How We Live, How We Die

My high-school friend committed suicide 5 years ago.

The event, and the circumstances around it, aren’t as present as they once were, but invariably on the anniversary of his death, something will trigger a memory followed by an acknowledgement.

We—his family and friends—collectively know more about why (although why is always extremely tricky when discussing suicide). He and his family suffer from a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease, and he was experiencing symptoms. Again, causal connections that explain why someone would take his or her own life are always specious, but for many of his friends like me who could fathom no earthly explanation as to why he’d end his life, I found some solace in the deeper understanding of his circumstances.

Still. The obvious feeling that doesn’t go away is one of shocked loss. An abrupt realization that the person I knew and did some of my growing up with is gone. Five years hasn’t dulled that reaction.

In a similar way, recent end-of-life experiences with my wife’s family are making the turn of the year somber and reflective. I don’t spend much time thinking about death—or more specifically—my own death. Like I suspect many of us do, I shy away from the chaffing discomfort and outright fear of that event, that common denominator.

Age and circumstance and overwhelming evidence are showing me that it’s time to consider more than just the mortality of other people.

Thanks to the news-feed on my phone, I discovered some fascinating articles about the topic—and the practice—of dying. Stating the obvious, this is a specific (and Buddhist) perspective, but for me—someone who was more or less raised around a haphazard exposure to Christianity—I find that the disconnect from my childhood religious tradition makes it easier for me to consider the topic. It’s less…fraught.

Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Not Too Soon

We often delay beginning our creative or spiritual work with the false belief that we must be ‘ready.’

It’s a protective measure, meant to preserve our egos and ward off detectable inadequacies.

I’ve of course been guilty of this same delaying strategy in my own professional life, in my creative life, in what amounts to my spiritual practice. I’ve dallied and delayed, and I’ve put off action by waiting for whatever skills I’m trying to flex to be primed, as if I’d just gone through a Rocky-like training montage out of sight of everyone in order to unveil to a surprised and unsuspecting world just how awesome I am.

Life is made in the doing, in the trying, in the failing and re-trying. We cannot be ready for this. There is certainly prepared, educated, practiced, but ready is something else. Ready is only accomplished in the doing of the thing in real time and with real consequences. Ready is open to the moment, to the nexus of performing work and to being yourself, to struggling and being vulnerable. Ready is being open to failing.

Waiting to be ready, as tantalizing an option at that is, only delays progress. Ready sounds like it’s about the future, but it’s really about the now. And as we all know, now is all we’ve got.

This One You Feed podcast addresses, among several other ideas, the fallacy of being ready in an interview with Srini Rao. Check it out here.

Stuck in the Middle of the Middle

As I’ve hit the middle of my middle-age, I’ve been confronted more and more often with the evidence that the people in our lives don’t know who we are. Not really.

I was struck again by this realization when I attended the memorial/celebration-of-life for one of the principals at my former company. He was a generous, patient and exceptional leader, one of those rare personalities who put his soul into how he conducted both himself and how he conducted his business.

The celebration was hardly celebratory. Most of us were too wrecked with the loss and uncertainty caused by his passing. We all sat there with our separate, fragmented memories of him and what he meant to each of us, and we attempted to share those recollections as a kind of check on who we believed him to be.

The picture we collectively created was incomplete, and it always will be incomplete. The only person who knows my now passed former coworker is him. And even so….

When we ourselves pass, and our mourners are gathered, they will remember, and they will likely remember wrong. Or more generously, they will remember parts of us and not the cohesive whole.

My (forever) cursory study of Tibetan Buddhism tells me that our interior lives are often unknowable to us; we have thoughts and we have feelings but we are not the sum of those thoughts and feelings. Like anyone who has attempted to monitor and to even influence my less than stellar behavior, I’ve learned that with practice there is a self (whether it’s a large S or small s is up for debate) who sits behind our thoughts and feelings. A smarter, wiser self who drives the bus.

Most of my friends and family, however, know me only by the outward expressions of my thoughts and feelings. They see only what I project, express, convey.

This isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s not right, either.

