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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Journey’s End

                I fondly remember walking to school in my youth. My sister and I would leave our house and along the way, every kid in on the block would come out and join the growing caravan. It’s a fond memory now, but I do recall not being very happy about it when I came to realize that there were OTHER kids whose parents drove them.  Every day. It wasn’t so bad on nice days, but thinking back on it, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of inclement weather in my youth. Memory is a funny thing; I remember endless summer days filled with neighborhood games of “kick the can,” “Hide and go seek,” and “Mother may I.” I can easily recall that bright sunny day when I conquered my fears and other personal demons by jumping off the high dive board at the neighborhood pool.  I nostalgically reminisce about hours upon hours of quality and formative time spent with good friends. (Cue mental soundtrack: Those were the days, my friend.) I also remember walking to and from school in the wind, rain, sleet and snow. (Up hill, both ways…..) 

The worst of it was those bitter cold days. I didn’t have a back pack so I had to carry my books. My fingers would get so cold the pain was almost more than I could bear (or so I thought; the truth is, I probably had a very low threshold for pain back then.) I never actually got frostbite, but my young mind was convinced that I was in danger of it. I would switch sides with the books when it got to be too much, keeping one hand in a pocket at all times; but that would happen more and more frequently as I began to wonder if the path to school somehow got longer since the day before. Inevitably someone would start a game or talk about last night’s episode of a favorite TV show. I remember pretending we were a “choo-choo” train chugging all the way to school. We would always get involved in something and I would get distracted. Before I knew it, I was in class and beginning to allow my mind to wonder off from the lesson. I would suddenly realize that I was safe and warm and dry. I would look at my hands and think about how they hurt so much before and how I had forgotten all about the pain. The intervening time between the bitter cold walk to school and that moment in class had somehow flown past so quickly that it seemed amazing to me. 

It soon became a mental tool that I used to help me during those long treks through the desolate arctic wastelands that I had to pass through each day. “Before you know it you’ll be sitting in class, nice and warm, looking at your hands in amazement.” It was a comforting thought. I began to wonder if I could somehow skip the intervening time and just jump to that moment right then and there. I tried it; It didn’t work. I still had to physically walk the whole thing in real time - nonetheless, I think I deserve credit for developing the concept of fast forward. 

One bitter cold midwinter morning at that moment when frostbite was beginning to set in and the despair of the long journey that lie ahead was once again realized, I turned to my comforting thought. “Before you know it, you’ll be sitting in class….” But then I had another thought. It was a terrible, horrible, awful and very frightening thought. I didn’t realize it in that moment but it was also a gloriously beautiful, wonderful, and for me a very life-affirming thought. I stopped right there in the cold for just a moment before the wind urged me to carry on, reminding me in its way not to delay. As if in response to my comforting thought, my interior voice said “Yes, and before long, you’ll be an old man, lying on your deathbed.” There’s no way to sugar coat it; that was the thought, and I could not un-think it. That moment has stuck with me my whole life; to this day it often causes me to pause briefly along the way. This is my “Memento Mori” and I carry it everywhere I go. 

I stood there for half a second as I caught my breath; the wind pushed me forward, and so I continued on my way. It was such a quick moment that I don’t believe my sister or any of the neighborhood kids that were with me even noticed that I had briefly paused. I stopped trying to “fast forward” my life for fear that I might miss the mark and go too far. Many years have come and gone since then, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. If I had to pick a single point in my life, I think it was then that I began to understand the importance of appreciating every moment that I was given. 

Of course, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of this sudden revelation until later in life; it was a map, if you will, that unrolled as I matured. An ancient map, beautifully and artistically decorated, that plotted a course which I must follow. Its many rich hues becoming visible only after my vision acclimated to the ever changing landscape that is my life and my journey, and it continues to reveal its secrets to this day. 

It must be said in no uncertain terms that this was not for me, a call to hedonism; no - it was more profound than that. The certainty of death demanded that there be something to show for having been here. So I did not hear the imperative to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” nor did I understand it to be the “carpe diem” in the sense that it is so often understood.  That having been said, it must also be understood that I never dwelled on the end either; it was clear that there was to be an end, but the details have always remained hidden. My map – my Memento Mori - has been for me a reminder always to dwell on the present and to appreciate what beauty there is in it. In my experience, I have learned that there is no greater beauty than to experience love in its purest forms.

