moved my dad, who passed on his own love of music by his example, which I emulate now.  A Cat Stevens disc finds its way into my cd player; Cat was one of dad’s favorites, and I understand why, for even forty years later his music is still relevant, still strikes an emotional chord.  It must be the truth then…and the truth of Cat’s lyrics are a double whammy on this hill…

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
(You know he never will)

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Halfway from my dogwood is a stone on this hill that I have been visiting for over thirty years.  Only thirty-seven; I understand it now from an angle that was impossible to a teenager.  Thirty-seven is Oh Very Young; what did you leave me this time, dad?

You left me music, and music bridges, music heals, music connects.  Thanks.  It still connects me to you, dad, even after all this time.

And you left me dogwoods, dad, your favorite tree, my favorite tree; and now there is one here, on our hill.

There is more connecting, dad.  At the top of this hill, just passed the dogwood, there will soon be another stone, another Oh Very Young.  This one was only forty-five, this one was even closer to me, this one still hurts.  I don’t understand why, or what to do next, but maybe you do, now.  Maybe you can help me figure it out as I traipse this dogwood divided trail of 37 to 45 steps between my past and my present.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
(You know you never will)

And the goodbye makes the journey harder still

The dogwood stands dormant now, in late fall, leaves gone, sap retreating to the depths and protection of the inner trunk and roots, preparing for the barren days and long nights of winter, and those protections are necessary to survive the cold.  But there are buds on the ends of the branches, too, for the dogwood knows winter doesn’t last forever.  Maybe by springtime we will all be able to enjoy the creamy white blooms, cantilevered in perfect symmetry to this hill.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?

My youngest boy comes and gives me a big hug; he doesn’t know why dad is crying; but he sits in my lap, and we listen to Cat Stevens together…

Dirt and Sky

You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields.  That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind….”  – Kahlil Gibran

Grief is sometimes like a transcendent gaze; you look down at yourself and what you are doing as if you have been detached from your body.  You watch the movie of your life alone from the back row of a dark, dirty little theater, shoes sticking to the floor, afraid every time light pours in from the opening door, hoping to forever hide in the shadows.  Some days you just go through the motions with no empathy at all for the main character in this movie, you; at the end of a bad day you wonder how you even accomplished the “normal” things.  Everything is different now, and you search for something to hold on to, something real…

Running is real.  Working out, pumping the weights, pounding the pavement, blood coursing through wide open veins, heart pounding, big gulps of breath filling screaming lungs; life courses through you, and you cannot deny it, you can’t hide in the shadows from it.  And it feels good.  We rent these incredible instruments for a spell, these vehicles for our light that can do these incredible, immaculate things, that are capable of carrying us to the greatest of heights, and through the lowest lows.

So I use mine now.  Let the rhythmic footsteps and breathing transport me to a better place, calming my mind and quelling my fears.  Let the endorphins soothe the pain, physically and emotionally.  Let the cleansing breaths refresh and rejuvenate at the cellular level, and let the sweat carry away the built up toxins of grief…

The Earth is real.  Today my footsteps pound the white rocks and yellow dirt of the great wide open Sonoran desert.  A solitary wilderness trail winds through the prickly pear and mesquite and yuccas, and the flat expanse of the desert is bounded on all horizons by far off purple mountains.  Large lobed jackrabbits and striking black-throated sparrows flee my approach, and I admire them for earning a living in a place that is so full of thorns and sharp edges.

At the top of a flat mesa I pull off trail and stop running.  From this vantage point I can survey the entire Verde valley.  A brown river cuts through it, its’ cottonwoods providing an emerald green necklace against the tan rocks.  After being penned in for so long in a beige cubicle and bounded by all these new responsibilities, the endless horizon is freeing.

The ancient ruins of Tuzigoot are outlined on a bluff in the river valley below me, marking human time and connecting it to the timelessness of the heavens and earth.  Burial plots from 1,000 years ago attest to the truth of the cycle of life and death; my grief is nothing special.  Indeed it is a necessary part of life; so I’ve been told.  What I need to understand now is how to uncover the gifts of grief, buried under the layers of vegetation and dirt that have accumulated around a topic mostly ignored and forgotten, like the ruins before archeologists did the tedious work to excavate it.

It feels right to kneel on this mesa top, to feel the rock cut into my skin under the bright sunshine, to say a prayer of remembrance to those that have gone before me, to those that would normally be here with me.  Alone on this mesa top, I let the wind dry my tears.