A couple months back, I wanted to connect with my life-long friends over my disdain for the Hallmark holiday that is Father’s Day. Even as a father myself, I hate that day. I was feeling pressured to contact the man who inhabits the shell of my dad, and I blurted out via text message how I hoped that I was a better father, how I needed to believe that I am a better father, even if I’m not. The stupid, made-up day is fraught with doubts and guilt about my own performance as a parent, and it’s fraught with these pangs of loss about how I still don’t have my own father in my life and how I never will.

It was heavy. Too heavy for text message.

I realized after the fact that these friends have no context with which to help me. Hitting them with something so powerful as my perpetual disappointment in the man who originally left my life when I was six years old is too much. I can’t help but feel cheated, though, that other men couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the depth of betrayal that abandonment causes, how that betrayal hits you perpetually as both son and then again as father.

Maybe it’s just too much to ask that others know who we are. Not just what we’ve done but why we’ve done the things that we’ve done. I don’t necessarily know the inner truths of other people, either.

We all have our stories – the version we’ve lived and the version we tell. In our rush to be heard, we often forget that we have to listen, we have to listen more often than we talk, in order to allow people to tell of who they are, what they are, why they are. Perhaps if we’re lacking connection, listening to others is the only way we can eventually hear ourselves.

 

Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.

The Spiritual Life Made Manifest - Larry Gordon, In Memoriam

Larry Gordon was a pivotal innovator in the southern California surf culture of the late-1950s and earl- 1960s. He was also my uncle. Along with Floyd Smith (also my uncle - San Diego was a small town back then, if you can believe that) Gordon and Smith developed some of the first foam and resin surfboards, which, to make a long story very short, transformed the sport.   

He was also a man of deep Christian faith. Although he and I never aligned on the specifics of our belief systems, we did have many interesting discussions--and arguments--about the nature of living as a spiritual person.  

Larry Gordon was diagnosed with Parkinson's over ten years before his death. How he conducted himself--with strength and with dignity--during an illness that mocked that strength and spit on that dignity is one of the most profound models of how to live one's belief's that I have seen. 

Below is a piece I wrote for my aunt and cousins when my Uncle Larry passed away a couple weeks ago. I find it interesting that despite the religious ideas that he and I used to talk about, it was his actions as a father that have left the deepest impression. 

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According to the writer Adam Gopnik, we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

Larry Gordon--my Uncle Larry--was that contrarian figure who was drawn to faith while practicing faith. He lived by his beliefs, and those beliefs lived in him, infusing everything from surfing to running a business. But it was Uncle Larry’s practice of faith as a father that has left the deepest impression on me.

I have the bad habit of realizing life-lessons long after they’re applicable. Sometimes I find myself mimicking my role models without realizing who those role models are. And although I’m a terrible surfer, a poor scientist, a distracted searcher of spiritual truths, Larry Gordon is a role model for the kind of dad I want to be.

My own father left when I was six. It seemed at that time as though the world of my childhood was divided between those children whose dads had stayed and those whose dads had left. There is in this an uncomfortable feeling of exposure, that you are somehow undeserving, that you are somehow to blame, that the absence you feel so acutely is a detectable flaw in you or on you.

During that tenuous time just after my dad left, perhaps sensing that I needed guidance, the Gordon family took me to their church and included me in their community. And what lingers more than anything else about that time was how being accepted by a family where the father was present and engaged, where the father wanted nothing more than to be right there with his wife and his children, was quietly powerful and beautiful and something that I desperately needed to experience.

I couldn’t have a father like Larry, but I can try to be a father like him. Or, to put it in a way that Uncle Larry might appreciate, I will be the dad I would have wanted whether my own children like it or not.

Make no mistake, I fail more often than I succeed. I’m frequently humbled. I spend much of my parenting time practicing doubt.

In my better moments, though, I try emulate Larry, and the example he established: let your beliefs guide you, seize each swell as a new possibility, be there in the moment, be present, whether you’re stoked or whether you fall, and always, always be ready to paddle out one more time no matter what the ocean throws at you. 

Although I certainly have doubts about my own performance as a parent, thanks to his example, I have absolute faith that the act of being a good father can be done and it can be done gloriously.