I did a lot of walking in my youth. My mother didn’t drive and family circumstances precluded me from being one of those kids that got rides everywhere they went. I never let that stop me from doing what I wanted to do, though. If I couldn’t get a ride from friends, then I walked. Let me tell you, there were a few epic walks, too. My range increased as I got older. I also rode my bike, but not as often; there was the risk of theft and having the bike diminished the possibility of getting a ride home. So I walked. There were moments when I have to admit that I resented having to walk so much. A beautiful day suddenly turned dark and stormy; and more than once I arrived at my destination drenched to the bone. In my anger and frustration, I cursed my situation many times, but quite frequently, somewhere along the way I would return to my Memento Mori. There is beauty to be found in a desolate golf course (a convenient short-cut) after dusk. In time, I discovered that there is always beauty to be found, if you know that you’re supposed to look for it. 

Eventually, I got my driver’s license; considerably more eventually, I got my first car. Wow, what a quality of life enhancement THAT was! I could go anywhere and get there on time. Could is a funny word; I could get to places on time, but I didn’t, actually – not always. Well, that’s beside the point; I could travel in almost any weather and I had virtually unlimited range. So where did I go when I wasn’t getting to work late? Well, work and social life aside, when I had quality alone time, I got in my car and drove to the Muttontown Preserve. I might also have driven to one of the Greenbelt trails on Long Island or even caught up with the Appalachian Trail somewhere in Connecticut, New York, or Pennsylvania.  Yes, one of my favorite things to do was to get in my car and drive someplace so I could go for a walk. 

Sure, I appreciate those toasty warm, sunshiny summer days; who doesn’t? But never was it ever such an uplifting, rewarding - and even spiritual - experience than if it was a rainy day. I had come to enjoy walking so much that I used some of the money I earned from getting to work late to buy waterproof hiking boots, gore-tex rain pants and a lightweight rain jacket. I could go hiking comfortably on a cold, wet and rainy day. I loved this! The trails were not so crowded on those days, and if by chance you happened to pass someone along the way; you knew that they were a kindred soul. We might pass each other without saying a word, but we would exchange a knowing smile as we connected on some ethereal plane. And what a sublimely beautiful experience it is to find oneself alone, deep in a snowy wood, listening to the sound of snow falling all around you.

As I hiked along my favorite trails, - trails which time and repetition had committed to my memory, I frequently thought about bigger life issues. I solved a few problems in this way and I came to terms with other issues that I could not solve. I began to think of my hikes as a metaphor for my life. All in all, it has been a wonderful mix of experiences. There was a lot of nice and easy, smooth and level ground. I’ve traveled some hilly terrain and I have had a few rough and rocky climbs. There were highs and lows; there were sunny days and there were stormy days. Along the way I met a few people - some that walked along with me for a while, and others who just happen to cross my path now and again. There were some that I met only once, but that remain in my heart and my thoughts. I have experienced the sublimely beautiful and most importantly: Most importantly, I have loved. I have loved: this, the one thing that gives meaning to my journey.

And so this thing that I had at times despised in my youth has become for me something that I have no words to adequately express. You see, having traveled a few roads that I would not have chosen to travel as well as many others that if given the chance to, I would joyfully chose again; I knew all the while that I could not long remain on any one of them, so I paused long enough on each one in the hope of recognizing the fleeting beauty of it all. I found beauty in the most unlikely places, and I learned to be Thankful for all of it – good and bad. I have learned that every trail has a trail head; each journey has a journey’s end. There will surely come a day when I reach mine.  In the meantime, where ever I happen to be headed and no matter how inclement the ‘weather’ might happen to be, I remember my Memento Mori and I remember to live in the moment that I am given, and I love all the more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Dirty Hands, Clean Soul

My community is serviced by two train stations, one of which has more frequent trains because it services a larger population than the other. My house is closer to the smaller one with less frequent trains. Generally speaking I catch the 4:00 train out of Penn and walk home from the smaller station, but if I'm in a rush I'll forego my usual walk and catch the 3:27 train - that is, if I can get to Penn in time. If I miss that train, I’ll take the next train, which is an express to the larger station. So it happened one day that I missed my train to Carle Place and ended up on the express to Westbury.

    I miss-judged the doors; I was about mid-train and thought I picked a car that would line up with the steps near the middle of the platform where I wanted to be so I could cross under the tracks through the tunnel and start my walk home, but I ended up way off from what I was targeting. It turns out that I needed to be near the back end of the train to get off at the middle of the platform. Oh, well. I find myself right at the wheelchair access ramp, but just can’t accept walking away from where I want to be only to turn around and walk the same distance in the opposite direction, so I walk past the ramp to the stairs. I must be the only person on the train that didn’t know how far east the train would stop because I was the last one to the stairs.