But as I gaze down on this valley, on the life giving river, on the ancient ruins and the thorny bushes and a trail cut through the desert, my heart begins to stir.  Instead of bowing in prayer to what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have right now – this view, this body, this experience of being alive right now!  I raise my arms in gratitude as my soul reaches for the sky…

And the sky is real.  This big desert sky, picture perfect blue painted with white cotton ball clouds, so crisp, so clear, so free here in the desert; I drink it in, and it fills me.  I must run!  It is downhill, my strides stretched full; I take off my shirt and let my skin soak up the warm afternoon sun, and let the wind evaporate the sweat that courses down my forehead and back.  It is exhilarating; it is freeing; it is like flying!

For the first time in a while I experience joy, pure joy, and my heart and soul are lifted high into the desert sky!  I run much faster than my normal pace, for I want to feel my heart pound again, want to feel my lungs burn and my muscles ache; I want to feel alive again, living, not just going through the motions.  And if only for this brief, glorious run, at least I know it is possible again…

But that is reason enough to rejoice.  My mind fills with song, and I sing out loud to the rocks and the trees and the rattlesnakes…

I fell back alone on a gray Sunday morn

[Heart aches with memories that are] tattered and torn

I stumbled along ‘til I stood [with the wide open desert]

The wind it blew cold as my soul finally started to stir

Yeah the afternoon sky it grew feathery wings

Lifted me high above everything

As darkness descended I knew I had only to sing

I had only to sing, yeah, yeah!

La la la la la la la la la la…

(Apologies to Bill Deasy for taking liberties with his lyrics [in brackets] to his incredible song “Levi”. Thanks for putting emotions to music, Bill – this song leaves me rejoicing and singing along every time…

You Tube video for the song:


“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”  – Meister Eckhart

A funny thing has happened over the past month – the emotion that I am feeling most is not grief; it is gratitude.  Sure, there are times of longing and tears, moments of sadness and missing, but they are outweighed – vastly outweighed – by the unbelievable amount of gratitude that has filled our hearts and house over the past few weeks.  The outpouring of support from family and friends, the community, even the complete strangers at the Social Security office or the credit card call-line operator on the other side of the world, has simply been amazing.  We are all just in awe, empowered, energized, and mostly, just grateful for the sharing.

Beautiful homemade meals delivered after a long day at work, a box of schools supplies on the front porch anonymously, incredibly generous offers to take the boys to Kennywood and the movies and Pirates game and Steeler training camp and sleepovers or just over to a friends house so dad can get a little nap, folks helping with the dishes and laundry or mopping the floor, offering rides when we don’t have one, a nice message or sharing a photo on Facebook, co-workers and bosses picking up my workload and offering vacation time, a phone call or email or text just to say hi, sharing a song or a favorite book, words of comfort or just a much needed hug – the outpouring has just been humbling.

It has made me reflect on how deeply Deb touched everyone, and I believe it was because she gave so freely and joyously to everyone she met, without expecting anything in return.  It gave her life meaning. 

Earlier this year I went through some extremely trying events that at the time I considered very unfortunate.  One of the by-products of these events was that I re-discovered the power of gratitude, of being grateful for all the good things I have even when life is testing me, grateful for all the little things like a cool summer rain on a hot humid day, the insects buzzing at night, the smile of a stranger.  I got into the habit of starting each day with a gratitude prayer or just a simple silent meditation in my grotto, a time to be still and ask for grace before embarking on the daily tasks in front of me.  It is a very powerful tool, and has helped me tremendously during these trying times.

A grateful person is a powerful person, for gratitude generates power.  All abundance is based on being grateful for what we have.  True power, happiness, and well-being are found in the fine art of gratitude – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Life Lessons

Debbie knew this power her whole life, and she lived it for many many years; how lucky she was to recognize the joy of every day, of every breath, of laughter and love!  That’s where her smile and grace came from, even when times were tough.

So although grief is supposed to be the overriding emotion at times like these, it seems to me that gratitude is the flip side of grief.  How can this be?

For this answer I found a wonderful sermon by the Reverend J. Michael A. Wright of the Grace Church in Charleston, SC:

“Have you lost someone recently?  Do you find yourself deep in grief?  This is not all bad.  You are grieving because you have loved. Your tears are rooted in a life that was good with your partner, mother, father, sister, brother, friend. Your grief is a visible sign of a deep and abiding love.  Well done!  And rooted in all that you feel, difficult though this may be, is a thankful heart.  Thanks be to God, you have begun to work through your grief. It is rooted in gratitude and unpacked in love.

Grief is rooted in the good life that was ours, lived out along side our loved one.  We grieve not because our lives were bad, but because they were so very good. Our loved ones’ passing hurts so because life with them was good. Grief, rooted in gratitude. We give thanks even as we admit that we wanted more.”

So may this simple prayer let you know how much we appreciate your thoughts and prayers, your kind words and deeds, your just being there to talk or pick up the kids or bring a meal or share a beer, for all the kindness you intended – “Thank you”.

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” –  Thornton Wilder