    At the bottom of the stairs is a lady wearing a dark trench coat and a lace-brimmed hat, holding what looked like a prayer book. We’ve all seen them at train stations and malls, right? Or perhaps walking down your street, knocking on doors and offering salvation if you only lend an ear. Everyone walked past her eager to be on their way home. As did I; I put my hand up as she opened her mouth and I said “No thank you” as I hurried on my way. In truth, I admire these people to a certain degree. Yes, their faith is different than mine, but it can’t be easy to put yourself out in the world like that and talk of God. And it seems to me that they are taking their religion a little more seriously perhaps than I am; at least with regard to the apostolic mission. Nonetheless, I didn’t have time for this, and I quickly rushed past her.

It took a moment to process, but her facial expression was not consistent with what I expected to see from her. It looked like she had a lot more emotionally invested in the outcome of her ill-fated attempt to speak with me. It seemed to me like I was her last chance. At what – I didn’t know. What could it possibly be? I’ve spoken to these people before, I’m not going to change my religion and they don’t have quotas. At least I don’t think they do.

If in the reading of this blog, you should happen to think something along the lines that ‘this guy is pretty full of himself, with all these observations…’ please let me assure you that this is most certainly not the case. Even if it was to some degree, the good Lord hits me on the rear sometimes with the wooden spoon of humility to keep me in line. I don’t picture Him as an old Italian mother, but He did give them to us and He sure can assume the role if He wants to. It took about four or five steps for the whole thing to sink in. I continued on my way, but I turned around to see her walking slowly back to her car, shoulders slumped and looking at the ground as she started to make her way back.  I stopped:

“I’m sorry – I thought you were selling something. I didn’t give you a chance to speak.” I start back to her. She turns around, tears forming in her eyes:

“I have a flat, and I’m late for a meeting. I just wanted to borrow a phone to make a call.”

I’m an idiot. WHACK! <--- That’s the wooden spoon of humility making contact. Ouch.

“Well, I have a phone.”

Gently, she makes her request: “Do you mind if I make a call?” Hope returning to her face.

I see my mother in this woman, now. (WHACK!)

“Not at all, but who are you going to call?”

“Triple A.”

This problem of hers is within my skill set. There is no decision to be made here; in this moment I am committed to what course of action must be taken.

“It’ll take an hour at least, by time they get here, for you to be on your way – do you have a spare?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s take a look…….”

She leads me to her car and opens her trunk: “I don’t think I do….”

“Not so fast ……” I say with a smile. I reach in, shift a few things around and remove what must look to her like a mysterious secret panel, to reveal her spare tire. It’s in good shape. “O.K. I can just go ahead change the tire for you. If you don’t mind, I would like to do that.”

Clutching her prayer book, she says “Oh, thank you!”

I take my jacket off, roll up my sleeves and get to work.

“I was praying to God for help, but it looked like He wasn’t going to answer me.”

I have an opportunity to say something healing here, so I speak from my heart and my faith:

“He always answers our prayers, mam. He always answers our prayers.”

Thinking of my own prayer experiences I continue:

“It’s not always the answer we want, but I know that He’s always listening and I can say that He most certainly loves you.” I stop and look her in the eye on that last part. I feel like I'm talking to my own mother now.

“I was afraid I would miss my prayer group. I told Him ‘If you want me to make this prayer group, I need help.’”

Of course she was going to a prayer group meeting.

“Well, I’m happy to be His instrument to help get you there.”

In short order her flat tire is in her trunk, her spare tire is securely where it needs to be and her jack is neatly back in place.

“Now this is only a ‘doughnut,’ It’ll get you where you’re going but you’re going to have to have that flat fixed, because this is not intended replace a real tire.”

“O.K. I will.”

“You can’t go over 50 miles an hour with this tire, so you have to drive slowly.” (I can't picture her driving over 25 miles an hour, but I felt I had to say that.)

“I will.” She has money in her hand.

“I can’t accept money from you…….”

“But I want to thank you.”

“You already did. But if you get to your prayer meeting safely, and maybe remember me in your prayers, then I’ll feel like I got the better end of the deal.”

She promised that she would, and she gave me a big hug. I got a hug in a train station parking lot from a nice old Church lady, who thanked God for me and who was going to say a prayer for me. I can't remember why I was in such a rush that day, but I think I will always remember that hug. It’s funny; I was afraid that she was going to try to sell me some religion! Well, I guess she did - I guess I did get some religion from her. I know that I walked away with dirty hands and yes, I was late in getting home, but I feel as though I walked away with much a cleaner soul.

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